The new year has brought with it continued challenges. The UK continues to operate within strict lockdown restrictions and, for the time being, uncertainty remains as to when non-essential businesses will be able to ‘return to normal’. Remote working is increasingly commonplace, and personnel are encouraged to work from home wherever possible. Law firms and other businesses providing valuable professional services will need to consider how to service their clients remotely, implement innovation within their firms to cope with process changes, and maintain compliance with regulatory requirements.
Nonetheless, regardless of world pandemics causing disruption, change is constant, and the need to evolve as a business will make the difference between profit and loss. Change can be voluntary or forced, arising from any aspect of your firm’s activities, including financial, regulatory, statute-led, technological or operational.
It is a fact that a business unprepared to change will soon fall behind its competitors as others strive to evolve. Those businesses who genuinely want to embrace change must ensure that they approach it correctly. Often the most significant barrier to change is not the owners’ or managers’ willingness but the staff. Your ability to obtain buy-in from staff will significantly influence the success or failure of any change.
Negative perceptions can be associated with discussions about change – e.g. the business has hit troubled times financially and needs to reduce expenses or technological advancement results in necessary job losses.
However, change can, and often is, positive; growth due to a business doing well, moving into new sectors, additional recruitment due to new clients coming on board, or even moving to bigger and better premises.
Nevertheless, even a positive reason for driving change can be a disruptive influence if poorly managed.
Rather than focusing on the operational or financial needs of a business, in this article, I want to discuss the impact on staff and how to address the challenges they can pose during an uncertain time for them. Employees are a significant factor in any change management programme; your plan will be destined to fail without them on board.
Working with businesses to assist in managing change, we often find that the need to change has been recognised and discussed by the firm’s Partners/Directors. On the other hand, the staff might not have been involved and just expected to adapt willingly.
It can be frustrating when a business has positive reasons for the change but encounters resistance from some within the organisation who believe they will personally feel the impact. In turn, this can lead to negativity setting in.
In our experience, some key steps are vital to the successful implementation of change. Every business or consultancy will have an approach which they feel works, but every strategy must put the staff at the heart of the change management programme or risk dealing with the fallout if they resist.
Change arises for a variety of reasons. Responding quickly and effectively is key to any successful business. Often, change is not a simple desire to improve profits; it comes from a shift in the law or regulation, or simply because the old way of working is out of date. Technological developments are continually arriving in all sectors, and failure to embrace this puts a business at risk.
- Consult – Once the need is recognised, you must consult with your staff. They will probably be aware that changes are needed. Whether industry news is covering a shift in the market or rumours have started within the organisation, they will have an idea that something is about to or has to change. The sooner a business can talk to its staff, the quicker the ‘buy-in’ will start. Whatever the reason for the need to change, whether positive or negative, most will respect the owners for taking action, but they will respect them more for discussing the need for change directly with them and what impact it will have on them. The business’ size will dictate who needs to be consulted – is it everyone, or nominees selected to represent a group? It might also be sensible to involve some individuals who might not be directly affected to ensure balanced views are obtained.
- Identify – Talking with the staff will help identify their concerns. You may not be able to stop the change from coming, but its impact can be fully appreciated once the problems of those affected are identified and where possible addressed. Once the staff has established that you are taking their views into account, the buy-in will come much faster.
- Understand – Take time to understand the concerns and how any changes might impact. If you accept any of the points identified as causing anxiety, you can respond to them. Not every issue can be overcome, but you can help staff understand by explaining the reason for the change and why some of the issues they raise might be understandable but cannot be overcome.
- Adapt – Where you can adapt, do so. Listen to the staff’s ideas and suggestions, and be prepared to change your own views and plans for implementing change. The staff are often much closer to the service delivery (and therefore the clients) than the owners or managers, so their views will have value.
- Plan – Having taken into account the thoughts and views of all and established a clear path, change needs to be carefully planned before any execution. Knowing what to do is often the easiest part of the task. Exactly how the plan will be followed through and the results will be monitored is vitally important. Where there is an impact on jobs, particularly job losses, ensure your message is clear and consistent so that you do not lose key people through a period of uncertainty. Be aware of the timings that the business needs to achieve the change and plan your change process to meet the business’ needs. Do not rush a change management programme or be too eager to get it in place too quickly. Ensure your plan is clear, and those involved are aware of the time frame for delivery. Make sure you set key milestones to measure the progress.
- Finalise – When the consulting and planning stages are complete, and change is about to be implemented, take stock of where you have arrived and the information gathered along the journey. This will be the last time to make adjustments before implementation. Gather your key team to review what you initially set out to achieve and if any final adjustments need to be made to achieve the ultimate goal.
- Implement – If you have gone through the preparation stages correctly, the implementation stage should be the easiest part. You will be aware of what change is coming, as will all of those involved in the process and the staff. Communication is critical here as you push the change into the business, but this will ensure you have the maximum chance of achieving your goals.
- Monitor – Once you have implemented the change, ensure that you revisit your goals and objectives to ensure you are achieving what you set out to. Not all changes will achieve the desired results, and most changes will need adapting as time progresses, but that will not happen if you do not set new targets and objectives.
The challenge for business owners is to identify the need to change and take action to implement that change successfully. The immediate impact of change is highly likely to affect staff and recognising their issues and concerns is vital to a successful change management programme.
- Recognise – The first step to change is always recognising the need. That should be obvious if you understand your business, have set financial and operational goals, and have monitored performance. Watching how your business performs against realistic plans will provide the first diagnostic indicators that change is needed. However, change is often thrust upon a business, for example, due to regulation or statute. Still, there is always enough time to affect a change management programme as long as the need is recognised and responded to as it arises.
- The change’s impact will not always be a positive experience for everyone, regardless of the starting point and drivers. However, for change to be successful, it must be well thought out, discussed, and implemented with a clear strategy and goal.
- Change does not stop when the business has delivered its new way of working. Ongoing monitoring is essential; have targets been hit and goals met? If not, why not? Managers should be asking, “Do we need to change more?”
- Change has to work, as failure could mean losses and losses could mean the end of a business (eventually).
David Green, co-founder of The Strategic Partner, and preferred risk management consultant of Paragon, has authored this article. If you have any questions raised by the content of this article, Paragon, The Strategic Partner or the firm’s approach to risk management more generally, please get in touch using the details below.
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