Insights Discussion: How to Lead in A VUCA World [Recap]

By Perceptyx - August 20, 2020

With four months of experience dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic under our belts, we are running our businesses in ways we likely never anticipated. These operational disruptions have significantly impacted the human experience at work. Whether on the frontline or in a home office, employees, across industries, are being challenged to adapt, perform, and thrive. Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA) are the only constants in a pandemic.

Dr. Gena Cox, Senior Consultant and Lead Researcher at Perceptyx, facilitated a discussion with two leaders who shared their unforgettable experiences and lessons learned since the beginning of the pandemic: Victoria (Torie) Smith, Leader of Organizational Development at Rocket Companies and Dee Fischer, Executive Director of Global Learning and Organizational Design at Ogilvy.

VUCA Times

Setting the stage, Gena provided an overview of Perceptyx research from more than 750,000 respondents across the globe:

  • Prior to the pandemic, only 8% of employees worked from home. Seemingly overnight, more than 75% of employees transitioned to working from home, and only 5% want to return to the physical workplace after the pandemic.
  • Working parents are wearing many hats during the “9-to-5” workday: employee + caregiver + teacher. In particular, mothers in senior leadership roles are most concerned about this balancing act: more than two-thirds are concerned about their remote work productivity with children also learning at home, and more than one-half are worried that this will affect their job security.
  • In the middle of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd ignitied a social justice and inclusion imperative: 40% of employees say they know at least one racist in the workplace, and 59% believe their companies should do more to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Silver Linings

Despite the constant challenges and disruptions, there are many “awakenings” that have created a great deal of learning and growth for individuals, teams, and organizations. Torie shared that senior leaders’ conventional wisdom about the potential pitfalls and drawbacks of working from home were challenged with COVID-19, which ultimately required the shift to working from home. While the organizational development team knew the potential benefits of working remotely, VUCA times afforded the opportunity to experiment and test these opposing ideas. Torie said, “Heads were completely turned on what a virtual environment can provide.” Slashing a typical commute time of 30-45 minutes was just the tip of the iceberg: Productivity and engagement continued to soar during the pandemic. In addition, with mortgage and refinance rates hitting new record lows, Rocket Companies hired over 5,000 new employees to meet the increasing demand. Torie shared that onboarding surveys have provided great insight into what’s working and what needs to improve to onboard, engage and retain this new remote workforce.

Like many, Dee had concerns about the ability to collaborate remotely, especially considering Ogilvy is an advertising, marketing, and public relations agency, where “our people and their ideas are our product.” Dee quickly learned that collaboration can be accomplished with technology. In the past, Dee found that collaboration and innovation were largely limited to the office- or region-level; however, with everyone on the same level playing field of working remotely, VUCA has blurred physical boundaries and collaboration is now on a global scale. Dee also highlighted how frequent and transparent communication from senior leadership has positively impacted employee engagement during these VUCA times.

Continuous Listening and Acting

It is essential companies listen to their employees, and during VUCA times this becomes even more paramount. Both Rocket Companies and Ogilvy take continuous listening to a greater maturity level by acting on employee feedback. Torie shared that Rocket Companies first surveyed their employees about what equipment they needed to work productively from home. In the matter of days, employees had laptops, headsets, dual monitors, keyboards, etc. to make working from home as efficient and effective as possible. Second, after threading together multiple streams of data, an interesting pattern emerged: employees were taking less time away from work and working longer hours during the day than ever before. This coupled with increased engagement caused the organizational development team to worry about inevitable burnout. Currently, the team is launching pulse surveys, with a deep-dive focus on stress and burnout, to uncover the resources employees need and which groups and/or areas are at greatest risk. They have also launched a rest and relaxation (R&R) program to ensure employees are taking their lunch and other breaks throughout the day, which has included one free personal-time off day. Employees were “overwhelmingly positive” and grateful, saying “This is exactly what I needed. I wanted to take some time off, but I was guilty to do so.” Managers continue to encourage employees to take time away to replenish and recharge.

Through continuous listening, Dee has found employees only want to return to the physical workplace one day per week. For day-to-day work, employees largely want to work from home. Indeed, for Ogilvy and many organizations, there has been a role reversal of the workplace: no longer is it a place primarily to get work done; instead, it is now a place for connection and socialization. Dee also sees that with the return to school, parents are asking for additional resources and flexibility to accommodate their schedule: “We need to adjust our time expectations.” Employees are logging on earlier or later, stretching the “9-to-5,” with intermittent breaks to wear the hat of care giver or teacher. Dee suggested honoring start and end times of the day, and presented a novel idea of a “no-meetings day” so people can put their heads down and get work done. Another novel way Ogilvy has responded to employee feedback is “learning from your leaders session.” Each week a leader hosts a virtual meeting where they answer the same questions, such as “What have you learned as a result of the pandemic?” and “What behaviors have you seen in other leaders that you want to see sustained after the pandemic?” Other novel approaches to build social connection despite the physical divide include virtual meditation circles and peer coaching groups.

Both Dee and Torie also mentioned that their leaders have talked to their organizations about the social justice issues that have become more prominent since George Floyd was killed in May. Ogilvy has used its own research to develop a 12-step employee-focused Diversity & inclusion plan. Ogilvy has also used its research to guide clients to think of their businesses as platforms for change regarding diversity & inclusion. And the company has published a list of anti-racism resources for use by both employees and clients.

Indeed, leading in VUCA times requires leaning in to hear what employees need to tell us, then putting actions in place that will drive the organization forward. With volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity the only constants, now still is a crucial time to listen, and the most important time to act.

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