how can I help employees adapt to frequent changes?

A reader writes:

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?

You can read my answer to this question — along with answers from three other experts — over at the Fast Track blog by Intuit QuickBase today.

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. Mike C.*

    I think my biggest question here is “Why are there constant systematic changes to policies in the first place?”.

    Also, I really have an issue with the agism expressed by Anita Bruzzese. Older workers don’t automatically suck at technology just because they’re older. You should be pairing people based on differences in experience, not age.

    1. Jamie*

      Yes, what Mike said. Both points.

      Now, if there are changes because it’s a time of transition (going from paper based system to an ERP, or making changes for a goal like ISO certification, etc.) those are tough, but necessary. You absolutely need a project plan, you need training (whatever you think is adequate training, double it – good rule of thumb), and you need open communication where people know it’s totally safe to ask questions, give feedback, and that it’s expected.

      Those changes should be rolled out in stages, when possible – and vetted properly so once changes are made they stick (unless feedback shows a way you can meet the objectives more efficiently – because some issues won’t be seen until you roll out the new policies.)

      Regarding how to help people struggling with new processes – and I’m assuming the OP said older because that’s her company…I’ve absolutely had people in their 20-30s balk at new processes and those in their 60’s adapt beautifully – it comes down to giving them the training they need in an environment where they are comfortable asking questions. Strip it down to the basics and teach people one transaction/process at a time.

      It’s like math. If when you were learning to multiply your 1st grade teacher whipped out a calculus text book and started talking about what is down the road you’d have freaked out and assumed you’d never be able to do that. But you learn the basics and build incrementally and next thing you know you passed calc in high school. The same baby steps apply to learning new tech processes (although thankfully it’s a faster process.)

      The second best compliment I ever received at work is that I have a way of showing people how to do things without making them feel stupid. Really important when you are dealing with less tech savvy people – you have to deal with the fact that they are telling themselves they can’t do it and you first have to give them the confidence to know they can. The rest is easy.

      1. Jane*

        “way of showing people how to do things without making them feel stupid”

        It helps when someone else, either you supervisor or another higher up, can help with reinforcing the need to learn and follow the procedure while someone can help with the actual learning process.

    2. the gold digger*

      I think my biggest question here is “Why are there constant systematic changes to policies in the first place?”.

      Yes. I have a similar feeling when a recruiter asks, “How do you feel about long hours and tight deadlines?”

      The answer is, “It’s a sign of poor management.”

      1. Cat*

        Long hours, probably. But tight deadlines aren’t always. Some fields will always have tight deadlines (e.g., my father is a newspaper journalist; it just comes with the job). The important thing is being honest about what’s unavoidable and making sure people get matched to the right jobs.

        1. the gold digger*

          Cat, agreed. For this job – for a manufacturer doing a systems conversion – the tight deadlines were self-imposed and the long hours were because they didn’t want to staff up for the project.

        2. Rana*

          Agreed. In my area, indexing comes in a time crunch 90% of the time. An ability to put everything else on the back burner and work crazy hours for a couple of weeks is part of what our clients are paying for. There are too many other processes and people involved in the publication of a manuscript for them to be generous with the time for just one person, however important that person’s contribution may be.

          Personally, I rather enjoy it, as the pressure pushes me towards excellence and efficiency. If it was back to back projects, maybe not, but that’s a level of luck in scheduling I’ve yet to achieve.

    3. Yup*

      You read my mind on “why are there constant changes?”. If these are process improvements, software fixes, or necessary adaptions to regulations, then explaining that to people is critical. In which case, I’d also add that documentation and references need to be vigilantly managed so that people know where to go for the right source if they’re confused. But if these changes are just churn or new-for-the-sake-of-new, then no wonder people have trouble keeping up!

      1. Jane Doe*

        Yep. It’s re-assuring to hear that changes are being made to improve something specific because even if you think it’s silly you at least know there’s a reason behind it. I think it does a lot to help reduce people’s irritation and increase their willingness to learn a new system or process.

        Also, is the company making changes to the same processes multiple times a year? That can make people pretty frustrated if they suspect that they will have settled into a new process only to have it change again.

      2. Jessa*

        Yes. Some companies however, do change because it’s change. And I find that stupid. And annoying.

    4. Runon*

      I also totally agree on both points. (Though I’m only going to comment on the second.)

      The idea that “young people” are all good with technology and “older people” aren’t is out of date. At this point people who are interested in technology or who are willing to learn are going to be doing so. Those who aren’t, won’t. I know plenty of 20 somethings who are horrible with technology, who can’t google anything, who don’t understand how to work email or can’t learn something new without being told 30 times. And the people I know who are best? They are all far older than I. As are some of the people I know who are most excited to work on new stuff. Find people who are skilled and excited (you need both) and have them mentor people. Great, makes perfect sense. But don’t say, hey you’re 23, you’re in charge of telling this 62 year old all they need to know about this technology. That’s just a waste of everyone’s time and a great way to make both of them look for a new job.

