Managing change in a crisis: We must all lead together

Editor's Note

This article is sponsored by MNP.

COVID-19 has quickly and unexpectedly impacted the way that people live and work all over the world. Amidst coping with the health and wellness impacts of the wide-spread virus, we have been forced to re-evaluate the ways that we work and do business.

I've talked to several public-sector leaders over the last few weeks and one thing that is clear is that the work world we return to will never be the same. As the federal public service starts to think more about what the future workplace environment will look like in a few months from now and beyond, there are a number of challenges, but also many opportunities to rethink and reload how we work, interact and engage as organizations and teams.

Some key changes that are certain to take place across federal public service organizations in order to reduce physical interactions:

  • Digitizing forms and other elements of our internal work processes;
  • Redesigning workplace layouts and safeguards;
  • Upgrading our IM/IT infrastructure to ensure online access and tools is not a limiting factor;
  • Finding ways to manage our programs and work teams more virtually, planning and tracking our joint and individual tasks with virtual whiteboards, bulletins and other work management tools;
  • Moving services to clients online where possible;
  • Changing the way people interact, collaborate and conduct work within our workplace sites to ensure everyone’s physical and mental safety and security are a priority;
  • Training and tooling all levels of management in our organizations in improved methods to manage the mix of virtual and on-site based staff and teams going forward while continuing to ensure the timeliness of oversight and information flow required to manage a department, branch, directorate or team;
  • Implementing the programs and change management activities necessary to support our staff through this transition to the next normal; and
  • Ensuring information is available to make the resource trade-offs that will be necessary to support the investments in these new ways of doing business.

The need for leadership will be greater than ever as we embark on what is likely to be the largest and broadest amount of change in how we work in the shortest amount of time ever delivered in the public service. While that leadership certainly starts at the top, it will need to be echoed down through all levels of management within an organization in order to effectively help staff and teams adapt to the changes that are coming.

As with any change, we are certain to have varying degrees of buy-in for these changes even if the drivers are the health and safety of ourselves and our families. I have thought about this and I think we will see “embracers,” “adopters” and “resisters” – some silent and some not so silent.

Embracers already believe in the data and science and will clearly and emphatically support changes that will make our work world safer from this virus and future viruses. These are the folks following the news and data charts rigorously and are likely ensuring that they as well as their neighbours and extended family members are following the lockdown rules to the letter.

Adopters may not be as passionate about it. These may be the folks having porch and garage gatherings during the lockdown, generally following the rules, but pushing the envelope a bit. These folks will comply with the expectations of the new work world as long as the requirements and procedures are clearly laid out for them to follow.

Lastly, we have resisters. These folks perhaps do not believe that the COVID-19 situation is as serious as it is being portrayed or that the precautions are commensurate with the level of risk.

All three groups are good people and good employees, but all three require differing variations of support in terms of change management and transition to this new world. The messaging emphasis for resisting employees is different than the adopting employee. The resisting employee needs messaging to help understand why this is serious and how themselves and others could be impacted by not following the intended cautions and procedures.

The adopter on the other hand is not overly passionate one way or the other, the new work methods and procedures they need to follow will just need to be prescribed very clearly so they become ingrained in their new routines.

At the end of the day it is leadership across all levels of management that will help engage staff to see the collective path for their organization. Together through engagement and collaboration organizations will find the best way to get to the “next normal” and come out at the other end with an even higher performing organization than before. 

In an unprecedented time of “physical distancing” (my wife told me people don’t say “social distancing” anymore!), it is promising to know that our best way forward in our organizations is together.

Adam Ali, MBA, PMP, certified change consultant, is a partner with MNP’s consulting services practice in Ottawa. Drawing on extensive experience working with public sector clients in Canada and internationally, Adam helps his clients navigate complex challenges and situations to achieve their goals in an efficient and effective manner.