360 Answers: How Can I Help Employees Adapt to Frequent Changes?

Each of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view.  For other editions of our 360° Answers series, please click here.

Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:

I work in an organization that has frequent changes in policies, which requires ongoing adaptation to our assessment and decision-making processes. How do I manage older employees who are struggling to learn to use new processes and technology, resulting in significant time lags in completing their work? Many of these employees have had an excellent track record in their work but are unable to adapt to new systems and skills. I get so frustrated that I wind up doing the work for them, but then too much burden is on me!

In addition, how do I deal with employee resistance to and frequent anxiety around constant systemic changes?

Alison Green says:

I’d start by having a big-picture conversation with them about the type of environment you’re all working in. For instance: “We’re in an organization that has frequent changes in how we do things. This happens because ___. It means that we need to assume it’s going to happen with some frequency, plan for it, and figure out how to adapt when it does. I know that it’s not necessarily what you’d choose, but it’s the reality here.”

This step is important, because you need to establish that this is the way things are, whether it’s ideal or not. It’s the context you’re working in, it’s not going to change, and part of the job is being able to successfully work within that context.

Then, ask what you can do to help make it easier on people, with the caveat that “make it stop happening” isn’t an option. For instance, would people like professional training on new processes or software? Do they want extra lead time to learn a new process before it’s officially implemented? Do you need to adjust productivity expectations for a few weeks after something changes? (And is it reasonable to do so?) Do they just want you to hear that they find it frustrating but they can move on from there?

In other words, be clear with everyone that this is part of the job and see what they need to succeed in that environment. And you especially want to be clear with prospective job candidates, because not everyone thrives in this type of environment, and you want them to have the chance to self-select out if it’s not for them. (You should also hire for the ability to quickly adapt when you’re making new hires in the future, since it seems like this is a key skill in your workplace.)

Alexandra Levit says:

The good news is, you are not alone. In fact, the issues you describe are so common that we recently addressed them in two recent Fast Track posts, How to Cope with Uncertainty, and 6 Types of Change Resisters Who Are Holding Back Progress.

Beyond the advice given there, I would say to make sure that you are explaining the big picture rationale for undertaking each new process, move to a new technology, etc. Employees, understandably, are less fond of change for change’s sake. Why is the organization moving in this direction, and what will the negative consequences be if the change is not implemented?

Next, you need to establish a clear deadline for incorporating the change into everyday operations. Do not allow employees to stall and do not take on their workload, as this will only prolong everyone’s pain. If necessary, secure mentors for the struggling employees to help get them on track, or take an afternoon to sit down with them yourself and go through the new processes step by step. Once this additional training has occurred, consider using a project management system like Quickbase to ensure compliance.

When faced with resistance of this nature, it’s always a good idea to motivate employees by turning the discussion to why adaptation of these new processes and skills is good for them in addition to being good for you and the organization. For instance, you might tell them that 100 percent of employees on the job market today are required to at least understand the cloud, and they will be neither marketable nor competitive if they don’t keep current.

If your employees seem genuinely anxious, show empathy. It is, after all, difficult to change your approach after you have been doing things a certain way for dozens of years. Let them know that you are a sympathetic ear and suggest stress management techniques to lessen strong emotions – but still insist that they get with the program. Your team’s productivity depends on it.

Anita Bruzzese says:

Reverse mentoring may be just the ticket for your situation.

Try pairing younger employees with older workers so that the younger employees can help older workers benefit from their technological savvy. This strategy has the added benefit of allowing older workers to impart some of their experience and wisdom – such as how to deal with a difficult customer or develop better interpersonal skills – to younger workers.

Don’t be afraid to switch pairings as goals are met – this will help your team members get to know one another better and improve communications among them. Reinforce the message that such relationships are career development opportunities, a key in keeping workers engaged.

As for the resistance to change, you’re going to have to accept that this is just part of human nature. Many people will fight change whether it’s trying a new blend of coffee or adopting a new work process. But if you acknowledge that change can be hard – maybe even tell a story of someone who overcame a challenge – then workers will know that you’re with them in difficult times.

I’d suggest making sure you’re communicating the reasons that change is required – will it lead to new customers, make the organization more competitive or help cut costs? You may have to continually reinforce these messages, and perhaps meet one-on-one with employees who seem to be struggling.

It’s an important part of your job to help workers see change in a new light. Remind them change is not something to be feared, but an opportunity to keep growing and remain viable in the marketplace.

Finally, I’d also suggest you reach out to a senior mentor who can help you navigate some of these challenging management issues and also help you learn to delegate more effectively.

Eva Rykrsmith says:

Change the expectations. The expectation currently is that they can’t adapt and that’s acceptable because someone else will handle that for them. But change is inevitable and using technology is part of the job.

Savvy, adaptable professionals approach change in processes with, “I will get used to this,” and changes to technology with, “I will figure it out.” Young or old, you can help instill this mindset. Here’s how:

  1. Highlight the positives of the change and explain why the change is beneficial and necessary.
  2. Explain why it is important (for you, for them, and for the organization) for them to get on board with the change.
  3. Show the data and the numbers if there are significant differences in adopters vs. non-adopters.
  4. Set a goal for the whole team to 100% adoption—with a reward. This will foster a helpful, collaborative atmosphere around the change.
  5. Provide instruction, education, coaching, and support during the adaptation period. Buddy up team members or request that the more savvy folks act as mentors.
  6. Make it OK to ask for help, give them time to adapt, and provide support in the meantime.
  7. Celebrate the accomplishment and know each time you follow this process it will get easier!

This takes more time and planning on the front end, but it will save you time in the long run!

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • KS

    As a so-called “older” worker who has no problem adapting to change or learning new technology, perhaps the issue isn’t an inability to adapt so much as it is how the change is being handled. If the problem is consistent perhaps the problem isn’t the trainees but rather the trainer – it might be worthwhile to examine the training process.

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  • The Other Dawn

    I agree that it could be the training process. But I wonder if all these changes to policies are really necessary. That could be part of the problem also. It can get really confusing to have to change the way you do things every few months or so, regardless of whether you’re an older or younger worker. If it’s not the training process and the changes are necessary, then OP needs to make it clear to her employees that the changes are necessary because of XYZ and that she expects everyone to get up to speed quickly. It’s a requirement.

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  • jeffJ1

    I have worked for two large nonprofits that were each going through a major database conversion. It was quite interesting to see how it was handled at each one. In the first case, the consultants worked with us very closely, made big picture/conceptual changes gradually, and customized the system very attentively to our needs. When the new database finally went live, I felt TOTALLY comfortable using it.

    The second case was a horrible and anxiety-inducing experience because decisions were all made out of view, the consultancy changed three times, and it was unreal how blatantly they disregarded the feedback and stated needs of the various departments whose time they wasted with meetings and training sessions. Plus, the timeline was changed so many times that we had no idea where we stood at any given moment. It was really awful. Then when the system eventually went live, it was chaos for months because nobody really felt at ease with the big-picture changes, and some things had clearly gone sideways in the training process. I wish I could better explain or put my finger on all the things they did wrong, but in the end it was a hugely stressful and disruptive process and nobody adapted well to the new system.

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  • http://maitribathbody.com/ Maitri Bath & Body

    Let your employees have the opportunity to ask as many questions as they need to in order to feel comfortable with the change. In my 20′s, I was very hesitant to accept change, and I was chastised for it at my job because I “asked too many questions.” They wanted me to drink the Kool-Aid and just accept their edicts, but I couldn’t. Now that I’m older, I actually like and look forward to change. Let your employees adapt at their own pace.

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