Through these first months of 2020, although we’ve been forced to hit the pause button in some ways, many organisations will have change programs already underway, or may be considering changes to adapt to the new environment or prepare for the future. For anyone managing a change program, a big question will be, what do I need to do differently to manage change in the midst of a pandemic? While there are a number of psychological principles that should be considered with any change, there are factors that are specific to the current environment that may change your approach.
The psychology of change 101
All change is stressful to some degree. Stress takes a toll on energy, attention and comprehension, which are all, in turn, factors that are critical to creating change. It literally burns more calories to do something new or different and requires more attention than if you’re doing something routine or familiar. If you’re managing change now, you are doing so in uniquely stressful circumstances, so you need to take extra care, even if the change is a relatively simple one. For your change to be successful, you have to assume all these psychological factors are heightened right now for all stakeholders. These are the three factors I would be focussing on right now:
Consider the current working environment. People are trying to home-school kids, while also doing their job, meeting deadlines amid distractions and stress, trying to stay healthy, managing household activities, and whenever they leave their house trying to remember not to touch anything, least of all their face.
While individual experiences will differ in the detail, all of these things take a significant amount of mental real estate. Generally speaking, most people are not going to have a lot of psychological space to make changes or do something new. You need to make it as simple as possible for people to change what they are currently doing, on a very practical level, and provide as many resources and support options as possible.
There’s a lot of focus on helping leaders tell the story of a change program. Understanding why you need to change is still important, but with everyone running at full capacity trying to manage their lives, you want to keep it practical and to the point, even more so than would normally be the case. You should be able to explain why the change needs to happen in a simple sentence. Anything more is too complicated right now.
Be consistent and persistent
Just as before the pandemic, you can’t say something once and expect long-term change to happen. If you are learning a new skill, learning a language, learning to drive, you need to practice and repeat information and behaviour in different ways and under different circumstances in order to transfer something from your short-term to your long-term memory, and be able to apply it to different scenarios. The same goes within organisations. This is particularly true now as everyone’s attention is being pulled in a lot of different ways, so be consistent and persistent with your messages.
While the usual approaches to change still apply, the unique psychological environment we are in means increasing focus on simplicity, clarity and repeated messages. Doing this will give your change program the best chance of long-term success.