The Sandwiched Class

Tackling organisational change is difficult for staff, but managers, too, have their share of worries.

Managers are the classic “sandwiched” class between senior management and staff.

“When management sets a direction to do something, [our] challenge is to bridge the vision or direction, which is usually loftier and more strategic, with the operational,” says Ms Wendy Tan, a manager at the Enforcement-Compliance Service Branch at the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS).

Managers play a crucial role helping employees cross the mental bridge from initial denial to eventual acceptance, so as to embrace a new organisational culture, or new ways of working.

When Wendy was first made manager two years ago, she was tasked with change management when her division underwent a reorganisation.

To achieve greater synergies and in line with IRAS’s focus on taxpayer education and service, there was a reorganisation of functions and a new branch was set up. Wendy, one of the managers in the new branch, had to communicate the change to affected staff.

“When they had to take on additional functions, we had to keep explaining why we need to do this. The change is not about giving them more work, but to synergise resources and help us be more effective in handling each taxpayer’s case holistically,” she says.

Engage Early

Wendy knew her staff needed to know each other better first to perform as a team. With senior management support, she got everyone signed up for a one-day team-building course. Staff were grouped into their work units so they could break the ice with new colleagues over games and bonding exercises.

Wendy’s next priority: to ensure that staff were constantly updated about the change process.

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She had learnt – from eight years as an IRAS corporate communications officer – that staff communication is about “the earlier the better”.

“People don’t like to be kept in suspense… whatever you have to share, just share first. It’s okay if you tell them some facts are not available at that point in time. At least they know that you don’t know, and not that you’re trying to withhold information,” she says.

She got the various change coordinators involved to supply all information from seating arrangement to work allocation, which she then collated and emailed to staff regularly. Sharing as early as possible gave staff enough time to digest news and participate, and for managers to get feedback.

Staff focus groups – with no supervisors involved – collected feedback anonymously. “Where possible, we would take the feedback and act on them. When it wasn’t feasible, we try our best to explain why not. It’s important to close the loop to let staff know that their feedback has been heard and considered.

“Then staff won’t perceive the focus groups as ‘wayang’ (for show only), thinking that the decisions have already been made.”

Give Support

With the reorganisation, staff had to take on new functions, for example, learning to handle new types of tax.

To overcome resistance due to “fear of the unknown”, IRAS prepared staff with intensive training, including role-play sessions to simulate realistic frontline situations.

Staff were paired with more experienced “buddies” whom they could observe, learn from, and consult with. After their new duties started, staff could discreetly consult their buddies via an online instant messaging system when in doubt while serving taxpayers.

Besides providing adequate training, senior management also personally conducted sharing sessions to prepare staff for the upcoming changes. Sometimes, they would even walk around to chat with staff to find out how they were coping.

Address Concerns

Handling staff concerns is a skill. Once, at a staff meeting – before the reorganisation – a vocal employee expressed his concerns on the new job scope. This created some anxiety in the other employees at the meeting, greatly unsettling the rest.

“If I had prior knowledge about his fears, I would have preferred to talk to him, one-on-one, prior to the meeting,” says Wendy. She rose to the occasion and addressed his concerns, taking the opportunity to correct any misconceptions, in front of the team.

“I assured the team that we’ll work things out together, that they’re not alone,” says Wendy, who then followed up closely with staff months after, to make sure they were coping well.

The vocal employee, who is responsible and committed, eventually accepted the changes and is now doing well. Wendy credits this to positive change agents in her team who rallied the less optimistic along.

Although a firm believer of change, Wendy confesses that she, too, has had cold feet. When her branch had a restructuring of teams in November 2010, she had to grapple with new work functions. “I was previously doing two tax types and am now expected to take on four. I was worried that I would look stupid, as my staff would definitely know more than me. But I had to learn; I had to set the example.”

Wendy told her staff honestly that she needed time to learn. “I think my staff are very mature and they understand we’re not superwomen and supermen. [But] I had to put on a brave front – I couldn’t show them that I was fearful!”

One person she did admit her fears to was her boss. “Sometimes people just need to talk and vent and share, to know they’re heard. So, similarly, as supervisors we have to be there to hear our staff,” she adds.

So, have you been there to listen?

Cheat sheet for Managers

How to help staff cope with change:

  • Communicate key information
  • Address concerns on a personal level, in one-on-one conversations
  • Engage employees
  • Share employee concerns with senior management or the change team
  • POSTED ON
    Mar 16, 2011
  • TEXT BY
    Bridgette See
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