Change Management with Charae Gibbs

The COVID-19 crisis is at the forefront of everyone’s minds and hearts right now. We are all dealing with the changes the crisis is bringing, both at home and professionally. Our Change Management consultant and ProSci Change Management practitioner, Charae Gibbs, shares ideas for maintaining productivity through virtual teams.  We hope these ideas will help you in your organization through this challenging time. 

Why did you get into Change Management?

I wish I could say it was a lifelong dream of mine, but this path was more of the perfect intersection of opportunities and newly discovered interests. 

A number of years ago, I took a class at the company I was working for on how to facilitate accelerated change, but it wasn’t until a number of years later, when I decided to pursue a master’s degree in psychology, that I became fascinated with how we as human beings each experience change.

Merging my communications background with this new psychology work, I realized just how much I loved helping people on their change journeys and just how necessary this topic had become in the business world.  It also became apparent how much “change management” I had already been doing personally and professionally!  It was a perfect fit.

What I love most about this work is that it applies to everyone. No one is immune to change – as the adage goes, change is the only constant. Our very cells are constantly regenerating!  So it truly is a matter of when changes will happen.  

At the end of the day, the only thing we can control is how we will respond to – and help others through – change.  As a fellow human being, I get to draw on my own experiences of change in my work and personal life as I help others through change.  Which means we are all essentially change managers in our own right, and with the right tools and knowledge we can all successfully (and hopefully painlessly) navigate change for ourselves, our families and our teams.

What tips do you have for employees who are working remotely, maybe for the first time?

I have been working remotely for nine years now, and it’s easy for me to forget what an adjustment that was when I first started!  Working from home always sounds so appealing, and while there are certainly perks to working from home (for the record, I am thrilled to not be sitting in traffic!), the challenges of this work arrangement can be significant and can impact your ability to actually get work done. 

My best advice for anyone working from home is: 

First and foremost, remember to take care of yourself.  Left unchecked, working at home can result in fatigue, strain on your body, and mental burnout.  

I feel like everyone says this, but be sure to get up and move around at least once an hour.  You may need to set a timer on your phone – time has a funny way of slipping by when you work at home!  Go outside on your lunch break and get some sun and fresh air if possible – Vitamin D is a real thing!  I like to go to the grocery store on my lunch break, which is especially a treat these days with the stay-at-home orders – it gives me a chance to see other people, and say “hello,” which can release our mood enhancing hormones.  Try replacing your old commute with a morning and afternoon walk.  As much as I don’t miss sitting in traffic, I do miss that time heading into work when I could think, and heading home when I could decompress.  

Follow ergonomic guidelines as much as possible and drink plenty of water.  And remember to be patient with yourself and others as you go through this change – we all experience change differently, so extra compassion in all areas of your life will not only benefit you but extend to those around you as well.

Treat a day working at home, like a day at the office.  One of the dangers of working at home is the blurred boundaries between work and home life.  It takes effort to keep it balanced and keep your head on straight!  If you can, carve out a space in your home to work, it will be easier to mentally shift into work-mode – and if you have a door, even better so you can let others know when you shouldn’t be disturbed.  Get dressed!  The first thing people like to ask me is usually what it’s like working in my pajamas.  I probably tried that for the first couple of weeks and then realized it wasn’t working.  Getting dressed, combing your hair, brushing your teeth – are all great ways to mentally prepare yourself to compete the great work you’re about to do.  And when you reach the end of your workday, turn off your computer, leave it in another room, and change clothes if you like, to help yourself shift back into home life.

Communicate more than you used to.  As a professional communicator, I am used to running around telling people to be careful not to communicate too much.  But when you work from home, you lose the benefit of running into coworkers in the hall, catching your manager at lunch, and general conversations that happen in face-to-face meetings.  Make a point to speak up on teleconferences or video calls.  Send updates to your manager as needed through a chat service or email.Consider creating a quick and simple newsletter you can send to your team which talks about what was accomplished last week and what is happening next.  And if you have the means to set up video calls, try having a video call lunch or a happy hour with coworkers.  It feels awkward at first, but there is no substitute for the connection you feel when you talk to others and see their faces live.  And if you find you are struggling with your new work arrangement, remember you are not alone – reach out to your manager, an HR partner, or a trusted colleague for support. 

What tips do you have for leaders managing employees in remote teams, maybe for the first time?

For leaders managing employees in remote teams, my advice is to first remember that you are also an employee!  So be sure to take care of yourself like we talked about above.  In addition, for leaders, I recommend:

  • Reach out to your employees and offer to be available in a way that meets their needs – Perhaps the hour-long, in-person, one-on-one meeting you used to have is not as helpful over the phone.  Perhaps shorter, more frequent phone calls, or group meetings would be better. As their manager, your job is to ensure your staff members are successful, so ask them what works for them.  And pay attention – you may have some staff members who are great about keeping you updated and others who are not as comfortable.  If someone is especially quiet, reach out to them.  And remember that everyone experiences change, differently – for some, the work from home model could be a welcome relief from driving to the office every day, while for others it can pose new hardships, such as caring for family members or create new anxiety related to the situation.
  • Which leads me to my next tip – one of the most powerful tools any leader can use is listening.  This is the advice I always give during a planned change management campaign, and it holds true in life as well.  Practice asking open-ended questions.  Hear the words they are saying as well as what they “might be” trying to tell you as well (for instance when you notice someone is hesitant to respond – check to see if there might be something else on their mind). More listening and less talking is my general rule!  And remember not everything needs to be fixed.  Often times, just feeling heard, is the most powerful gift we can give to a colleague or loved one. 
  • And finally trust your team.  If you’re used to seeing your staff members every day and used to seeing them working steadfastly at their desks, it can be a bit of an adjustment now that your team is “invisible.”  Set clear expectations with your staff members and then follow up with them.  If you are seeing a lag in productivity, try to understand the root of the issue and work with your staff members to come up with solutions to help them during this time. 

And ultimately remember this situation is temporary – and while we may not know exactly when we will all be back in the office, we are in this together (virtually).

Charae Gibbs is a Senior Change Management Consultant at AJC, and has been managing change and communications, primarily in the biotech industry, for the past seventeen years.  When she is not helping others navigate change at work, she is navigating her way across the dance floor! Her lifelong passion includes ballet, jazz and salsa dance. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and new officemate, Kelly, and her loyal coworker – her yellow lab, Paddy Murphy.