The Transformational Potential for the New World of Accounting Work

There is neither a reason nor a way to sugarcoat the immense difficulty wrought by the impact of COVID-19 on the accounting profession and business as a whole.

Jun 26th 2020
VP, Chief Behavioral Economist ADP
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Unfreezing
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Fittingly, it is appropriate to begin any discussion about work with a reminder that many people have been (and will be) dealing with challenges in one form or another. If ever there were a time for kindness, thoughtfulness and good will, this is it.

Nonetheless, there is no trait more admirable than resilience, so it is incumbent on us to chart the path forward incorporating whatever positivity, insights, growth and wisdom we can glean from our shared experience during this time.

The oft-examined relationship between challenge and opportunity demands nothing less. So, whether we are returning to the office or gearing up for an indefinite work-from-home stretch, what can we use from this experience to make our firms better?

The Stages of Unfreezing

There are undoubtedly many nuanced and transformative answers to that question. But given my particular lens on the world, I can’t help but think of the original change management model, courtesy of I/O Psychology luminary Kurt Lewin in the 1940’s.

Lewin described a 3-stage process that is best understood as a metaphor about ice. What would you do if you had to turn a block of ice into a cylinder of ice? The answer to that question is the model: unfreeze – change – refreeze. 

This may seem overly simplistic by today’s standards, but back in the day it was cutting edge. Organizations used to introduce changes by skipping straight to step 3, and unsurprisingly they failed all the time.

This model made something abundantly clear that had previously been overlooked. You have to address people’s motivation to change successfully before you can actually change a thing. As such, the “unfreeze” portion of Lewin’s model is all about motivation.

But here’s the thing: successfully addressing people’s motivation to change is a lot easier said than done (and it’s not even that easy to say). For starters, there are usually people with a lot invested in keeping the status quo, and they are likely to present a serious challenge to the change effort, even if doing so unconsciously.

But even beyond specific resistors, we’re also up against people’s muscle memories. For good reason (limited mental energy), people reflexively spend as much time in “automatic pilot” mode as they possibly can. (This is “System 1 Thinking” from Daniel Kahneman’s seminal work, Thinking Fast and Slow).

Change directly interferes with our ability to remain in that mode, which means significantly more mental work for us. We don’t like that. As such, on some unconscious level we are all change resistors, which is why “status quo bias” is a real thing.

Given all we’re up against, it’s not terribly surprising that the “unfreezing” portion of Lewin’s model is by far the hardest, because affecting human motivation is by far the hardest. Compliance only gets you so far - it is literally the weakest motivation there is.

And this explains why so many change efforts fail.  They never even get out of the gate, because it is really hard to unfreeze people, especially if they want to stay frozen.

At this point you may be wondering what any of this has to do with COVID-19. The answer is this: just about every organization out there, accounting firms and otherwise, has recently become unfrozen. And for most of them, it will be the only unfreezing in their existence.

Unfreezing is the hardest thing for a firm or any business to and and COVID-19 has just made it happen for virtually everyone. The possibility of resisting change has been rendered moot. Despite our desires, we literally have no choice but to start over. This kind of momentum stopper simply does not happen. This does not make the current environment any less awful. But it sure does present an incredible opportunity for good.

Hitting “Reset”

Whether a long-term shift to remote work, a re-imagination of business operations or a return to how things were (with modifications), many organizations are entering the “change” stage of the model. It is hard to imagine a better opportunity to hit the reset button on any element or aspect of an organization, but in particular on workplace culture.

Now, “workplace culture” is an awfully big term that can mean a whole lot of different things to different people. I’ve always been a fan of the Deal and Kennedy definition, “The way things get done around here,” because it says so much with so few words. So, let’s use that as our frame of reference.

Identifying all of the factors that affect “the way things get done around here” is probably impossible, but any attempt to do so would certainly require its own article (or several of them). But certainly, among those factors are attitudes and emotional states. And those are particularly salient to the new world of work.

Economically, we’ve experienced a trauma. Those of us lucky enough to have either kept our jobs or found new ones are understandably experiencing a great deal of gratitude with a tinge of anxiety.

Things that have long been taken for granted, like comfort, predictability, confidence and connection are suddenly and sustainably top of mind. Paychecks and positive interactions matter more today than they did six months ago, there is social science that supports this.

The silver lining effect demonstrates the psychological benefit of separating a small gain from a larger loss rather than integrating them into a smaller loss. For example: it feels better to win five and lose 100 than strictly to lose 95. In other words, we look for the positive in the negative and we hold on tight, which is why everything good about being a part of an organization means so much right now.

There is no question that these experiences are having a positive impact on intrinsic motivation and employee engagement. It is a smart hypothesis that productivity during this period is sky high. Indeed one early study seems to indicate that people working from home during the global health event are putting in three extra hours per day.

Keeping Motivated and Engaged

But let’s not lose sight of what’s really happening here. People are happier when they are more intrinsically motivated and engaged. The feelings of gratitude and connection are as good for the employees as they are for the organization. This is a huge win-win.

So, the question becomes: how do we keep it this way? And it’s a particularly salient question because it just so happens that this is a really good time to introduce change.

One of the things that you learn about organizational culture is that as a social construct, every single one of them is unique. It’s why it is so hard to create a list of cultural best practices. But if you want to embed a sense of gratitude into the culture moving forward, one piece of advice is to be intentional and unambiguous.

If you want people to feel grateful for one another and for your firm overall, you need to talk about it, often. You need to support the development of relationships between colleagues. And you need to do things that will make people continue to be grateful to be part of your firm.

Final Thoughts

So, let’s review: We’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime unfrozen opportunity. We have a grateful, motivated and engaged staff, likely bringing productivity through the roof. This combination means there has never been a better opportunity for organizations to emerge as the best possible versions of themselves.

And just to add an exclamation point, consider the fresh start effect, which notes that people are more likely to take action towards aspirational goals in conjunction with what feels like a fresh start. It’s why people start diets on Mondays instead of Thursdays.

When there is a fresh start, people are as motivated to change as they will ever be. I’m fairly certain that our emergence from the quarantine qualifies. May the best in our firms and people be the end result of this unprecedented challenge!

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