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Managing Uncertainty in the Workplace: A Potential Brexit Is Not the Only Change Employees Face

21/06/2016 16:35 | Updated 21 June 2016

In light of recent weeks, no-one can confidently predict whether the UK will be leaving the European Union after the June 23 referendum. As British voters consider one of the most important decisions in a generation, people are also dealing with big changes in the workplace.

The uncertainty of Britain's future in the EU prompted widespread nervousness in the workforce. CEB research from earlier this year showed that four-in-10 workers planned to stay in their current job - the highest level in five years - despite feeling disengaged or uninspired by their day-to-day work.

At the same time, change has been continuous in most companies. In fact, one-in-four employees in the UK experienced significant organisational restructuring and/or change in senior leaders over the last 12 months, with a similar proportion expecting further changes in the next six months.

These are planned strategic changes - not a sharp response to a change in markets, customers, or competitors - that are necessary for enabling companies and their people to grow. However, around two-thirds of these transformations fail because the workforce has not been adequately prepared or equipped to process and implement the changes.

As multiple changes are occurring all at once or in quick succession, even the most thoughtful or well-intentioned change initiatives, are causing far greater disruption to employees' roles, relationships and work knowledge. Firms have responded by encouraging employees to be more positive and open to change, but this only adds to the pressure. CEB data show that employees suffering from change-related stress actually perform five per cent worse than the average employee.

Managers (and leaders) play a significant role in preparing the workforce for change. Most managers wrongly focus on building positivity and employee commitment to imminent changes. But to sustain performance levels and keep employees focused during transitionary periods, they should instead work to strengthen employees' capability to change by:

Encouraging open communication. Employee commitment won't be gained by sharing rationale and context behind the change. Managers should enable employees to talk openly about change - sharing their fears and assumptions - to help employees personalise their change journey.

Facilitating collaboration. A change-ready workforce can only be effective in an environment that supports and promotes collaboration. Managers need to focus on making it easier for employees to do their job by connecting them to other people and solutions across the firm, and encouraging peers to share experiences and ideas with one another.

Making information clear and available. Employees need resources to help them construct a new understanding of their job. Managers should develop clear communications, specific training sessions and useful assets that will help workers navigate and adjust to the new environment.

Building assurance and self-confidence. Rather than making promises of stability and security, managers should remind employees of past experiences - successes, progress and learnings - in context of employability. These conversations should focus on expanding on their capabilities for the future, whether that's with the firm or not.

So, whether it's preparing employees for either outcome of the referendum or imminent change initiatives, if managers focus on building employees' ability to perform through change today, they will nurture a more agile, adaptable and productive workforce for the future.

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