· Eve Church  · 6 min read

How to Handle Unexpected Change in the Workplace

Change is inevitable. But what happens when a change is unplanned for and hits your company like a bolt from the blue?

Businesses have always been subject to change. Technological advances spearhead change as does restructuring and hiring new leaders. There’s also been a big shift in the way we work too - something that was on the rise (think co-working spaces) before the global pandemic and is most definitely occurring now as we settle back into ‘the new normal’ with remote and hybrid work becoming increasingly popular.

What we’re saying is that change happens. Change is inevitable. Managing change at work is something that owners and managers need to accept as part of their job description.

But what happens when a change is unplanned for and hits your company like a bolt from the blue?

How to handle unexpected change in the workplace

Many workplace changes are planned in advance. Some are foreseeable and are therefore able to be swiftly dealt with. For example:

  • Opening a new branch or office
  • Switching to remote working
  • Implementing a new software solution such as an HRIS
  • Changing the leadership or C-suite
  • Introducing a new policy such as a lateness policy
  • Reorganizing employees, teams or departments
  • Developing a new process or way of working

All of the above can be planned and prepared for and you should have time to get all your employees onboard with the change.

So far so good. So what happens when you’re ambushed by unforeseen circumstances?

There’s obviously no way of being able to predict the unknown so how can you deal with the change, mend any issues created by it, and ensure that you’re battle ready in the future in the event of another surprise?

The knock on effect of not being prepared to face change

Maybe you’re a ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ type of person. Someone who would rather deal with issues as and when and if they arise. If you often find yourself saying things like “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it”, the bad news is that this MO doesn’t often work in a professional environment.

Not having a plan in place to deal with unexpected change can cost you dearly, whether that’s in a financial sense of the word or in time. Or, as is likely, both. For example you might find that:

  • A project can’t be completed by its deadline as a critical employee suddenly up and quit
  • The company loses its biggest client due to a competitor undercutting them on price
  • Employees are handing in their resignations en masse due to the introduction of an unpopular, or even unfair, policy
  • A data breach results in a loss of confidence in the company leading to a tarnished reputation
  • A fire or flood at the office costs the company huge sums of money and means employees need to work from elsewhere
  • A server crash means that operations have to temporarily cease

So while change can and does happen, it doesn’t mean that the fallout from that change has to take your company down with it.

Some ways you can manage unanticipated change at work

Many of us are creatures of habit, and changes at work can often get people quite riled up. And that’s when the change is planned! Sudden, and not particularly pleasant changes, can be upsetting and stressful.

By acknowledging the change and understanding where people are coming from you can make the entire experience less distressing for all concerned. This is where the change curve comes in.

Read more: How To to Give Constructive Criticism to Different Personality Types

As someone working in Human Resources, or in a managerial role, you need to understand the common emotions that your employees are likely going through when change abruptly happens.

Points on the change curve

  1. Shock
  2. Denial
  3. Frustration
  4. Depression
  5. Experimentation
  6. Decision
  7. Integration

Crucially, the negative feelings and emotions must be acknowledged so that everyone can move through the curve and accept the change as soon as possible to reach the integration stage.

Just remember that it is perfectly natural for people to be shocked by change and to at first resist it. Do not make your employees feel guilty about this. It also shouldn’t change the way you view them.

Have a contingency plan in place

Okay, we know it’s easier said than done to plan for an abstract ‘something’ that hasn’t even happened but having some kind of contingency plan in place will give you a far better handle on any problems that do arise so that you can meet them head on and not be blindsided.

Think of the different scenarios that could possibly affect your business and prepare the outlines of your plan. You need to consider all of these and then create a standard process for dealing with each of them. For example:

  • Make a list of people that would be impacted by certain scenarios - clients, employees, suppliers, partners, customers etc.
  • Create email templates, press releases, social media posts, announcements etc. that are responses to any given situation
  • Decide on the process for communicating with whoever has been affected by the change
  • Note down any other steps you would take initially to seize control of the situation
  • Ensure that all of your insurance policies are up-to-date, valid and cover all potential events
  • Check that your office signage for things like evacuation routes and meeting points are all clear and in place
  • Designate leaders who will take control when unforeseen circumstances strike
  • Consider the steps you’ll need to take should employees need to work elsewhere due to a fire or flood at the office. Temporary office space? Work from home?
  • Identify your best people and ensure you won’t be left high and dry should they leave your company or need to take extended leave due to illness - have job ads ready to go the minute you know someone great is on the way out and make sure other team members are conversant with an exiting employees’ projects and clients
  • Make sure your employees are happy and engaged so that they always deliver the best possible service to your clients - this will minimize the risk of customers being poached by a competitor
  • Do competitor research so that you can be sure you’re always offering a better service, product and customer experience
  • Aim to always know what’s happening with employment laws and regulations in your industry so that a government policy change doesn’t creep up on you
  • Hire an IT consultant or firm to conduct an assessment to ensure your systems are as secure as they should be
  • Consider working with an IT firm that offers a business continuity service that ensures your IT is always working
  • Create a data protection policy in the event you are comprised and suffer a data breach

How to handle unexpected change in the workplace: conclusion

We all like to think ‘it wouldn’t happen here’ or ‘it couldn’t happen to me’ but any smart business owner, manager or HR person will know that unexpected change can bring about more than just a little upheaval and a few disgruntled employees. It can wreak havoc on a business that isn’t adequately prepared.

And while you might not be able to stop unexpected changes from happening, you can learn how to manage them so that if they happen you’ll be able to mitigate any pending disasters.

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