Office Relocation: Managing People in a Workplace Transition

Your client buys into your concept and design for a new, innovative work space that will require an office relocation to leverage creativity and attract young talent.

Six months after the grand opening celebration, the company spends a small fortune on subleasing new space and installing low-height cubicles and a couple of offices.

A company achieves a long-standing strategic objective by acquiring its main competitor in the region only to see the projected savings of integration lost in a significant reduction in productivity.

An employee moves her family to a new community as she realizes her dream of becoming an executive in her firm only to find her dreams dimmed by the unhappiness of her spouse and children.

Successful change, no matter how positive it is preconceived, is rarely achieved. Statistically, approximately 90 percent of corporate change initiatives fail to achieve their projected goals (as measured by financial performance the following two years).

Yet, we live in a business world defined by change.

What are we to do with this paradox?

One place to begin is to recognize organizational change is tantamount to “people change” and that there is a fundamental difference between managing change and managing transitions.

Getting people through the transition is essential if the change is actually to work as planned. When a change happens without people going through a transition, it is just a rearrangement of chairs. Corporate relocation provides fertile ground for appreciating this difference.

Along with mergers, acquisitions and executive leadership change, relocation is characterized as a “trigger event.”

The name indicates the cascading nature of the mental shifts within individuals as they process their relocation through the pre-event, event, and post-event stages. It triggers feelings and emotions that come to affect people’s reactions to the situation and bring people’s mindsets into the arena of change.

Too often organizations and their service providers attempt to manage this change by providing copious and colorful information about the benefits and improvements offered by the new built environment. This approach fails to recognize the difference between change and transition management.

The process of successfully transitioning employees is as important as the excellence of the new built environment in achieving organizational objectives.

A corporate relocation engenders a long-term change process that encompasses the entire organization. It involves fundamental shifts in the way the employees think about the organization, its business, and how it is managed.

These shifts do not end with the event, rather the ongoing organization-employee relationship will be influenced by the way employees recall the change experience.

In other words, relocation will have a material impact on the level of employee engagement, a topic of academic research, practitioner books, blogs, seminars, webcasts, and innumerable table conversations; and for good reason, according to a report by Towers Perrin.

Engagement remains the ultimate prize for employers

Companies may use different names or define it slightly differently, but the endgame is the same for everyone: discretionary effort. At a time when virtually every organization is struggling with cutbacks and financial pressure — trying to improve performance with fewer people and dollars — having a critical mass of employees who freely give that effort is of tremendous value.

As the Chief Diversity Officer of ADP, Tara Noonan Amaral puts it, “In this economy, we can’t emphasize enough that people are the key strategic asset for a company.” Given the trigger effect of relocations on employees and their level of engagement, organizational leadership should dedicate resources and attention to transitioning their strategic asset from the old to the new: i.e. the “people side” of relocation.

Transition management has three distinct phases: (1) Letting go of the old ways and the old identity people had. (2) Going through an in-between time when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully operational. (3) Coming out of the transition and making a new beginning.

The first phase is one of loss; it is an ending, and this is the time when you need to help people to deal with their losses. The typical approach of providing information regarding the new facility fails to recognize this phase of transition.

Resistance is the language of loss

Failure to address employees’ loss will allow resistance to continue throughout the change process and linger long after the relocation is complete.

Resistance is incompatible with the level of employee engagement needed to maintain productive work before, during and after the relocation to new work places.

The second phase is a “neutral zone”: it’s when the critical psychological realignments and re-patterning take place.

Workplace psychologists apply social cognitive theory to understand how employees choose to respond to significant change. According to SCT, choice making requires an appraisal of the situation.

The primary purpose of human appraisal is to understand how events and experience will impact the well-being of the appraiser. Individuals ask themselves, “Does the situation affect me personally?” or “Will I win or lose, now or in the future, and in what way?”

This appraisal process begins with the loss phase of transition and continues through the final phase. Leadership and their consultants should empathize with and address the loss employees feel when leaving the old ways behind.

They should also provide a socioemotional environment that guides employees through the “neutral zone” and assists them in processing the relocation in a way that frees them to receive the abundance of information regarding the new ways of work place and processes (the third phase of transition).

Skipping or making short work of the first two phases of transition provides an environment of loss, uncertainty and disengagement.

Effectively managing the transition of employees during relocation will enhance engagement and provide an enduring and positive memory of the change to a new work environment.

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