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Four practical steps that place employees at the center of your transformation.

Take a moment and ask yourself, as a people leader, are you inadvertently leaving employees behind as you transform work with digital solutions? Rest assured, you are not alone. But you can bring intentionality to transformation by, you guessed it, centering employees with these four practical steps.

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Jan 17, 2024
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Last updated on Feb 08, 2022

Take a moment and ask yourself, as a people leader (in part or in whole for your organization), are you inadvertently leaving employees behind as you transform work with digital solutions? Is your company culture apprehensive about creativity, diverse thinking, agility and continuous learning? Are leaders communicating board messages that are not reassuring to employees during business transformation– not meeting physiological needs? Are leaders hesitant to fully adopt solutions for the future and therefore, skills for the future? Is failing fast not an option to learning and growing your organization? If you answered any of these questions favorably, despite individual (or organizational) attempts to transform your business with digital solutions. Rest assured, you are not alone. 

We have all at some point inadvertently neglected our most valuable asset. Yes, we have neglected the employees who contribute to the success of our companies by not actively engaging with them in meaningful ways that change behaviors, and ultimately, change companies. I will outline four practical steps that bring intentionality to transformation by, you guessed it, centering employees!  

But first, let’s define business transformation. According to Deloitte, “it is the opportunity to define a bold ambition that goes beyond incremental change—the opportunity to rethink your business and operating models to deliver breakthrough value. It involves strategic decisions that affect where you’ll grow, how your organization operates, and what kinds of performance improvements you can expect.” 

Transformation also connects with an organization’s overall business strategy, which is oftentimes a multi-year commitment to examine people, process and technology (notice how people made the top of the list – insert side eye emoji). 

Four practical steps that place people at the center of transformation. 

Let’s jump into the first step to centering employees during transformation- Creating a culture of innovation, agility and experimentation.  

Organizations that are not agile are almost destined to fail in their transformation efforts. Moreover, companies that are more advanced in their transformation journey embrace diverse thinking, continuous learning, and agility by creating physical spaces to accelerate transformation. These spaces are also called innovation centers, or hubs, and are places where employees can co-locate to conduct experiments or build prototypes that produce cutting edge solutions for the business. Innovation labs promote convergent and divergent thinking and encourage employees to learn new skills and develop new abilities beyond their current job descriptions. Employers also benefit from innovation labs as innovation drives on average 45% more revenue and yields high customer satisfaction according to ESG’s April 2021 study. The study was conducted with 2000 global IT decision makers, across EMEA, APAC and Americas reinforcing the immediate return on investing in creating a culture of innovation, agility and experimentation. In smaller organizations, experimentation might include craving out 3-5 hours/week for employees to work on projects that solve their pain points, leading an ideation workshop or hosting an innovation challenge. This can be accomplished in either face to face (f2f), hybrid or fully remote environments. These practices cultivate a grass roots approach to transformation. 

Step Two. Craft a thoughtful communication strategy around the purpose of your business transformation effort.

This is where HR teams can shine, often in collaboration with marketing counterparts. 

Efficient communication ensures everyone is in the loop as well as reinforces specific role requirements and the availability of resources to achieve the stated transformation goals. A carefully crafted communication plan helps build a spirit of collaboration, encourages employee engagement and ensures everyone has the information they need to address any frustrations, barriers to success, or challenges individuals may experience along the way. 

According to Gallup, 74% of employees have the feeling that they are missing out on important information at work because communications are not clear. Another 29% of employees say that poor internal communication is the reason why projects (initiatives or change) fail. Intentional, specific and timely communications are key components to a successful transformation that drives behavior change and increases employee engagement. In fact, according to Forbes employee disengagement costs companies $3,400 for every $10,000 an average disengaged employee earns per year. Engaged employees have a 21% improved profitability rate than non-engaged employees and 89% of human resource professionals agree that providing ongoing feedback and clear employee expectations are the best ways to increase employee engagement. Therefore, highlighting how critical thoughtful communications are to not leaving employees behind during transformation.

Your communication strategy should minimally include a list of:

  • key stakeholders
  • key message points, 
  • timing for message delivery and method 
  • individuals responsible for communicating the information, preferably an actively engaged executive sponsor

Thoughtful communications also reinforces physiological safety for employees, which leads to step three of placing people at the center of transformation.

Step Three. Reinforce physiological safety for employees. 

Clear communications reinforce Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs by documenting and delivering a concise message that ensures all employees have a voice during transformation.

In Abraham Maslow’s “A Theory of Human Motivation '', Maslow suggests that people are motivated to fulfill their basic needs before moving on to other, more advanced needs. Employees have to feel physiologically safe in their work environments (hybrid, remote or face to face) in order to share ideas that might be considered disruptive or outside of their current roles. This reinforces the importance of right-sized communications that builds trust, and subsequently, innovative thinking. Examples include virtual town halls that address employee concerns, office hours to demonstrate new products or technology solutions, or one on one feedback sessions with sponsors. These high-touch interactions allow organizations of any size to center their people and communicate effectively and with intention. 

Step Four. Close the digital skill gaps. 

As leaders, we must close the digital skill gaps by preparing employees today to deliver the solutions of tomorrow (i.e., Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Deep Learning or Augmented Reality). This includes identifying digital skill gaps for both leadership and technical readiness in partnership with key stakeholders. Readiness assessments include questionnaires and field observations as well as training materials that include online learnings, on the job training and industry specific training content.

Research shows that 90% of jobs in the year 2025 will require digital skills. In contrast, nearly 31% of U.S. workers lack digital skills across all industries. Therefore, investment in people and new skill development is crucial for business transformation and growth across all market sectors . Continuous learning should be a part of your learning DNA regardless of size and number of years in business. Furthermore, as technology advances, employee and consumer demands change, your skills composition will evolve as well, further emphasizing the importance of periodic skills assessments.    

Additionally, the ability to flex employees as needed creates a significant market advantage to adapting and thriving during major societal and macroeconomic disruptions as seen in recent years during the COVID-19 pandemic. To address the skill gaps, 52% of companies are planning to invest in upgrading employees' skills. These skills continuously enable teams to improve productivity and efficiencies in parallel with technology. 

Skill assessments can cut across functional areas with the goal of filling critical skill gaps for the entire company, mainly by identifying “portfolio” skills". Portfolio skills are skills that every area within the business could embrace and align with for growth (i.e. change management, project management, financial business acumen, sustainability, ethics or core leadership skills). Begin creating your own skills assessment by creating a list of essential roles for the future of your work, and the skills required for those roles. Ensure your list of essential skills includes “portfolio” skills, by brainstorming with others outside of your department. Additionally, for each skill, identify quantifiable beginner, intermediate and advanced competencies that are used as a rubric for the assessment. Ideally, assessments are electronic questionnaires of future skills for each area within your organization, and are completed by both employee and manager.   


Such assessments also inform upskilling and recruiting of current and future talent and may be paired with extrinsic motivators for employees like gamification, skill badges or other virtual awards to increase participation. And lastly, upskilling for the future impacts earnings for both employee and employer positively. Employees are able to earn more with increased skills, and employers are able to command higher fees for services. This is a win – win scenario for all.  


Get Centered 

Centering employees is essential for successful business transformation. Successful transformation depends on putting people first, and answering tough questions about your operations and business approach. It is embracing creativity, diverse thinking, failing fast, agility and continuous learning. It is leading with the right messaging that creates a sense of physiological safety with employees. It is also identifying and closing any skill gaps that would prohibit forward progress and failing fast at any attempts to innovate. Ultimately, HR leaders are poised to embody and exemplify the four practical steps that place people at the center of transformation.

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