CM is facing two new challenges due to Covid-19

16 September 2020

Ensuring a safe move to the “new normal” and changing how we do Change Management.

author picture Article written by Morten Kamp Andersen

Change Management practitioners have a lot on their plate. Why? Because we now face two new challenges due to Covid-19; ensuring a safe move to the “new normal” and changing how we do Change Management.

Returning to the workplace (RTW) might feel like stepping into a new world. Changes will impact every aspect of our work, from how we collaborate to where we work, and how we are managed. CM is the key to making that happen. At the same time, we as CM practitioners, must realise that Covid-19 is a before-and-after moment in the history of the discipline itself. In plain terms, we cannot afford to do CM the way we did it a year ago. Let’s see what those two challenges look like[1].

1.“Moving back”: Look beyond the urgency to provide meaningful answers

Returning to the workplace involves many changes. One of the most pressing needs, which we will focus on here, is safety for all. RTW has brought with it a myriad of policies, protocols, contingency plans; you name it. But how or if people adopt these changes is what really matters.

RTW… but why?

We rushed into a new era in a matter of days. People and organisations adjusted on the fly. This is what PROSCI describes as the “involuntary digital transformation”: sudden, forced, but here to stay. Amid the crisis, a new hybrid workplace is being tested. And with health concerns still looming large, the return to the workplace as we knew it prompted mitigated responses. Simply put, not everyone wants back.

Safety concerns remain a major disincentive for a number of people, who blame crowded commutes and poorly defined safety measures on-site. Many are also quite vocal about the fact that productivity during lockdown remained unaffected, or even increased[2]. The question then becomes why focus on location instead of output[3]? What is the business reason for returning to the workplace? “What’s in there for me”?

Organisations cannot wait for the storm to pass to start building a sustainable workplace. The need to provide urgent answers, however tentative, to long-term issues is the first challenge on the path back. Creating desire comes before equipping people for the change. The very nature of Covid-19 crisis makes it very tempting to skip this crucial step and adopt a “change by decree” approach[4].

Safety, long-term.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for getting people back in the office. Returns can be staged, subject to staff turnover or postponed altogether even after restrictions are lifted. The bottom line is that they must always be bound to a set of measures to safely get to work, safely be at work, and safely do the work (see graph below). The “RTW hierarchy” put forward by PROSCI illuminates quite well the complexity of the task, which superposes several layers of considerations specific to regions, industries, departments, and roles.


Designing procedures and new routines might not be technically extremely challenging. But ensuring proper adoption and proficient usage is something else entirely. Fatigue will settle in, no matter how smoothly things are running. Attention will wane as the crisis morphs into a long-term challenge, and the sense of urgency decreases. We are in this for the long haul. Reinforcement activities must be part of the playbook. More and better CM can help keep up the pressure and course-correct if needed. Which brings us to the next point.

2.“Moving on”: Master the new ways of doing Change Management

The workplace of tomorrow is being created. And with it, the way we support individual change. CM itself will have to pivot. Now is the time to create a robust virtualised workflow.

CM, elevated.

Remote work involves significant adjustments to how we do CM. Kick-off meetings, workshops, coaching, assessments, etc…, must switch to new formats. How well CM can create virtual engagement will condition its ability to lead the change in the new reality (PROSCI 2020).

The task is not trivial. In the wake of Covid-19, many organisations are experiencing “change at core”[5]. Processes, job roles, organisational structures, uses of technology, everything is impacted. In such conditions, leaders must step up their involvement with the change, and sponsors must raise their game. This means finding ways to be equally or more visible despite operating partly from a distance. The same goes for managers in charge of cascading the change to frontline employees. CLARC roles (Communication, Liaison, Advocate, Resistance Management, Coach) must now be performed in a volatile environment that significantly limits face-to-face interactions. PROSCI rightly points out that detecting resistance in such conditions may pose a unique challenge.

More broadly, the practice of managing the people side of change will take a lot of juggling with multiple platforms[6]. The need to acquire a whole new skillset certainly puts additional strain on managers already stretched thin by the sheer number of changes.

Summing up...

Covid-19 has expanded the portfolio of changes and shortened the timeframe for response. The initial move was tactical, designed to respond to the sanitary crisis and lockdown. The subsequent redeployment of resources involved empowering people to perform their tasks safely and effectively in a whole new hybrid setup. As the urgency dissolves, CM should assume a more strategic role to move organisations forward. We need, more than ever, a consistent and fresh approach to dealing with the people side of change. The very nature of the changes we are going through involves adoption challenges and risks that CM is meant to address. But steering organisations through Covid-19 crisis, and beyond, comes at a price. CM practitioners must adapt their practice to the new playground, creating rich virtual experiences for maximum impact. We do have to change, too.


[1] This article draws on data and analysis provided by PROSCI (2020), Return to the Workplace, Insights from Strategic CM Leaders [online]

[2] See our previous article for an in-depth discussion on attitudes towards the workplace. De Lombaert, R. (2020), Back to work after Covid-19, the importance of defining the impact of change. [online]

[3] Do office reopenings mean a return to the old normal?, BBC 13/08/2020

[6] See our previous article on how to keep people engaged in a virtual settings. Balk-Møller, A. (2020), How to keep people motivated, connected and disciplined in Covid-19 extreme circumstances. [online]

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