Change Management Lessons from FLW (Front Line Workers)

What did FLW and FLL (Front Line Leaders) do well from a “Managing Change” point of view during the pandemic?

This post is admittedly a first look – we will come back to this in the near future.

But as an organization that celebrates, trains and otherwise enables senior executive, manager and front-line workers in change management, we felt it was the right time to do an initial look back on the challenges faced by Front Line Workers in the pandemic from a change management perspective – and see whether there were important learnings for change management functions in organizations.

Context: FLW change management attributes

One of the most difficult change management situations to manage or lead is known as Emergent Change situations. If you look at the litany of actual cases and wider literature, dealing with Emergent change is about adapting in the moment, putting in place new (initially ad-hoc) structures, processes and communication methods to enable the first wave of any new situation to be managed. Emergent change is extremely challenging because there is very little time for the normal engagement processes characterized by successful change management. This is possibly why Crisis Leadership is so celebrated in Western cultures – because it borders on heroic leadership themes.

But it is an error to point to crisis leadership only as the main insight from a crisis situation, or the pandemic specifically. The truth is, leadership is one aspect – but the truly heroic actions in the pandemic were those taken by those stuck without access to traditional leadership authorities. They were often left entirely on their own, to stave off a potentially life-threatening situation sufficiently to enable them to fight another day. That’s where the truly heroic attributes are to be found and why perhaps, FLW’s globally are so highly revered and esteemed.

Initial findings:

If the initial crisis, or series of crises have been managed successfully, what tends to happen next is a re-grouping to modify, enhance and update those initial structures. This means ad-hoc leadership finds the presence of mind to re-organize and touch base with those have helped to quell the initial crisis. In FLW’s case, this meant shifting from over-loaded situations that they were unable to influence to finding ways to support the super-stressed out teams and resources – all while managing the on-going and fluid dynamics of the initial crisis. This is tantamount to changing the wings on the plane while it is still in the air.

We’re far from over the pandemic, but at this stage, it does appear that more countries than initially are finding ways to bring the 2nd and 3rd wave situations into a more manageable form.

That shift is similar to the shift that happens when organizations and teams realize that the new and emergent situation is now shifting to a “New Normal”. Change leadership usually can step in at this stage and adopt a more traditional leadership role and approach to managing the change.

Except in the pandemic, this actually didn’t happen. In fact, the reverse happened – i.e. leadership was unable to fill their traditional role of providing authoritative and directive messages while also engaging w FLW’s to determine issues and organize and effective response.

Which put even more pressure on FLW’s.

We did a quick survey with FLW’s and proxies to FLWs in Public Health Care, Education, Pharma, Oil and Gas, Financial Services and Not-for-Profits to gather initial thoughts on our question, primarily in North America and Europe. We will continue to work this line of inquiry to refine and come up with additional insights. We have not done an exhaustive research, and we have not had time to do a deep dive on FLW’s in those countries which successfully managed the virus – including most notably, countries in Asia and New Zealand.

Nevertheless, here is our initial list of 5 top change management behaviors and actions FLW’s exhibited during the pandemic.

We thought it would be instructive for organizational leaders to reflect on these qualities and consider whether sharing and discussing these in their teams and organizations would be of benefit.

1. Operate effectively even in the absence of – and sometimes in conflict with – information (and often misinformation) provided by Authorities and Leadership figures during the pandemic (public sector/political & health leadership generally)

2. Manage their own anxiety in order to enable patient and wider operational safety issues not to fall into disrepair and further disable FLW service delivery (lack of PPE specifically)

3. Keeping “Core Purpose” top of mind (Grocery workers and getting food; Health care and providing essential services, etc.) even as conditions continually changed, and in many cases, worsened beyond the initial estimates

4. Naming, and self-declaring when they were approaching burn-out/stress overloads in order to enable others to step in and provide support where and when possible

5. Adapting work styles, management styles, communication styles and keeping intact their relationships in their core teams to enable on-going service provision – creating “unique and extremely high intensity shared experiences”.

Initial Change Management Take-aways:

Are these findings significant and if so, why?

If we leave for the moment, validating these “top5” traits, what you recognize immediately is the lack of Sponsorship as a leading indicator of success in responding to the pandemic crisis. Much more to be said here, but given we want to validate the items, we will come back to this in a later post. The implications of course, are quite significant – building emergent change capability.

The second obvious insight is the resourcefulness of FLW’s. The closest attribute this comes to in change management skills/attributes is “Resilience”. But while it ranks, it usually does not rank highly in any list of leading indicators of successful change list. Again, this attribute was highly significant in the pandemic. It also correlates highly with success indicators in Emergent Change situations.

And last, a stretch insight. FLW’s could be thought of as “Targets” of change borrowing from Darryl Conner’s Change Execution approach. And FLL’s were leaders while also being “Targets” – like FLW’s. The stretch is, in Agile approaches, a similar situation exists because Agile approaches have sprung up in response to the need to be more responsive to emergent change situations, mostly in technology. Again, implications for organizations possibly point to change management as an enabling aspect of Agile capability.

We’ll leave it there for now. Thoughts? Let us know at

If you consider yourself an FLW (Front Line Worker) or FLL (Front Line Leader) and would like to submit your top 5 change management actions, please click here!


ChangeVU Team.

Select links reviewed in this post:

#frontlineworkers #frontlineheroes #changemanagement #changeleadership #changevu #changeimplementation #success #businesstransformation #dataanalytics #projectmanagement #leader #innovation #workforce #futureofwork #hr #leadership #digitaltransformation #transformation #frontline #change #digitalize #agileleadership #agilemethodology #successfactors