When change is a good thing

Vital stats: Gloria Chin has more than 20 years of HR experience in the private and public sectors. She started her career with the Housing & Development Board and Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore before moving to the healthcare industry where she worked at the National Healthcare Group and started up a new healthcare cluster, the Jurong Health Services in 2009. She joined the National Environment Agency in 2011 and leads a 70-strong HR division in developing human capital initiatives and programmes for a 3,800-strong workforce.

Q Having worked across significant public and private sector portfolios, what led you to join the National Environment Agency (NEA) more than five years ago?

In March 2006, my eldest daughter, then eight years old, was admitted to hospital for dengue haemorrhagic fever. I was expecting my younger daughter then. Fortunately, following a blood transfusion, my eldest daughter recovered. During that traumatic period, the NEA officers visited my home. They were compassionate and professional as they went about their checks. They left an indelible impression on me considering the circumstances then.

In 2011, I learnt that NEA was searching for an HR director. NEA is responsible for spearheading programmes to manage critical and time-sensitive environmental and public health issues such as climate change, weather services, pollution, sanitation, vector-borne diseases and food hygiene, among others. The impact of NEA’s work is wide and far-reaching, yet some of that work can be onerous and unglamorous. It was too good a challenge for me to turn down.

Q About four years ago, NEA embarked on an organisation wide programme to deploy change management (CM) strategies for better employee engagement. What was the business need you wanted to solve?

NEA is the third largest government agency in terms of headcount. The pace and complexity of change within NEA has increased tremendously over the past decade with resources invested in restructuring, new technology, review of policies, and taking on new areas of work such as the building of new hawker centres and the integrating of cleaning contracts across Singapore.

We have 3,800 employees working from over 20 locations across the island. We faced issues of ineffective communications, employee resistance due to a lack of understanding of the need to change, as well as change fatigue whenever a slew of changes were introduced. It showed in the 2011 organisational climate survey (OCS) results where one out of two employees felt the changes could be better communicated.

Given that NEA’s operating environment has become more demanding, and certainly the past decade saw quite a bit of environmental challenges, this affected the pace at which we needed to react to such changes.

We had two options in terms of how we were going to help employees manage change. One, we could set up a team or department of change management specialists and get them to help the organisation manage the change. But considering the size and spread of our workforce across the island, we took another approach – building change management capabilities in our middle managers and above, especially those involved in key projects. Not only would this be a more sustainable approach for us, but probably get us better outcomes.

Q So what did this approach entail in terms of laying out a change strategy?

In 2012, we started to look for ways to manage organisational change effectively. Fiscal prudence, as well as the effectiveness and sustainability of the application of the tools, were some of the key considerations in our approach. I first learnt about the Prosci® Change Management (CM) methodology from a training programme at the Civil Service College for organisational development practitioners. The three-day workshop gave me sufficient knowledge to put a case to the NEA senior management.

It showed in the 2011 organisational climate survey (OCS) results where one out of two employees felt the changes could be better communicated.

I appreciated Prosci’s actionable and results-oriented approach. Most of all, I liked the simplicity, yet sophistication of the ADKAR (awareness, desire, knowledge, ability and reinforcement) model around which various CM tools would be deployed.

Q What was senior management’s first reaction to your idea?

In the OCS, we typically get responses from over 90% of our workforce and some of the statistics were quite clear. For the senior leadership team, the priority was to ensure the success of our key projects. And for any projects to succeed, we need the people involved to agree with the goals of the project. We have to manage the human side of it and that is what change management is about.

Q With the buy-in sealed, what activities did the project then entail?

In the initial stages, we relied on external expertise to introduce Prosci to NEA’s senior management, heads of departments and managers. In 2013, we sent two HR staff for the train-the-trainer certification in the US. Such a method significantly lowered the subsequent costs of training.

By 2014, we were running programmes led by internal trainers. They trained a total of almost 300 middle managers over two years – six project teams and 118 managers over 11 sessions in 2014, and five project teams and 100 managers over nine sessions in 2015 – about half of our middle managers.

Our internal trainers adopted a project-centric approach, which included a combination of consultation with NEA’s senior management, systematic training of staff at different levels, collaboration with project teams and coaching of managers to create an environment conducive for the sustainable application of the methodology. The application and training were tied to projects, and focused on the business needs of the affected department so as to promote department ownership of the CM work required for the success of the project.

So it wasn’t just a case of HR managers training the other managers – it was also coaching them in the application of the methods. That is what makes the process sustainable and also provides return on investment on the training tools.

We also obtained a Prosci manager site licence so that NEA has the liberty to customise the training workshop materials. This further lowered our overall cost of training. From 2015, it became mandatory for organisation-wide change projects to apply the Prosci change management model.

It wasn’t just a case of HR managers training the other managers – it was also coaching them in the application of the methods.

Q How did you get middle and senior managers to commit time?

