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As someone who spends much of my life thinking about change, I am no better at dealing with change than anyone else.  Perhaps more aware of how change impacts me and why I might react in the way that I do, but that is it!  And the last couple of years have represented probably the most uncertainty and change that I (and many others) have ever had to deal with.

During this time, I have been lucky enough to continue working, supporting individuals and organisations to create change.  But, all of this (bar a few meetings here and there) has been delivered via Zoom, Teams or Google Hangouts.  As we in the UK begin the move to hybrid  working, I’ve been asked recently about what I have learnt from these online change projects and how I might build these lessons into future work.  So, here are my reflections…

Lesson 1 – Creating engagement with and conversations about change is really hard when you are not in the room with people

I’ve realised that even though you can communicate using Zoom/Teams, it is really hard to build engagement and encourage conversation and dialogue.  Inquiry and conversation form the core elements of my approach to leading change, and creating space for this in online meetings has represented a real challenge.

Being clear in communications and understanding how messages have been received is also a lot harder.  There are plenty of examples of poor communication in recent times and even the best and most carefully crafted communications can be misconstrued in the moment during an online meeting.  Every communication message must be thoughtful and intentional in this context but you may still not be clear how a message will be received.  And it is really difficult to check body language to see how messages are being received, particularly when a lot of people in the meeting have their cameras off.

I have learnt that taking time to have regular and ongoing check ins on a one to one or small team basis must follow any large scale communication briefing, to ensure that everyone has the chance to ask questions, engage with the communication messages and express their views.  This is time consuming but worth it in the long run, as it enables people to feel seen and heard.  I have always done this on change projects, but now understand that a real commitment to communication and engagement, even on an individual level, is essential and cannot be underestimated.  It is not enough to release a key message about a change and expect everyone to get behind it without an investment of time in one to one conversations.

As we continue to develop our hybrid working practices, there are some great resources out there to help us think about how to make it work.  Microsoft has conducted some interesting research into making remote and hybrid meetings more effective as part of their New Future of Work initiative.  You can read more about this here along with lots of other useful guides for remote and hybrid working.  Howspace have also created some great playbooks for virtual facilitation and hybrid working which you can access here.

Lesson 2 – Everything takes longer than usual, but taking the time to pause is important

Every change project that I have worked on over the last 2 years has taken longer than originally planned.  Some of these delays have been due to lockdowns and the recognition that, if people are struggling to juggle work, homeschooling and health concerns, it is not the right time to instigate a major change.  This I think has been a positive lesson for me: change can only go at the pace that the organisation (and the people in it) can cope with.  Even the best laid plans must flex to respond to circumstances rather than pressing ahead despite everything.  I’ve written before about the power of pausing and the last 2 years have definitely shown me that this is true.

You can read more about the importance of reflection in a blog post that I wrote in 2021, here.

Lesson 3 – When you do have the opportunity to work together with people, use this time in the best way

Collaborative working tools have been really useful during this time and I have learnt how to use and get value from tools such as Monday, Mentimeter, Mural and Miro. These tools have reduced the isolation that I have felt sometimes whilst working remotely and have added interest and variety to the working day.  But, I have realized that when working on a complex change or organisation development project, things can be accomplished much quicker in a room than remotely, even with the best of technology fixes.

As we move towards a hybrid working model, I’ve realised that some activities and issues just need people in a room together to resolve.  Asynchronous working in the future means that we should prioritise the time when we are working in teams, physically together to focus on collaborative tasks and then focus our remaining time on tasks that require concentration and focus.  There will be differences in preferences for each person so these need to be considered too, as set out in this article from the Harvard Business Review.

Lesson 4 – Connecting with others is really important, but you can do this remotely too

I feel that I have had more time to build connections since March 2020 then I ever have before.  Obviously, many of these have been virtual connections rather than in person, however it has led to some really wonderful working relationships and friendships which I continue to treasure.  Prior to 2020, I would never have thought it would be possible to build such good relationships with others online.  I’ve also been able to take time to feed my curiousity in various ways, reading more books, completing an online course about historical costumes and textiles and having lots of conversations about the people side of change.

This has been possible because of technology but also because I have not had to travel for work and so have had a few more hours in the day.  I have learnt that I need this everyday learning and connection in my life to keep me motivated so I really want this to continue.  Speaking to colleagues, many others are grateful for the connections that they have made in the last 2 years so it is important for many of us to create everyday opportunities for learning, connection and reflection.  This can be challenging when your day is full of Zoom meetings, so I am making a conscious effort to continue to put time in my diary to do this.

So, there have definitely been learnings over the past 2 years which will continue to shape my practice.  But, it has shown me that it is possible to create change remotely despite the challenges.  And there are definitely things that I would like to continue into the future.  I’d love to kow about your reflections and things that you are going to keep doing in the future.