Reorganisation – springboard or sinker for employees

Many reorganisations don’t work and fail to lead to the desired outcomes. But when Malin Espersson followed the reorganisation at the Swedish Enforcement Authority for her doctoral thesis, she found the outcome to be a better work environment, higher efficiency levels and greater impartiality in the exercise of public authority.

There are studies indicating that two thirds of all reorganisation processes fail. In the worst case scenario, they lead to lower performance, more people on sick leave, middle managers in a squeeze and the departure of the most attractive employees.

At the Swedish Enforcement Authority, there were high rates of absence due to illness and debt collection cases piled up. Malin Espersson’s thesis (2010) reveals that the reorganisation was perceived very differently. For some people, it meant new career paths and opportunities, while others felt that they had lost influence over their own jobs.

Malin Espersson Foto:Jenny Loftrup

“They started working in teams that were collectively responsible for ensuring that more cases were resolved according to a strict order or priority and they started using a new open computer system.”

The teams also led to solutions being discussed together, which many people found stimulating. Teams that were doing well were recognised with a cake, for example.

“The computer system also led to many employees feeling that they were under increased surveillance; they felt monitored both by their managers and by their colleagues. Some employees complained that they did not feel like “working unnecessarily” to cover for colleagues who were seen as slackers.

At the same time, the reorganisation was intended to lead to employees getting more influence and, thereby, a better work environment.

“But the teams did not lead to more influence, and nor did the softer ‛close’ leadership that was trialled first.”

Even the managers were changed to a certain extent during the reorganisation. Previously, the legal experts, those with the highest level of education, were usually the managers. Now new team leaders were appointed from among the debt collection inspectors. They were also very positive towards the new organisation.

“Gradually, a more traditional leadership with a clear hierarchy was developed. The hierarchy was increasingly clear and the absences due to illness decreased.”

A reorganisation is so complex that it often has unforeseen consequences. To succeed, it is important to have a strong and legitimate justification that all employees can understand, according to Johnny Hellgren, researcher in psychology at Stockholm University.

Most people want predictability and security at work; resistance to change is strong. It is therefore difficult to get employees on board, which remains a condition for success in practice. Having the opportunity to take part in the planning process is usually felt to be positive, as long as it is not about cuts and downsizing. Beautiful plans and strategy documents are not sufficient if the employees don’t see that their work situation will function. Keeping people constantly informed about what is being planned is another success factor.

“Then you have to identify the people I call culture-bearers, individuals who possess knowledge and have been part of the organisation for a long time. In the best case scenario, these informal managers have the ability to get the whole group on board. If, on the other hand, they form a resistance, you are in trouble”, says Johnny Hellgren.

There is also a risk of burn-out for middle managers, who may also quit in the case of a bad reorganisation, as the line manager is often the person on the receiving end of employee frustration. But if a reorganisation is well-managed, it can lead to better results and a healthier work environment.

“At the Swedish Enforcement Authority, fewer cases were delayed and equal treatment of debtors increased. But ‛efficiency’ is relative and the method for measuring success was questioned. Despite this, many people said they were enjoying work more”, says Malin Espersson.

Important aspects to bear in mind to get employees on board in a reorganisation:

Working hours – How do they change and how does that affect the employees?

Work volume – Do the employees manage to complete their work duties within their working hours?

Variation – Are opportunities provided for variation within work?

Collaboration – Are there functioning channels for communication?

Development – Are there opportunities for training and development?

Responsibility and authority – Does the responsibility correspond to the authority assigned? Do the employees have the right knowledge and expertise for their responsibilities and for their new work duties?