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Resistance to Change: The Open Office Space Transition Tug-Of-War

by Alison Jones / September 22, 2016



Any manager overseeing a space transition project will have battle stories to share. There will be many different experiences, and many different outcomes. However, there is one common experience every manager going through the space transition process will share – dealing with resistance to change. This article offers some guiding principles for success.

Change – A Business Perspective

Change management, a buzzword in today’s business world, is at the heart of managing and responding to the human phenomenon known as resistance to change. However, it wasn’t until close to the 21st century that change management became formalized as a discipline. Until that time, studies sought to understand how humans experience and react to change. In the early 1900s, cultural anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep introduced three stages of change:

  • Separating from the current state
  • Moving through a transition
  • Reincorporating into a future state

Throughout the 20th century, many other scholars built upon this framework, adding insight that would form a more complete understanding of the psychology behind the often complex, and seemingly baffling, responses people exhibit to even the most positive change. These studies provided a solid foundation of human behavior that eventually made their way into the business world toward the end of the 20th century.

Perhaps no individual struck a nerve quite like Dr. Spencer Johnson, author of the now immortalized 1998 tale Who Moved My Cheese? Johnson took the concept of change and broke it down into basic principles related to fear and comfort zones. He did this through a parable-like story that he applied to both personal and professional settings. With change management now firmly introduced into the business setting, the stage was set for change management to become a formalized business practice in the early 21st century. And that is exactly what has happened.

Change – A Biological Perspective

But what does any of this have to do with space transition? Simply put, transition equals change. The very word “transition” means “movement, passage, or change from one state to another.” Movement from an enclosed office to a new workstation. From quiet to hubbub. From dedicated space to shared space. From the known to the unknown.

Many studies describe, in great detail, the physiological response of the human brain to the prospect of the unknown: the effect on the basal ganglia, the pre-frontal cortex, and so on. Any type of change – whether at work or home, personal or professional – is perceived by the brain as a potential risk to survival.

Thus, humans are hard-wired to resist change. The brain responds with “fight or flight”! And as flight is generally not a desirable option in an office transition environment, a fight often ensues. Think back to a time you bought a new car or house, or adopted a puppy, and then suddenly became overwhelmed with fears and remorse. The decision most likely proved to be a good one; the brain was simply processing the change as it prepared to adapt to the “new normal.”

Change – A Successful Perspective

In this context, it is helpful to learn that resistance to change can be very healthy, rather than a maladaptive attempt to thwart authority or to undermine management. What, then, can be done to address resistance to change when attempting to implement a workplace solution, including any type of space transition program?

Several years ago, I was asked to lead focus groups across the country for an organization that was considering overhauling its performance appraisal system. As I met with the employees, it became clear that the proposed change represented different risks to different people, that there was an overall culture of mistrust, and that while employees didn’t necessarily disagree with the change – they feared it.

3 Guidelines for Resistance to Change

From that experience, I developed three guiding principles that I have subsequently seen successfully applied in organizations that are about to undergo a space transition. They are as follows:

  1. Establish a culture of trust. When the trust account is running on low, or has a negative balance, it will be difficult to gather support for any new initiative, no matter how positive it may be. Plant the seeds of trust long before any new initiative is introduced. Display an interest in employees, both as workers and as people. Encourage their growth. Be true to your word. All of these things, so often overlooked, go a long way in establishing a stable foundation to keep the ship afloat when the winds of change begin to blow.
  2. Draw out the resistance. Instead of trying to silence, discredit, or overpower the resistance, instead ask questions. What are your concerns? Please share your prior experiences with how change has been handled in the past. What worked well? What did not work well? What can we do to help address some of these concerns? Which aspect of the program causes you the greatest hesitation or concern? Often, individuals who display resistance are in the process of working through the change in their minds, prior to having to go through the transition in real life. Providing them with the opportunity to talk through their fears generally goes a long way in helping them feel heard and often in helping to ease their fears. (Of course, some people resist change just for the sake of it, or have an abnormal reaction to change. It may be necessary for a change management specialist to be brought in to help work through more extreme situations.)
  3. Identify and engage change champions. Identify the people in your organization who are excited about the space transition. Also identify those who were resistant at first, but have since come around. Both of these types can become ambassadors for change. Employees must sense excitement about the transition from more than just managers, especially in cultures high in mistrust. And perhaps no voice is as powerful as the voice of one who was initially the greatest skeptic.

I trust that this article will help take some of the dread out of the mere thought of dealing with resistance to change. Like any workplace challenge, with the right understanding, approach, and tools, what may seem like a bunch of lemons can often become the proverbial lemonade. Stay positive, build the trust, draw out the resistance, and engage your employees. Chances are in no time you’ll all be celebrating the change together.

Tags: Open Office Design

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Alison Jones

Alison Jones

Alison is a senior consultant with a master’s degree in organizational/industrial psychology and a certification in change management and coaching. She enjoys reading, fitness, travel, and the beach.