HR’s Role in Change Management

Many companies might see change management as the sole concern of upper-level management, but human resources has a big role to play in this area.

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HR's Role in Change Management

Here's what you need to know:

  • In recent years, businesses big and small have had to adapt in new, unprecedented ways
  • Most business pivots are going to require some foresight and planning in order to make them as successful as possible, and that’s change management
  • There are all kinds of benefits that come from getting serious about change management
  • The important role that HR and People Ops can play in change management is managing the human side of things
  • HR can support and lead change management by assessing the company’s change readiness and developing and delivering communication about changes
  • HR can also provide training on the changes and track the impacts of the changes

If the recent years filled with a global pandemic, political and social unrest, and economic fits and starts have shown us anything, it’s that change really is the one true constant.

Businesses big and small have had to adapt in new, unprecedented ways. As a result, many who were previously unfamiliar with change management have essentially had a crash course in it.

The good part? There are all kinds of benefits that come from getting serious about change management.

Even when times aren’t as turbulent as they have been, businesses are constantly tasked with adapting. This can be adapting to changes in the market, labor laws, technology, or some combination of all of these and more.

Yet, as Harvard Business School explains, roughly 50% of all organizational change efforts are unsuccessful. That’s a lot!

These failures can be small and take the form of simply requiring more effort than originally scoped. But these failures can also be massive and, depending on the situation, as extreme as business-ending.

Many companies might see change management as the sole concern of upper-level management, but Human Resources has a big role to play in this area. Read on to learn more about the important role that HR can play in change management.

What is change management within an organization?

Let’s start with the basics. Change management, as the Harvard Business School blog explains, “refers broadly to the actions a business takes to change or adjust a significant component of its organization. This may include company culture, internal processes, underlying technology or infrastructure, corporate hierarchy, or another critical aspect.”

The author explains that organizational change tends to fall along 2 lines: adaptive and transformational.

Adaptive change refers to smaller, more gradual changes that have more to do with natural evolutions. As your product or service offerings change to meet the evolving needs of your customers, that’s an adaptive change. Pivoting to a work from home arrangement when the pandemic hit is another adaptive change.

Transformational change refers to larger-scale changes that also tend to be more complex. Think launching a whole new arm of your business or expanding into international markets.

These major “departure[s] from the status quo,” as HBS explains, are the hallmarks of transformative changes. They occur and your business is never the same as a result.

Managing the processes that guide both adaptive and transformational change is mission-critical for successful evolutions both big and small.

Managing the processes that guide both adaptive and transformational change is mission-critical for successful evolutions both big and small.

Why is change management important?

Think about changes you’ve made in your personal life. Say you’ve decided to exercise more and eat healthier.

One approach you can take toward making these changes is an organic one. You hold your new goals in your head and make daily decisions based on them.

Every morning you decide whether or not you’re going to work out before work like you planned. At every meal you make a decision to choose something healthier than you otherwise would.

Another approach is a more structured one. You do meal prep on Sundays to make eating healthier throughout the week easier and more accessible. You schedule your workouts ahead of time and organize your work, social, and family demands around that schedule.

Which approach do you think will yield better results? Chances are it’s the 2nd one because it’s more planned, structured, and thought-out.

The same applies to organizational change management. Winging it is one approach. And it’s one that can work in certain settings like a super-small business with just a handful of employees.

But chances are, most business pivots are going to require some foresight and planning in order to make them as successful as possible. This is change management.

What is HR’s role in change management?

No matter which way you slice it, businesses are made up of people. Any business change you make will impact the people who comprise your business. That’s why HR and People Ops have a major role to play when it comes to change management.

Employees who feel like they’re left out, left behind, or simply not well guided through the process of change are likely to feel dissatisfied. When people are dissatisfied with their jobs, their productivity goes down.

If that dissatisfaction lingers, chances are, those people are going to start looking for satisfying work elsewhere. We all know that it costs more to recruit, train, and hire new people than it does to retain the people we already have.

Plus, in a competitive market for talent, you can’t risk losing your best employees right when you’re expanding your business offerings.

The important role that HR and People Ops can play in change management is managing the human side of things.

How can HR support and lead change management?

There’s no one single way that HR can support or lead change management. Change initiatives are going to look different at different businesses.

But in general, these are the broad ways that HR can contribute to change management:

Assess the company’s change readiness

Chances are, someone else has the business side of things handled. It’s up to HR to consider the human side of things.

  • How has your workforce been doing since the pandemic?
  • Are they thriving working at home or still struggling with their new work arrangement?
  • How might these proposed changes hurt or harm recruitment and retention efforts?
  • Will the company’s hiring plan be impacted?

These questions and more are all areas where HR should be prepared to lead and deliver answers.

Develop and deliver communication about changes

Communication is absolutely key when it comes to executing change successfully. Any change is prone to confusion.

Plus, once a new plan goes from idea to execution, there’s no way of predicting how people will respond to it and the questions and concerns they’ll have.

One of the best things HR can do to help is by providing clear and consistent communication about the workplace changes afoot throughout the change process. Communication should start before the changes occur and explain why they’re happening.

Communication should lay out the plan for how the change will take place. HR should be available to meet with employees who have questions or concerns about any element of the process.

Provide training on the changes

Of course, this will depend heavily on what the changes are. If your business is going international, the change to current employees could be either major or minor depending on how the new business will run.

If your U.S.-based workers aren’t going to interact with the new business arm much at all, the training required could be very minimal.

But if there’s going to be international travel involved; if teams are going to have to collaborate in new ways and across languages and the like, training will likely have to be much more involved.

It’s up to HR to meet the training needs, either internally or externally, to equip employees to adapt to business changes.

Track the impacts of the changes

No matter how well you plan for change, there will always be unforeseen impacts. These shifts can be positive or negative.

The important element is that all of the impacts of a given change on everything from HR processes to employee happiness are tracked.

The last thing you want is for potential issues to fall through the cracks and go unnoticed. If you know what’s happening as a result of organizational change, you can better harness the benefits and manage any fallout.

Change management can help you get the change you want

Change is rarely smooth sailing. But with a strong focus on change management and HR’s important role in it, you can get more of the change you want and less of the unintended consequences you don’t.

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