It’s not the changes that will do you in, it’s the transitions. This is the message William Bridges shares in his book, Managing Transitions as he distinguishes between change and transition. A change is an external event that occurs when something new starts and something old stops. There have been multiple, significant changes to the work environment since COVID-19 appeared on the scene; working from home, social distancing, and connecting virtually, to name a few. A transition, on the other hand, is the gradual psychological process that people go through in response to a change that helps them adapt to the change. A transition starts with an ending as people try to let go of what was. The transition model has three phases: Endings, Neutral Zone, and Beginning. Although the stages are somewhat linear, people go through these phases at different paces, may move back and forth between stages, and can also get stuck in a stage.
The Endings phase is often marked by fear, decreased morale, and real or perceived loss of territory, relationships, competence, security, and sense of direction. With COVID-19, many employees experienced loss regarding territory as they worked from home, relationships as they interacted less in-person and more virtually, competence as they struggled to learn virtual technology, and security and sense of direction as they faced the unknown. In this stage, it’s important to open lines of communication, allow people to express their concerns, be transparent about what’s changing, and address misperceptions.
As people come to terms with the Endings, they slowly move to the Neutral Zone, which is marked by confusion and creativity. This is the awkward phase between letting go of the old and not yet embracing the new. In the Neutral Zone, people often feel anxious, confused, and disoriented, but may also be curious and willing to experiment. COVID-19 questions continue to arise regarding when people will go back to work, what the work setting will look like, how employees can operate safely, how they’ll manage their children’s schedules, and countless more. In this stage, it’s beneficial to provide information about what Bridges calls the Four Ps: purpose, picture, plan, and part.
Eventually, the majority of people will make it to the Beginnings phase in which they feel a sense of relief, excitement, optimism, and a sense of direction. This presents an excellent opportunity to coach and train employees, look for small wins, and celebrate successes. Some employees have transitioned to the Beginnings phase with COVID-19, but likely most are in the Endings or Neutral Zone stages. And as employees shift back to their workplaces, there will undoubtedly be more transitions that emerge. Employers Council can help; please call us for advice.