Use ADKAR to help people return to the workplace

29 September 2020

Breaking down change into smaller steps is the single best way to keep things on track and eliminate obstacles.

author picture Article written by Morten Kamp Andersen

Adapt. Reconfigure. Emerge stronger. Clearly, the post-Covid-19 area is riddled with organisational challenges. There is no blueprint for dealing with a pandemic in the workplace. But there are good and bad change management strategies.

Change happens one person at a time. And change itself is a process, or better said, a journey. Breaking down change into smaller steps is the single best way to keep things on track and eliminate obstacles. Create Awareness and Desire for the change; deliver Knowledge; foster people’s Ability to implement skills and required behaviours; Reinforce the outcome: This is AKDAR´s method in a nutshell.

Now, how do you apply ADKAR to today´s challenges, more specifically, to help people go back to the workplace? Just so we are on the same page, the first part takes you through the basics of the model. We then turn to explore the challenges specific to each phase and the best ways to overcome them (ADKAR Quick-start Guide to RTW)[1].

ADKAR in a nutshell

ADKAR is an individual change model. It describes the five building blocks of a successful individual change. Skip one of those, and the whole initiative gets delayed or falls apart.

Change Awareness is the first building block of change. People need to understand the business reasons for the change, or to put it simply, the strategic “why of change”. But to embrace the initiative, they must also fully grasp “what’s in there for them”. Creating Desire is pivotal. Only then should you consider addressing the “how of change”. This includes providing proper training (think preparation or Knowledge) and a framework to activate new processes and behaviours (think action or Ability).

We see almost every day two major mistakes. The first is to “jump right to training”. An intuitive yet highly mistaken move is to start training people as quickly as possible, regardless of awareness levels and desire. This is an easy trap to fall into, especially in times of crisis. The second one is to focus on the “finish line”. Ignoring the need for maintenance can jeopardise the viability of the change, and with each new failure, of future changes. Reinforcement activities are part of the process, not optional add-ons.


If you would like to learn more about this model - one of the most commonly applied -, check out our new podcast series where we discuss change with global thought-leaders (see Episode 4 with Tim Creasy, CIO of PROSCI).

To raise Awareness, establish two-way communication

The challenge: “We are not feeling safe, yet”. Safety is the first roadblock on the path back to the workplace. With the threat of a second Covid-19 a reality, health concerns have not lost their prominence. The ever-changing landscape of measures adopted to fight the pandemic can feel overwhelming to many. Unclear directions from business leaders add to confusion to the chaos. On a more general note, people have grown accustomed to working in the safety and comfort of their home. In short, immediate RTW is not obvious to everyone.

How to respond: discuss immediate needs and concernsOpen communication is key. There is no one size-fits-solution approaching Covid-19 related challenges. But with wellbeing being a top-most priority, user-centric approaches are more important ever. Redesigning the environment and working processes should be a collective endeavour, one that involves everyone top to bottom. To raise awareness for the change, start by listening. Empathy mapping may help you structure the effort.

To create Desire, co-create the workplace of the future

The challenge: “We do not want to return to the old workplace”. Health concerns aside, Covid-19 has become a testing ground for remote working. There is now extensive evidence that productivity did not necessarily suffer, even under those extreme circumstances. A better work/life balance and reduced costs also make the prospect of going back to the workplace, and to things as they were, much less appealing.

How to answer: be flexible. Attitudes towards the workplace have changed. Expectations for a more flexible setup cannot be left unanswered. Now is the time to create a smart workplace, one that comes with tangible perks for employees. Phased returns, staff turnover and hybrid working schedules offer a combined answer to both safety concerns and demands for more flexibility. Think long-term.

To build Knowledge, establish a roadmap and model behaviours

The challenge: “What do we need to do?” RTW plans must respond appropriately to rapidly changing circumstances on the ground. Leadership may lack clarity on what needs to be done. The risk is to set inconsistent policies and conflicting rules. Unfortunately, there is no blueprint. And no one can boast a good track record in organising returns amid a pandemic.

How to answer: double down on guidelines. It is crucial to establish a roadmap for phased returns, and have a contingency plan if the epidemic situation grows worse. RTW guides and checklists should be part of the toolbox. On-site sanitation indications, floor markings, signposts provide much-needed environmental cues. Needless to say, leaders must set the example. Failing to do so would only provoke annoyance, fuel anxieties and resistance down the line. Double down on your efforts to structure the information and model behaviours.

To develop Ability, adopt a hybrid approach

The challenge: Breaking habits and developing new ones is far more difficult than expected”. Remote work was a new deal for many. One that was swiftly embraced. People not only need to readjust to office work; they must also adopt new behaviours. Behavioural changes can be big or small. Tiny habits include handwashing and maintaining social distance. But new forms of collaborations, including small “bubble” teams and a wide range of new communicating platforms, require bigger adjustments. For some, RTW may also mean changing locations.

How to answer: implement a mixed approach. We have already discussed the need the co-create the RTW roadmap with impacted people. A top-down approach solely based on business needs is bound to provoke frictions. When the time comes, a good way to ease the transition is to leverage the influence of early adopters. Enlist volunteers to “test the waters” and share their experiences. Managers are also your best allies to collect feedback, discuss personal issues and provide social support. Make sure to pay back their efforts with extra support.

To Reinforce the change, celebrate successes

The challenge: “People quickly revert to old habits”. In the face of this uncertain horizon, return plans might not yet contemplate the need for reinforcement activities. Senior leaders could fail to keep up pressure or be tempted to stop modelling behaviours. Among staff, fears of judgment or difficulty to speak up when someone fails to comply can add to the stress and fatigue.  

The answer: promote empathy and celebrate successes. Offer verbal encouragement and recognition. Establish solid feedback mechanisms and be ready to pivot. Empathic leaders are what organisations - and the world, for that matter - need right now. Leaders who can offer compassionate responses to those struggling in the new reality. Leaders who understand that they must walk the talk to keep everyone on board and their business afloat.

[1] This article builds on PROSCI´s ADKAR Quick-start Guide to RTW. See PROSCI (2020), Return to the Workplace, Insights from Strategic Change Leaders.


Be in the know

Join the community to receive the latest articles on Change Management, upcoming events and exclusive newsletter.

We guarantee 100% privacy. Your personal details will not be shared to third party partners.

Be in the know

Join the community to receive the latest thought change management articles, upcoming events and exclusive newsletter

Don't ask me anymore