      1. Rana*

        Bingo. My dad is 72 and he’s perfectly comfortable with technology and with learning new things… and I’ve taught twenty-year-olds who were computer phobic and unable to use email.

        I always laugh at the idea that because younger people are “digital natives” they must all be whizzes at technology. That’s like expecting everyone to be an electrical engineer because we’re all “electricity natives.”

    5. The Other Dawn*

      I was thinking the same thing about the constant changes. Are they really necessary? When you change something often, that typically leads to errors and people being slow to adapt. And why bother learning it when it’s just going to change again.

      Could be a training issue, too.

  2. Kelly O*

    You’d be surprised at how many problems are resolved by just explaining why.

    I don’t know the OP’s industry or why the changes happen so frequently, but open communication about what you’re changing and why seems to give people a little more confidence in their work. Understanding the bigger picture always helps me figure out how my individual cog makes the whole machine function, and can help in times of transition.

    But I do agree, just doing their work does not resolve the problem at all, and might even contribute to a false sense of “well, okay so now she’s not even trusting I can do this and will just do it for me, so let me just ride this out and see what happens” or something to that effect. Clear direction on what is changing, exactly when, and individual coaching could go a long way here.

  3. Sharon*

    I would add don’t lump the people who are open to change but have issues they need help with, with those who just like to complain. Listen to the issues people bring up and try to resolve them. Here’s my own example: I’ve always been open to changes and am tech-saavy. At one job I had a few years ago we used Sharepoint and it was delightfully easy to use and manage our documentation for all the teams. In my current job, Sharepoint is a nightmare. You can’t navigate to things and searching brings up nothing. The documentation might be there or it might not, you’d never know because you can’t find anything. It’s simply configured poorly. (And since nobody is in charge of it – a rather common problem in the corporate world – nobody is fixing it.)

    Another example is a new project management software that we started using last year. It was purchased by a high level financial person so that she could better track project costs/overruns/profits. It works very well for her. But nobody analyzed it’s usability for anybody else, so entering timecards is a hassle. (Timecards run one week at a time, except at the end of each month when they may be split into one to four-day time spans. You still have to submit them, even with zero hours because the 31st of the month was a Saturday.) There are also four canned reports available, exactly four that are formatted ridiculously, and no ability to do ad-hoc reports. It’s generated a lot of grief in the company, most of which is unnecessary if it was better configurable so suit the needs of more than one person.

    1. Jamie*

      Someone has to have access to the db for the project management software – do you have anyone who can create reports via Crystal (or other reporting software) or heck, even Access?

      Just my $.02 cents but there are consultants out there who can knock out reports for you, even if the software prohibits linking it within the GUI menu itself.

      Personally, I think being able to configure reports is huge because if you can give people data in the way that answers their questions and in a way they can best process it, making it user friendly, you have people owning their data and results and that’s so critical.

  4. Chinook*

    I have a different take on “constant changes.” What may only be a change every year or two can, by some, be seen as constant change. Is the issue the number of changes, the perception of the number of changes or the fact that there is no explanation for why the changes are happenning? Of course, training and implementation is also important.

    I also want to echo the ageism of Anita Bruzzese as pointed out by Mike. Sometimes, those who are older have seen more changes and know how to take them in stride whereas someone who is on their 3rd change in 5 years may push back.

    Case in point is the changes in language at the Catholic Church (and no, I am not going to go religious on you). The have changed the English wording 3 times in the last 20 years, and twice in the last 10 but, before the 1960’s, once every 500 or so years. Those who have seen changes twice in our relatively short life time (under 40) sometimes feel like this is constant change whereas others see it as refreshing.

    The ones who seemed to complain the least when I have led discussions, ironically, are the older folks who remember it all in Latin and have accepted that the words are going to change every decade or two and appreciate the fact that they atleast understand them now.

    The point of my ramblings is that sometimes age teaches you to be more flexible because you know nothing stays the same.

      1. Chinook*

        Only some of the words in some of the prayers. I am not sure when they are/have been implemented in the US, but in Canada we have had them for a year and a half and I can definitely tell when I am not paying attention because the old words slip back.

        The ones I feel bad for are the priests who are having to read from the book for the first time in decades! They had to deal with even more changes. We singers run a close second because we had to learn a whole bunch of new mass parts.

        This is why I thought it was a good analogy for change in the work place. It has happened a few time in the (relatively) short past but always for good reason, even if the local implimenter (i.e. parish priest) didn’t explain why it happenned. Also, no amount of complaining is going to change it, so you might as well accept it, adapt and move on.

        Fortunately, no one in the workplace can easily tell you aren’t paying attention like they can in church where you literally stand out when everyone else is kneeling (yup, they changed some of that too.)