All levels of staff from the CEO, senior and middle management to ground/field officers were involved. Three years were spent raising awareness, getting staff on board, and building the fundamentals of managing the human side of change in a deliberate and structured manner for success. Most of our management were happy that HR was equipping them and partnering them to manage change.

Q You mentioned “deliberate and structured” – what steps did the implementation involve?

The first key step when designing a CM plan is to identify the CM team. Typically, we picked staff with the right traits and competencies, for example, excellent communication skills, good knowledge of the change, credible business influence and preferably some experience in CM. The roles and work expected were then clearly spelled out to the team as we prepared the team to facilitate the change.

Next, we prepared the senior management team involved in the project to lead the change with their staff. Guided by the methodology, we brought them up to speed with an FAQ guide with guidelines on what information could be shared at the different stages of the project. We also organised a workshop for the team to discuss, align and understand what was required of them as change champions.

Finally, the management team personally facilitated communication sessions to explain the rationale and details of the project. Workshops then could be held for affected teams to clarify accountabilities, plug gaps and brainstorm process improvements for the transition period. Updates were provided at department meetings, reassuring staff the management was working to resolve any outstanding issues. Additional reinforcement to actively correct false information and manage staff anxiety was done through informal chats.

Q Did you face any dissent?

Some of the tools that were deployed looked at potential individuals who might not have had a very strong desire to change or support change. The beauty of this methodology is that it helped us identify which parties needed a little more time. Using targeted tools, we could then try and lower their resistance to the change. Also, the buy-in from the middle managers was very critical. Research has proven employees want to hear the rationale for the change from their senior leaders – but in terms of how it will affect them on a day to day basis, they want to hear it from their own supervisors.

In any major change, you need the majority of people to go along with it. If you can get the majority of people on board, the rest will eventually follow.

Q What should companies undergoing similar change watch out for?

The CM methodology was most useful for change projects with clear and defined parameters such as restructuring or new technology initiatives. Projects in the infancy stages struggled to develop concrete change management plans through the methodology as they usually lacked business information about the change – the impetus, financials and the implementation plan.

Some of the tools that were deployed looked at potential individuals who might not have had a very strong desire to change or support change.

In projects where you want to change behaviours or culture, the methodology is most useful where the behaviour change is very clear and measurable. For example, if we are introducing a new technology – ensuring staff has the knowledge and ability to use the gadget is one thing, but do they want to use it? We can measure if the systems are being used because we are pulling data. That helps us measure if the behaviour has changed.

Q What were the traits of your ideal change manager?

When we identified people to be in the change management team, we would have already chosen them on the basis of the core skills they had. Once they have gone through training, they would be equipped with the tools to measure a project along ADKAR – to see if the team has improved or if communication is needed.

Q What about that last component of ADKAR – reinforcement?

This is where the senior leaders need to continue to be explicitly involved. Once a project is completed, the reinforcement will have to be done on a day-to-day basis. You have to keep the communication lines open through departmental meetings or informal chats. Effective sponsorship from senior leaders was, in fact, the key factor for the success of the initiative. As they were the first to be trained, they became more aware of their roles, more involved in managing change, more willing to send their staff for training and actively advocated its application.

Q Having executed this campaign, how are you tracking the success of it?

Today, we have a common CM language in the agency. At the organisational level, leaders are communicating changes more actively and effectively. In the OCS 2015, we saw statistically significant improvement of four to five percentage points for questions on the communication of organisation changes and the current pace of change. We had specific questions in the survey about how changes were being communicated, and how employees were finding the pace of change. At the project level, we measured increasing levels of staff awareness, desire, knowledge, ability and reinforcement (ADKAR) after CM teams have intervened. Our staff retention rate has improved from 93.5% in 2011 to 95.3% in 2015. Clearly, we still have much more to do, but the results thus far have been encouraging.

Q What are some of the other HR-driven campaigns that you have in mind for the future – anything that you are keen to work on in the long-term?

We have been ramping up efforts on strategic workforce planning (SWP) and concurrently integrating the inputs from the SWP process into the areas of talent attraction, talent management and talent development. For example, we have refined our specialist development plans in line with the emerging engineering capabilities that we need to grow. This process started last year and is going to wrap up in 2017. However, the workforce plan we are designing projects to the year 2030, and is in line with the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint 2030, in terms of the air quality index, recycling rate, and such.

Another ongoing campaign is building and sustaining organisational resilience. The campaign focuses on two strategies – first, creating resilience-focused development support and interventions pitched at the individual and managerial levels and second, putting in place management practices that build resilience. Building change management capability was one tactic under the second strategy, and is part of the bigger picture of building organisational resilience in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environment.

Art Direction: Shahrom Kamarulzaman; Photography: Elliot Lee, Nikon Ambassador (Singapore); Makeup & Hair: Michmakeover using Make Up For Ever & hair using Sebastian Professional.