There’s a new art to workplace change: it’s science

It takes 21 days to shake a habit and at least two months to make a new one, if you believe general wisdom on the matter.

April 24, 2018

But what happens when you throw in variables like personality, motivation and circumstance? And then what if you multiply that by hundreds, or even thousands, putting that behaviour change into the context of a large organisation. Add to that scenario the pressure to maintain business output while breaking out of old ways, and suddenly taking a new direction is a challenge of industrial scale.

Businesses are increasingly finding themselves in this position as the demand for activity based working grows and the workplaces of yesterday, with their cumbersome processes – which may well have been advanced at the time they were introduced – are no longer cutting it.

But to roll out genuine, transformational change, companies have to do a whole lot better than install fancy furniture and shiny new breakout spaces. Actually, the single most important enabler is your workforce.

Success is science

So if habits die hard, how do you make sure your workforce, with their ingrained behaviours and varying levels of receptiveness to change, get fully on board with your vision?

It all comes down to science. Specifically, brain science.

Understanding how the brain controls behaviour has fundamentally changed the way businesses are approaching the daunting, yet reinvigorating process of change.

Nathan Sri, JLL’s director of business transformation and change has dedicated his career to human experience and organisation change.

Nathan says: “We are, by nature, hardwired to behave and work in certain behavioural patterns based on years of learned behaviour. Expecting staff to simply and quickly adopt new work practices and processes because a new workplace strategy is being implemented is unrealistic and will undermine the sustainability of the change.”

Australia leads the pack

Australian businesses are turning to activity based working more than anywhere else in the world. This phenomenon is evidenced by the fact that all 283,900 square metres of office space at Sydney’s newest commercial precinct, Barangaroo, has been designed for this style of working.

It is hard to argue with the benefits. Connecticut-based technology research and advisory firm Gartner, estimates that by 2020, organisations that adopt a “choose your own workstyle” culture will boost employee retention rates by 10 percent. And if, within three years, more than 70 percent of business will be equipped with office capabilities as Gartner predicts, there is an even greater imperative to do so.

We at JLL have our own experiences of activity-based working to bring to bear, having implemented our in-house model, WorkSmart, to JLL offices throughout Australia.

Surveying employees at our 420 George Street location before and after the change, we found a 61 percent increase in respondents who felt their workplace had enhanced their satisfaction as a JLL employee, and a 47 percent increase in the number of respondents who agreed their workplace improved overall productivity.

Creating the right experience

However, while in Australia we might be world-leading in the rate of take-up of activity based working, the appetite of individuals to change across the globe, doesn’t necessarily correlate. Our recent Human Experienceresearch found that over two-thirds of the more than 7,000 employees interviewed were unsure about or completely unwilling to give up their current desk space even for better workplace perks and amenities.

So it becomes apparent that simply creating the right workplace is not enough.

The American Psychological Association last year released a study based on a survey of full-time, part-time and self-employed workers in the U.S, which revealed that organisational changes, including restructures, new IT rollouts and leadership change, can lead to employees becoming overly stressed, disillusioned and wanting to quit their job.

Of the 1500 respondents in its Work and Wellbeing survey, almost a third said they were cynical when their company tried to implement changes, and believed management had a hidden agenda.

Combine that with Australian-based research by Gallup that found that employees who feel emotionally detached from their employer would work just the bare minimum, and you barely have a recipe for growth.

Nathan comments: “When implementing workplace change, it’s easy to focus on the fun stuff – like the latest tech you’ll be rolling out, or cool design elements being introduced, but if your workforce doesn’t understand why the change is happening, and isn’t able to adapt to the new behaviours and processes, it will ultimately jeopardise the success of the change.”

The Three C’s of Change

Leadership is an integral component of our ‘The Three C’s of Change’ approach to workplace transformation which essentially defines the three critical enablers of successful implementation: commitment, capability and context.

The approach entails selling the vision, creating new habits and closely monitoring the results. Informed by scientific principles, it has been honed over 15 years through partnering with businesses of various sizes and sectors, and so is applicable to any kind of organisation.

But change leaders take note: underpinning this approach must be an unswerving desire to “take your staff on the change journey,” emphasises Nathan. “Losing sight of this will result in new working practices not being truly embedded.

“Don’t be afraid to acknowledge the not so pleasant aspects of change and tackle the resistant points early,” he adds.

Never too late

No company is too big or too entrenched in old habits to abandon them.

The value of change management lies in helping teams challenge pre-existing assumptions, deconstruct current behaviours and processes, and engrain new behaviours and processes.

“You’ve got to chunk the change into bite-size pieces,” says Nathan.

Then just add brain power, of course.

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