As Heraclitus the Greek Philosopher said “Change is the only constant in life”After recently assisting clients from different industries with different types of changes to their businesses, in both adding and removing roles or simply changing duties for some employees, I reflected on my own work history and the changes I had experienced over the last 40 years, including reference points at different stages of my life and how they impacted decisions I made or how I viewed change.
At the beginning when you are first starting out in the workforce, you (usually) are less likely to have significant financial commitments, or if you do have a large student debt for example, you are generally in your early 20’s with your whole working life stretched out ahead of you and available for you to earn and pay that debt down. The key frame of reference here for most people is time – time to learn, time to earn, time to change direction before you run out of runway (i.e., the number of summers you have left in you), the options seem endless.
There is a book published which encapsulates the essence of this stage of life from my own perspective and experience; “The life changing magic of not giving a F**K”.
So, at this stage in life, the attitude to change (at least mine was) within a workplace is less aligned with pure financial security and an ability to service debts. It is also viewed though the lens that as an employee you have options, so the impact of any change within your employment is lessened. Sometimes inconvenient, sometimes unfair, but not when viewed in the big scheme of things, life altering.
However, once you reach another stage in your life where you may have taken on a mortgage and have dependents, you can feel the effects of the financial handcuffs on you as an employee. The frame of reference at this stage can range from loyalty to an employer, job satisfaction, feeling valued as an employee, being paid what you believe you are worth, or variations on elements of all these things. Mostly, you are aware of a dependency on your employer to a certain degree.
From personal reflection, this is the stage of life where any change within your workplace can take on a much more significant impact or have an ability to affect you as an individual and as an employee. Commitments have been made by you, people rely on you, and you in turn are reliant on your employment to fulfill your commitments.
This stage and sense of reliance can often make you feel vulnerable. It is a feeling similar to juggling, where if you drop one ball, you fear they will all fall down.
At work this may manifest itself where you feel that you cannot challenge the status quo, or turn down the overtime offered, while at the same time you may choose to work during your own time at the expense of rest or family time to meet organisational deadlines. You do these things to ensure continued employment and avoid being singled out as “the weakest link” or surplus to requirements. When change is raised it can cause fear, anxiety, and this can sometimes lead to resistance or in extreme cases, workplace saboteurs.
My point, and the point of this article, is to draw your attention to the frame of reference for your employees at different stages of their own lives, to highlight that when you effect change in your workplace this will impact different employees differently dependent on their stage of working life and personal set of circumstances and the lens through which they view the employment relationship.
This should be important to you as an employer when making any changes, as there is a responsibility on any employer due to the power imbalance that exists, when as the employer you are proposing change. It is important for employers to be aware of this power imbalance as it helps with engaging and explaining to employees the “why” of any change proposed, and the “how” and ultimately “what” will happen if it goes ahead as proposed.
There are the basic foundations of acting in good faith. In my own personal working life, I have been exposed to many changes as an employee, executed in both good and bad faith, and with 40 years as an employee I have witnessed and lived the change from the concept of a job for life, which has now been superseded with the concept of a gig economy and the many variations in-between and what this means for the pace and types of change that happen.
The recent COVID pandemic has forced changes on so many different levels within the workplace. With those changes there has been the adoption of practices that would have been unthinkable before the pandemic. These changes have been executed at a pace which would have once been considered obscene.
As Heraclitus said “Change is the only constant in life” and the older I get the more I realise just how true this is. For some industries and businesses, this change process is subtle and slow. For others, it is infrequent and with significant sweeping changes.
Another truth often ignored at your peril as an employer is that the workplace is not staffed by a homogenous set of employees, so it would be unwise to apply a one size fits all approach to any change you wish to make within your business, whether that is small or large.
So, if you are considering change within your business, proposing a restructure by either adding or removing roles, or changing duties, there are legal obligations and a fair process to follow to ensure you consult with your employees and meet those obligations.
The team at Three60 would be happy to discuss what that may mean for your business and help you minimise the impact on employees, and ensure you follow a robust process to manage your change process.
Campbell Gourlay, Senior Associate