Sigh. Lockdown 5.0. How did we get here, again so soon after lockdown 4, which we all thought was The Very. Last. Time.
I’ve been getting texts from friends and family to see how I’m feeling about another lockdown. I’m fine – resigned to the point of numbness. I mean who even makes plans anymore.
The lockdown this week has been overshadowed by the impending loss of 200 jobs at my workplace. Two hundred hardworking people with lives and families, who have done nothing to deserve what is happening to them. So while coronavirus continues to make a mockery of our lives, at the moment, its existential threat is secondary to the horror of watching things unfold at my workplace.
Anyone working in the university sector knows the restructuring drill all too well. Every 3-5 years an area in the university gets targeted. If you’re lucky it’s a re-alignment of positions and a name change, if not its redundancies, spill and fill, with those impacted carrying on working for months while it’s sorted out.
Restructuring is a feature of modern work, with varying degrees of success. Every organisation I’ve worked for has restructured at least once if not multiple times while I was working there.
When I worked as a receptionist, I was restructured out of my job – a sweet relief – I was terrible. At a shire council, the library was merged with customer service and then nine months later we restructured again to remove positions. At my current workplace we seem to have been in a constant state of restructuring since 2018.
Restructures are done primarily for cost cutting – people are expensive, so having less of them is an obvious saving. And because the Federal Government refuses to support universities during the pandemic, universities have been cutting positions and restructuring like their lives depend on it – so far 17,000 jobs have been lost.
Making people redundant needs to be made palatable, so its aligned to the strategic directions of the organisation. Exciting words are used like transformation, new ways of working and bright new future. The news is delivered with the right amount pathos and regret that there is just no other way. There’s dedicated counselling services and talk about self-care.
Restructures are usually accompanied by change management workshops for leaders, where change will be painted as both inevitable and an exciting opportunity. I have attended many of these workshops and have always found them uncomfortable and far too wrapped in HR speak for my liking.
As people we deal with change everyday – life is change, both in small ways and big. Sometimes in life you are lucky enough to be able to choose the changes like getting married or moving interstate. Other times the change chooses you, getting sick or a sudden death in the family.
The former is of course preferable, who wouldn’t want to be in complete control of their destiny. But life isn’t like that. What makes life so hard – and wonderful is that some times change chooses you and you have to deal with it the best way you can.
Change management theories try to quantify people’s experience of dealing with change. They explain things using models like Kubler-Ross and they talk about how people’s reaction to change is linked to their feelings of security. I’ve always found these models to be deeply flawed and dehumanising.
The change management models lack deep compassion for the people who are impacted by change, which is to say, everyone. Feelings are reduced to something on a spectrum that supervisors need to manage. Raging against the universe because of the unfairness of the situation isn’t allowed, feelings are quantified into an acceptable range.
I recently went to a change management workshop but left before the end. I just couldn’t sit through another session where we talked about how to manage change, as though the whole last year where work pivoted, the world became smaller, and illness and death stalked us, didn’t happen.
HR departments mean well but often come across as cold and theoretical. Saying things like “people seeing having a job as a conduit for paying their mortgage” is both blindingly obvious and totally lacking in compassion. And yes, this was an actual thing that was said at the session I went too.
The thing is, the hard work of getting people on board with change mostly doesn’t need to be done anymore. From my experience, people are pretty jaded and are aware that their “permanent” jobs are only secure until the next restructure. So if they survive this round of restructuring, they see accepting the changes as the price of keeping their jobs.
The system is incredibly broken.