Four Ways to Help Your 'Old Dog' Employees Learn Some New Tricks

Collaboration, Change & Comfort Zones: 4 Ways to Help Your "Old Dog" Employees Learn Some New Tricks.

If you want your employees to work together online, you must first help them break out of their comfort zones. Collaboration Architects co-founder John Darling tells you how.

You know the time is right to join the ranks of those companies that are benefiting from online collaboration technology. Employees working together via the Web is clearly the wave of the future. And there are plenty of great software programs out there. Still, there is one major barrier to overcome: human nature. People don’t like change—especially the kind of change that requires them to overcome old attitudes and work habits and embrace new ways of doing things.

"Anyone who has dared to introduce even minor changes into the workplace knows that people’s natural resistance to change can thwart even the best intentioned, most useful new ideas," says John Darling, co-founder of Collaboration Architects, Inc. "Moreover, there seems to be a direct correlation between the degree of ‘discomfort’ brought about by the change being implemented and the degree of resistance to the change. This seems to be especially true with technology. For most people and work teams, the introduction of online collaboration technology represents a pretty significant change in how they relate to each other and how work gets done."

Darling should know. He and his business partner Bill Bruck specialize in constructing and implementing such online work environments. They have heard every excuse in the book from clients—from “This is just too complicated” to “I don’t have time to learn how to use this program” to “Well, we tried it for awhile but the boss quit using it, so the rest of us quit, too.”

Why is such behavior so common? To borrow a concept from Maxwell Maltz—originator of the theory of “Self-Image Psychology”—our reluctance to try new things has to do with our “comfort zones.” In essence, Maltz defines a comfort zone as the range of experience, behavior or performance that we perceive as consistent with our self-image.

"Maltz says that our self-image and habitual behavior/thinking patterns are two sides of the same coin," explains Darling. "Just as our self-image is formed and reinforced through our life experience, our attitudes, habits and skills are formed the same way—through conditioning and repetition. It has been said that attitudes are established ways of thinking. Habits are established ways of doing. As it turns out, habits and attitudes are equally difficult to change. Changing either or both requires a healthy and sustained dose of consciousness, motivation and hard work."

The bottom line? If you want your company to reap the considerable benefits of online collaboration, you must take steps to help people overcome the "comfort zone" challenge. Darling offers the following four strategies on how to do just that:

Strategy #1 – Introduce change at a pace that minimizes discomfort. At Collaboration Architects, we have applied this approach in several ways:

Ask people to participate in periodic online surveys or decision processes using a tool like GroupMind Express. This way people are able to have a positive online collaboration experience, thereby building their receptivity to experimenting with new ways of doing things.

Conduct a simple presentation or staff meeting using a web conferencing tool like NetMeeting, WebEx or Web Demo. Because such tools require people to take only a "baby-step" from the traditional conference call, they introduce change without forcing people to operate too far from their comfort zones.

Strategy #2 – Educate & involve people in the design of the online workspace.

An important part of helping people to modify their comfort zones and habitual ways of doing things is to help them visualize working in new ways. Unfortunately, most organizations use the “Build it and they will come” approach.

We have found it much more effective to involve the workgroup who will be using our online work environments on the front end in the design of the space. In these design sessions we are able to educate the potential users on the different kinds of tools available to them, helping to dispel fears and apprehensions. More important, this approach helps people start to visualize what is possible and begin to take ownership for its success.

Strategy #3 – Provide "training wheels" coaching support for three months.

Because it is only natural for people to gravitate back to their old comfort zones, we have found it critical to make coaching available for the team leader and team members. We have found that it takes about three months of "right use" of the workspace for it to become a new habit for people. Less than three months and you are taking your chances.

It goes without saying that the Team Leader’s comfort, capability and commitment to using these new tools comprise the "linchpin" of the whole process. Therefore, one of our consultants conducts weekly check-in meetings with the team to discuss what is and what isn’t working and to develop ideas for making improvements. We have also found it useful to have one of our consultants monitor the online workspaces daily so that immediate feedback and coaching can be initiated as needed.

Strategy #4 –Remove the ability to go back to the old way of doing things.

Safeway used this strategy a number of years ago quite successfully when it was replacing the old cash registers and installing the new price scanners in the checkout stands. The approach they used was to come in the night before and take out all the cash registers. In the morning they conducted a training of the cashiers on how to use the new equipment. Because the cashiers could not go back to the old way of doing things—and the customers weren’t going away—they were up and proficient within days.

Although the Safeway story is a great example of removing the ability to recreate one’s comfort zone it is not quite practical for most of us in the online collaboration world. Nevertheless, several of our clients have come up with some pretty creative ways to address the comfort zone issue:

One of our favorite clients calls herself the "online workspace fascist." She does one simple thing to get her team members to use the project discussion forum instead of e-mail. Whenever she receives an e-mail from a team member related to a project included in the space she sends it back and asks the person to post their comments in the appropriate discussion forum. For the first week or so she got resistance. But since she was the boss, people quickly complied. Now it is a new habit.

Another client makes sure that all important documents relevant to his teams work are posted in the space and nowhere else. This approach requires people to go to the workspace to get current information.

"Someone once made the comparison between helping people learn new ways of working to teaching an old dog a new trick," says Darling. "Some people believe that it’s an almost impossible feat. Our experience is different. Of course, as you can see, each of these strategies requires careful thought and commitment to execution."

"While it’s true that teaching an old dog a new trick is not easy, we have found that with a well-planned implementation strategy and a boss who is willing to do what it takes, people quickly overcome their comfort zone challenges and embrace the use of online workspaces," he concludes. "This way of working yields tremendous benefits, once even the most set-in-their-ways employees give it a chance. After all, who appreciates a new trick better than an old dog?"


Collaboration Architects designs, constructs and implements online work environments that enable people and organizations to collaborate via the Web. The firm offers a wide variety of services, including evaluation processes, implementation plans, customized virtual workspaces, training workshops, change management consulting, and hosting.

Co-founders Bill Bruck and John Darling have more than 45 years of combined experience in information technology, psychology, and organization development. Their backgrounds are key to their approach—they focus on the “human” side of online collaboration and use their knowledge to create technology-based solutions that are task-oriented and geared to the realities of each client’s corporate culture and capacity to embrace change.

To learn more, visit www.collaborationarchitects.com


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