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Change Management in the World of Non-Local Work

Aug. 1, 2021
This article covers work/life changes to manufacturing organizations as they return to pre-pandemic operations.

By Jean Frolet

As manufacturing organizations return to operating at pre-pandemic levels, we are already beginning to observe some of the long-term work/life changes accelerated by the pandemic.

Having left 2020 firmly behind and rapidly moving through 2021, we notice that firms find themselves in one of two phases of recovery. The first group is still rebuilding following the adage that the only constant in business is change, adding inventory, capacity, capital, and workforce hiring. The second group has already entered what we are calling “new-normal” operations and taking advantage of new opportunities while further shoring operational capabilities.

The second group rapidly navigated the rebuild phase and is now very much focused on understanding better and defining what the post-Covid world will look like to take advantage of the new conditions and opportunities. They started by conducting a rigorous review of current and desired operating frameworks. Many of these organizations considered how they would best continue their culture of active change management. They continue to use their existing panoply of continuous improvement tools in the new post-Covid manufacturing environment, with all its potential challenges.

Now that we have almost one year of data, while still cognizant of the ever-evolving environment, many firms have experienced and are drawing some firm conclusions:

  • It seems likely (In the US) that up to 1/3 of the (office-based) employees will still be working remotely at any time of the week.  While many employees miss office dynamics and are eager to go back, many others have adapted well to working from home.
  • More and more firms are rolling out hybrid work management options and plans for their office-based employees.
  • Many managers have noticed that productivity increased significantly while working from home
  • Data shows that focused, analytical work is probably best done outside the office.
  • Most surprisingly: “Brainstorming may not be the best use of the office, either. Groups sometimes generate more ideas if individuals brainstorm separately first and aren’t influenced by each other’s thinking or the subtle nods of approval from the highest-paid person” (Sarah Green Carmichael, Bloomberg 5/26/21).
  • Post-Covid employees have become accustomed to the flexibility they have enjoyed in creating their work schedules. Data also shows that people are generally spending more productive (and actual) time “at their desk” while working remotely.

What do these new trends mean for managers working to drive Continuous Improvement and Culture Change initiatives at the same rate as before?  How do you manage a team that is rarely physically together at the same time? How do you change age-old negative perceptions that home workers are “slackers” and office workers are “drivers”? And most importantly, how do you keep a Team engaged and energized when the usual face-to-face human dynamics are no longer possible?  

Much of our recent experience informs us that the usual continuous improvement tools can still be used and deployed within the firm as effectively, and in many cases, more effectively than before.  Organizations will need to continue to invest in communication tools and platforms and adopt some of the latest project management, scheduling and geo-location tools. These tools help the team members visualize who is doing what, where and when, and who is meeting with whom about what and where.  We have also developed some simple tips to help managers during key project phases while working in a remote team environment:


This phase is possibly the one where social interaction is most important and will require the team Leader to get as many people together as possible.  Once the Team composition, Leadership and objectives have been identified and communicated, the Team Leader will aim to get as many people as possible. Together (social distancing allowing) and launch a hybrid Zoom/ Teams meeting.  Team members have been identified and objectives communicated and agreed, the remaining half of the meeting should be time set aside to let the members of the team an opportunity to get to know each other. Conclude the meeting by sharing the rules of engagement and a high-level timeline as well as meeting frequency.  Explain that people will not be required to work in the same office, but that project moments will be invaluable (Adjourning).  Make sure that collaboration tools are robust, well understood, and available to all.

Storming, Norming, Performing

Depending on the type of project, these phases benefit immensely from high bandwidth and communication technology.  Data capture, analysis, process mapping and prototyping work exceptionally well using tried and tested off-the-shelf software.  Brainstorming and problem-solving tools may even work better in the digital world than in the “real” world.  Process maps can be accessed and modified with traceability, updated continuously, and decisions taken seamlessly.  Project advancement can also be tracked as desired and often with far greater transparency and visibility.

The following are some potential hurdles that project managers should be aware of during the Storming, Norming and Performing phases:

  • When working remotely, processes work particularly well—processes with well-documented workflows and team members well versed in operating globally and with technology.
  • Like all human endeavors, phases of transformation projects have ups and downs, moving from despair to euphoria.  A good project manager will understand how to manage these phases with strategically placed “celebrations” and coming together moments.  90% of the work can be completed remotely, but the success of the project and the morale of the Team will require the scheduling of key coming-together events.
  • Plant-based (atoms versus bits and bytes) projects like Kaizen events require more actual face time and physical presence.
  • The nature of the work requires significantly more “touching and observing.” The credibility of the solutions and success of implementation will require substantially higher user/operator input and feedback.
  • The project manager will need to plan out the event’s logistics very clearly to have the presence of key SMEs on the worksite at the right time.

Like Forming, the Adjourning phase is one where a physical presence of the Team should be emphasized. This phase is one where the benefits of change management can positively reinforce, people and achievements are celebrated and acknowledged.  The ideal venue is a presentation to the leadership team followed by a celebratory dinner.  A successful Adjourning phase will energize the Team members and further imbed the benefits of change management in the company’s culture.

Following the adage that the only constant in business is change, many businesses are already forging ahead and using the new normal “non-local” presence to continue improving systems and processes with even more vigor and success.  These firms leverage a strong bench of project leaders, communications technology, continuous improvement tools and a solid knowledge of team dynamics.

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