  5. Joey*

    Seth Godin had a recent post about this and I’m paraphrasing here,but basically people who are experienced and good at their jobs can be resistant to change because they are already successful at what they do and want to protect it. New things create the possibility for failure which can be scary as hell. I think assuring them its okay to fail as part of the learning process is an important part of getting them to embrace change.

    1. Rana*

      Yes. I found, when I was teaching, that the students who had the hardest time transitioning to college level work were frequently the ones who usually got B+s and As in high school. They’d mastered the system there, and had a lot invested emotionally in their sense of themselves as experts, and really resisted the idea that they might have to start over from scratch. Whereas students who were more flexible, or who were not as invested in the idea of themselves as “perfect” students, handled the transition more gracefully.

      1. Rana*

        In workplace terms, I once saw a particularly devastating example of the resistance to change in action. One place I worked had a fairly complex software system that was meant to handle scheduling, billing, record keeping, report generating, tracking, and so on, and it was a mess. Several generations of less-than-trained users had introduced a lot of junk data, jury-rigged work-arounds that proliferated bad data, and so on. It was also a piece of proprietary licensed software that was no longer being supported by the company that designed it, and was at least five years out of date at the time I encountered it.

        So, several people did some research and found another company with a similar system available, with a much more intuitive and user-friendly interface, ongoing and active customer support, and transferal of the old data to the new system included in the package. It was about as good a deal as could be possibly expected, and four out of the five departments using the current system were really excited about it, as it would make all of their responsibilities easier to fulfill – like on an order of ten times easier.

        But. The head of the fifth, who’d been working there for over a decade and was friends with the owner, didn’t like it, and insisted that it would be “too hard” for her to learn a new system.

        When I left, they were still struggling with the old system, the new one having been rejected on account of that one person’s unwillingness to learn something new and the management’s unwillingness to force the issue.

  6. ThursdaysGeek*

    I’m going to add a bit to the agism bit, but not against it. I thrive on change and can quickly pick up new things. But sometimes changes sound like the same old thing wrapped in new sparkly paper. So do explain the reasons for the constant changes.

    Example: You say “cloud” and some hear “new and better”. I hear “mainframe and dumb terminals with a nicer gui”. It’s a change, and it might even be a change for the better, but its not all that new to some of us.

    Explain the reason for the change, because if you do see resistance from some of the older workers, it might have nothing to do with how quickly they can pick it up. It might mean that they’ve seen something like it before, it didn’t work so well, and they don’t see the point in trying it again. And it’s quite possible that this time it is a change for the better, so communication is very important.

  7. Cheryl*

    I am one of the ones that picks up changes gradually…I admit it, I learn slowly. And since I work for the IRS, there are constant changes both with procedures, laws and whatever Congress doles out to us…not to mention the constant upgrades to the databases. This shouldn’t be an ageism thing, this is a “we all learn differently” thing and to try to lump us all together to learn this one specific thing isn’t going to work. Yes, age does play a part in the process at times, but the differences in learning styles are a bigger issue.

  8. Jamie*

    Totally random, but just had an encounter and thought of this thread.

    One of our engineers, brilliant guy, wrote something down for me using the tiniest pencil stub I’ve ever seen. I had to ask how he was even able to grip it.

    Apparently the Office Manager has stopped stocking good old #2 yellow pencils. So he has this and another stub almost as small and once those are all used up he will have to use a mechanical pencil. The way he held up said mechanical pencil and looked at it like it was something fished out of a sewer I felt so bad for him.

    So on my way back to my desk I asked the OM to order a couple of boxes of pencils. Crisis averted.

    Some change can’t be avoided – but there’s no reason to have to use new fangled pencils!

    1. Rana*

      I had to laugh because my husband is that way about pencils, too. I loathe writing with a dull point, so I prefer the mechanical pencils, but he loves his yellow ones and his sharpener, and has no interest in changing.

    2. Jessa*

      Honestly? A box of pencils at an office supply store is cheap. Unless they’re going to fire this generally competent guy for using one, I’d seriously just bring in my own.

      Although I get the mechanical pencil thing if you’re using different type leads for different type work. You can also buy a wooden mechanical pencil that feels just like a regular number two. If you really want to.

      Sometimes you just have to spend a couple of dollars on yourself if it makes you THAT crazy.

      I would be really…concerned with an engineer who supposedly had a working brain who was so passive aggressive that they wouldn’t A: ask for pencils, or B: just buy a pencil for themselves.

      Agreed this doesn’t work for very expensive things, but a pencil? I would be concerned with the way he problem solves.

      1. Jamie*

        He’s a very laid back guy – OM stopped buying them and it just didn’t occur to him to ask.

        Made me feel very powerful that my own request could affect this kind of change in the workplace. Pencils for everyone!

        And totally with you on the passive aggressive thing, but totally not in this case. More just…whatever, dude kinda attitude. I envy people like that.

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