Digital change management in the hybrid world
How can leaders effectively manage change in times of hybrid working? The answer has been right in front of us for years, and it comes in the form of digital change management. This article explains how leaders can master it.
Given recent events, it would be redundant to say that organisations need to embrace "digital", and to embrace "change". Both are mainstays of the leadership experience of 2020 and 2021, when new ways of communicating, collaborating, and connecting became imperative overnight, and have continued to be necessary - well beyond what we would have thought eighteen months ago.
So, how can leaders effectively manage change in times of hybrid working? The answer has been right in front of us for years, and it comes in the form of digital change management.
In this article, we explore the need for effective digital change management in times of hybrid working, so that leaders can navigate the post-COVID uncertainty with confidence.
What is digital change management?
Digital transformation has long been accepted as necessary by organisations around the world, albeit with varying degrees of commitment. Some have been quick to embrace new technology, drive digital change, and keep up with the latest trends - both in terms of information systems and working practices.
For others, the change has been more tentative, and the adoption has been more trepidatious. For organisations on the latter end of the spectrum, there will be a tidal wave of change - likely already afoot. COVID aside, there are many benefits to digital transformation, too.
So how do you manage the process of transforming your organisation for the digital age?
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The answer is found in digital change management.
Digital change management is the application of traditional change management principles to digital projects and contexts - such as a digital transformation. As an increasing number of organisations utilise digitalisation, the role of change management has been updated to meet new challenges.1 It is the process of taking your employees, your partners, and your customers on the journey with you, managing their expectations along the way, and ensuring that the outcome is fruitful for everyone involved - all while equipping your business for the future.
Unlike other forms of project management, digital change management ordinarily involves a broader matrix of stakeholders, many of whom will have conflicting priorities, and a blend of expectations in terms of what's to come from the digital change you are driving.
Why is digital change management so important in times of hybrid working?
As teams are thrown from being co-located in offices with colleagues, to working from home (or elsewhere in the world) in the hybrid contexts that have become widespread post-COVID, it is necessary to implement tools, processes, and working practices that ensure continuity in this new way of working. This represents significant challenges.
As Radford et al. astutely put it, “The office historically has served as the nexus of organizational culture and identity.”2 So how do leaders manage the shift away from this nexus and the workplace becomes more distributed?
Hybrid working has, therefore, brought the subject of digital change management to the foreground on a greater scale than ever before. It is the means by which leaders can connect people, share vision, and drive efficiency and performance, when people are distributed around the world, or split between the office and working remotely.
How to master digital change management
As with any leadership, the fundamentals of digital change management aren't complex - the finesse, however, exists in the execution. By learning a number of simple steps, and following them authentically, leaders can manage digital change and future proof the working practices of their organisations.
The key steps in successful digital change management include:
1. Top-down as well as bottom-up
For digital change management to be successful, a top-down approach alone won't be enough, even with specialist positions in many organisations such as a Chief Digital Officer. Simply telling people what to do will undoubtedly prove unpopular with your people, and could even create resistance among more head strong team members. Therefore, it is necessary to lead digital change from the bottom-up as well. This means consulting people at all levels of your organisational hierarchy, listening to their ideas, questions, and concerns.
It is important to do this as early as possible, so that you are sure that you're doing your best to bring them along from the very beginning of the journey. Giving your teams some agency in how they embrace the change will not only make them feel valued and listened to, but will also mean that you have a better chance of the new working practices being followed, technologies being adopted, and change bedding into the day-to-day operations of your organisation.
2. Communicate the need for change openly
One of the reasons that most change management programmes fail is that people don't understand the need for change, which creates uncertainty (and even fear) when significant changes arrive. As a leader, it is important that you get out ahead of this, and communicate the need for the change as openly and earnestly as possible - to people in all levels of your organisation. If your teams are clear on why change is necessary, it will be far easier for them to accept and embrace it, whereas if there is doubt among them, change will likely be resisted and challenged. This is key to ensuring that your people have psychological safety in their work.
3. Start with the end in mind
When you are responsible for digital change management, it can often feel like an Everest expedition rather than a walk from A to B. To ensure that you don't lose your path along the way, and that your project doesn't deviate from the desired outcomes, it is important to start with the end in mind. This will be helpful in orienting your project and will also help you keep your sights set on what is truly important, which will help you avoid being drawn down the inevitable rabbit holes that will present themselves along the way.
Digital change management is the application of traditional change management principles to digital projects and contexts.
4. Accept change as the only constant
Much like fashion, change is never finished. The sooner you accept this as a leader, the sooner you will sleep easier at night. If you can (within reason) make change the 'norm' rather than the 'exception' in your organisation, you will make significant steps on the road to being a more agile, effective, and future-oriented leader. Being out of your comfort zone can be daunting, however, mentally preparing yourself for continuous change is the best way to be ready when it arrives. This will help you to take a longer-term view of your digital change management - rather than being a single project, or a programme, it becomes a recurring part of your role as a leader.
5. Strategy before investment
While decisions should be taken as swiftly as possible, when it comes to digital change management, there is usually a significant financial and human resource investment associated. For this reason, before you begin leading any digital change, spend time reviewing your digital transformation strategy, doing thorough research, and scoping the project fully, before investing a penny.3 This will help avoid unnecessary sunk costs, and will preserve the energy and wellbeing of your project team, whose buy-in and momentum will be instrumental to delivering success.
Digital change management: Less fear, more control
The need for new technology and ways of working in the hybrid world is clear, yet many leaders grapple with managing these changes, when they really shouldn't.
By following a series of simple steps, and putting them into practice deliberately, and with integrity, leaders can master digital change management and guide their organisations and their people towards bigger, more distributed, and yet more connected futures.
1 'Digital Transformation & Change Management: How to Be Ready', V. Zhovtyuk, Medium, 2018.
2 'Change Management in a Post-COVID World', L. Radford, K, Schwarz, and J. Cooper, HOK, 2020.
3 'Digital Transformation Is Not About Technology', B. Tabrizi, E. Lam, K. Girard, and V. Irvin, HBR, 2019.