Three coworkers collaborating over a brochure

What Every Leader Needs to Know about Workplace Change

Honoring employees’ reactions for positive outcomes

Moving from a cramped and gloomy office to a workspace filled with natural light and comfortable new furnishings should be a reason for celebration, right?

Not necessarily. Workers can experience shock when entering new work environments, often expressed in grumblings and complaints. The issue is less about the space and more about how humans respond to change—we are wired for predictability.

“Work is central to people’s lives. You spend more time at work than anywhere else. That is why change in the workplace is experienced so intensely,” explains Ann Harten, Vice President of Global Human Resources at Haworth.

Harten shared her insights with members of the Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) Network—professionals at the forefront of real estate changes—during an event at our global headquarters.

A Time to Process a Sense of Loss
The location was a fitting setting for the topic because we addressed these very issues more than a decade ago when it was time to re-imagine our headquarters building. Now 90% of our members enjoy an airy, three-story structure that gives them access to natural light, outdoor views, and more options for how and where to work.

Patio outside of One Haworth Center

But, before they could enjoy this better and brighter space, members needed time to mourn the loss of a familiar workspace that held so many memories of their work history.

“What we often read as resistance to change can actually be a reaction to loss. If we look at it through that lens, we can help people navigate the change we are introducing.”

– Ann Harten, Vice President of Global Human Resources at Haworth

Ann Harten, VP of Global HR at Haworth

Out of this experience, we developed a human-centric approach to change that is helping clients around the globe navigate their own transitions to new workspaces.

Harten recommends giving people time to process a move. Changes to an individual’s work area—especially those that reduce the footprint or lower panel heights—can shake people’s faith, raising questions about whether they are still valued and if their jobs are still important.

Denial Is Normal
Adapting to change often begins with denial.

“Denial is a mechanism that your mind uses to get through change,” says Harten, explaining that people go through stages similar to grieving because they are coming to terms with a loss. The other stages include anger, bargaining, and depression.

Brainstorm sessions at corporate office

One way Harten encourages clients to work through these emotions is with small workshops of no more than 15-20 people. This setting provides the intimacy people need to share their fears and concerns in a safe environment.

She encourages companies to honor the reaction of workers and allow for some adjustment. Employers can also prepare for change by explaining “the why” behind the change.

Understanding how to address people’s response to change is important beyond the real estate world, says Wendy Mann, CREW Network CEO. The organization, with 77 chapters in North America and one global affiliate in the UK, works to bring women together to partner on business deals in an industry that is constantly evolving.

“Change is happening all the time to all of us. There is nothing change doesn’t touch, whether it's your personal or professional life. I think listening is what we as leaders have to do first,” Mann said.

For more on change management, read “6 Steps to Master Change.”

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