Embracing change in your workplace
The biggest challenges you face in a workplace are often not in how to build the product, but in how to build a healthy work environment.
After working in a range of organizations — from government, to agencies, to startups, big and small — I’ve found one of the most important indicators to a healthy work environment is an organization’s openness to change. The following are the principles I’ve found key to building a change-embracing workplace.
Be open to change your process
Iterating on a product allows you to test changes, review feedback on those changes, adapt based on the results, and test again. It helps us make small steps in the right direction, rather than assuming we know everything up front with no opportunity to make changes. The chance to review and adapt is key to this process. The same approach should be applied to your work process too.
When you build a new team or begin a new project, your assumptions for how best to work together at the start might not be spot on. As your company grows or explores new areas, your process and assumptions are even more likely to change. Give yourself and your team regular opportunities—such as retrospectives—to give feedback and help improve the way you work together.
Share your changes
Whatever your role, share work often. Whether it’s a prototype, a design mockup, or a project plan, don’t work alone for too long before showing someone your progress. Spending a long time on something increases your risk of attachment, and might make you less willing to accept feedback.
If you’re working on a project that affects another team or another part of the product, keep people informed and offer opportunities to collaborate. You’ll get along better with your coworkers, have less unexpected surprises, and likely come to a better result with the input of others.
Many companies seat people with similar roles together, thereby separating the design team from the engineering team and so on. That often creates an “us and them” vibe. Mix your designers, engineers, PMs, and analysts together. Casual conversations will naturally occur around product work, and you’ll build a better rapport with your coworkers.
If it’s not possible to mix up where people sit, find other opportunities for getting to know your team — these could be a co-working time away from your usual work area, or grabbing regular lunches together.
Wherever you sit, find opportunities to learn about each others’ roles. Invite coworkers of mixed disciplines to activities like brainstorms and sketch sessions. Moments of cross-collaboration will help you understand their perspective.
Encourage people to make change
It’s common for product companies to be comfortable with the concept of iteration and “failing fast”, but the same thought isn’t always given to employees. It’s easy for people to feel afraid to make change; they may feel nervous or unconfident about their abilities, or worse, be fearful of putting their job in jeopardy should they make mistakes.
If employees feel afraid to make change they will be more likely to stay with the “safe path”, may be less honest about a project’s progress through fear of being reprimanded, and might be less inclined to ask for help when they need it. Behavior like this will slow innovation in a company.
Build a culture where people feel empowered to do their best. That doesn’t mean everyone should be reckless. It’s about people feeling trusted to find the right path and being able to have an honest discussion if something isn’t working out.
People should feel free to be great and free to make change.
Handle disruptive change with care
Despite best efforts, sometimes change happens quite suddenly. A change in management, a key team member leaving, or a change in project direction can feel disruptive. How this news is delivered will affect how it’s received. Being sensitive to how people will react can help avoid negative repercussions down the track.
- Be empathetic. Consider how people might feel and how they will be impacted. Invite them to discuss their concerns, and try to alleviate potential worries where possible.
- Be as transparent as you can. Big changes rarely stay secret. Gossip and misunderstandings can cause a lot of damage. Even if every detail isn’t clear, talk to your coworkers as early as possible. It’s better for people to hear the truth about what’s happening rather than speculations, and your coworkers will appreciate being kept in the loop.
- Follow up with people. Often it takes a while for feelings to sink in, and the impact of changes to take effect. After the initial discussions be sure to follow up with coworkers.
It may take time and effort to maintain this level of communication with your team, but it pays off in the long run. Openness and transparency will help build trust between you and your coworkers and help build their confidence in the company.
Whatever your role, you can contribute to the happiness and welfare of your coworkers. Embracing change in the workplace isn’t just up to managers, it’s up to everyone on the team.