Staff Engagement: Turn staff doubters into doers

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By Matt Schroeder
Director of Marketing, ETA Transit Systems

See if this sounds familiar…

The new transit technology purchase that you’ve literally spent months researching, negotiating, and implementing is about to go live and you have just made your big announcement to the staff. It’s a great system, too. Armed with all the bells and whistles. Features from here until next week. It’s the solution that’s going to take your agency to the next level—it’s that cool. But instead of sharing your excitement you’re greeted with a collective yawn.


And deep down you know the truth: this is where the resistance begins.

If you’ve been around long enough, you’re sure to have experienced it.

That poorly disguised eye roll;

The slow slouch into an office chair;

Those “did I just hear that” whispers from the back of the room;

Why isn’t your staff excited about this new development? After all, one of the big benefits of this new procurement is just how much more efficient; how much easier it will make their day-to-day lives. “Give them time,” you say. They’re sure to warm up to it eventually, right?

But they don’t.

No one tries to hide those eye rolls anymore, and those back-of-the-room whispers are now loud complaints, that drown out every rational argument; every attempt to explain. And what’s worse, is that only some people are using the system. Others have move from passive resistance to outright defiance, preferring to use the old antiquated systems they were comfortable with. Your board is asking if the new system you bought is a lemon. Operational efficiency is crumbling. Your staff is in outright revolt and you are directly in everyone’s crosshairs.

What went wrong?

Odds are, the technology is working just fine. You did your research, checked references, even demoed the solution yourself. It was installed correctly. It passed all the testing phases. You know it works and are confident that you made the right choice and the benefits of this system are clear as day … to you.

So why is your staff so resistant?

Why are they having so much trouble adopting the new system?

People are naturally reluctant to embrace change. There’s comfort in knowing what you know, and as creatures of habit, we’re not ones to easily divert from the path most traveled. Resistance to a new system or processes isn’t a rational or logical action; it’s an emotional one. So conquering objections is just as much an exercise in psychology as it is in technology. If you’re experiencing push back from staff, take a step back and realize that they’re not dealing with a known solution here. They haven’t had the benefit of your research or your in-depth understanding of the wide scope of your agency’s operations. They have a limited set of responsibilities and a narrow view of how best to do their job. They’re nervous and afraid. Not necessarily of the concept of change, but more of the fear of failure in adapting to this latest procurement. There are new processes to learn, new philosophies to adapt, and as much as we want to say that a solution simplifies work, there’s always going to be a daunting learning curve.

In short, present the system from their perspective and deliver a ‘what’s in it for me’ pitch for your new solution.

Here are a few steps to mitigate resistance before it begins:

  1. Engage staff at the earliest possible stage of procurement.
    Talk to them about the most common challenges they face in their day-to-day responsibilities. Tell them exactly what you’re considering and ask them to contribute to identifying the key features and capabilities they would like to see.
  2. Market to your staff in advance of any rollout.
    Create topic-based posters and emails centered around the new system and showcasing its capabilities. Get your staff excited and asking questions about the system.
  3. Announce the date that it will go live well in advance. Give the staff time to acclimate to a change—don’t just drop it on them at the last minute and expect them to be good with it.
  4. Emphasize the benefits.
    Make certain that you break down the system carefully; component by component, and directly tie a system feature to a specific benefit to the staff. Make it good, too. Appeal to their emotional needs more than their professional ones; perhaps it’s how the automatic data collection means less time preparing reports, which leads to flexibility for personal needs.
  5. Make training exciting.
    There’s a reason there’s a saying ‘death by PowerPoint. ™’ Don’t just talk to your staff, get them working with the system hands on. Spell out critical concepts and connect the dots from one point of the system to another; show how proper utilization leads to specific benefits (e.g. how numbering a bus triggers sign on protocols that automatically initiate passenger counting or headsign changes); emphasize that in using the system correctly, they’re actually making their own job easier . If possible, try to make the training role-based; keep in relevant to the specific tasks a group of users will perform on a regular basis; spare them from tasks that apply only to other groups. Doing so will keep training focused and help your staff stay engaged because the content is directly relevant to them.
  6. Incentives and goal setting.
    Encourage adoption by setting performance marks and attaching a benefit towards its attainment. Set the bar high and make the incentive worth your staff coming together to work collectively. Don’t skimp. They’ll come together and support, mentor, and encourage each other toward a common goal if they’re properly motivated. This will increase adoption, improve morale, and they’ll come to accept the new system once they experience the benefits it provides.

Staff engagement is a critical, yet often overlooked component to new system adoption. As advanced and capable as the current generation of intelligent transit technology is, its performance will always be hampered by incorrect or inconsistent use. For all the time and resources spent in securing these solutions, it’s important to also invest in those people charged with using the system most frequently.  A staff that sees technology as a benefit to their responsibilities, and not an obstacle, will outperform those who cannot make the association between technology and performance.

We’re curious how you’ve handled new system adoptions. What tips have worked for you—and what hasn’t? What lessons can you share that others may employ in their next procurement?

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