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How to thrive in a VUCA world

By: Dr Peggie Rothe. Employees no longer work in merely a fast-changing world, but rather a VUCA world: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. A term created by the U.S. military to describe the geopolitical conditions following the Cold War, it is increasingly being used to describe the challenge of the modern business environment.

With this level of intensity being experienced by leaders and employees, it’s no surprise that there is an increasing awareness around the relationship between mental health and workplace. In the UK, 15.8 million working days were lost due to mental health-related issues in 2016, and 2/3 of workers believed their employer should be doing more to address stress in the workplace, according to ONS. This partly comes from the growing issue of work-related stress, which can be caused by feeling under more pressure than one can handle.

One of the things building that pressure is the way we work today: we’re always connected and constantly switched on, which means the knowledge worker’s brain never gets off the treadmill.

And technology is not necessarily going to ease the intensity. As AI becomes more relevant it will replace some tasks and change the nature of certain jobs. However, there will always be a role for critical thinking. As computers start doing more of the mundane and routine tasks that are currently done by humans, people will need to focus on the things computers are less capable of doing: more creative work, more complex problemsolving, and perhaps work where emotional intelligence and a bit of gut feeling is needed – like decision-making. In other words, work will demand even more from the knowledge workers’ brains.

In today’s digital world we have access to more data and information than we can possibly ever process. But while information is free and accessible, it doesn’t automatically turn into knowledge – it is refined into knowledge through human intervention. We constantly filter, compare, interpret and apply information in order to support the ever-increasing number of decisions we need to make. But there’s only so many decisions that we can make before we run out of energy, which is when our decision-making becomes hasty or we completely fail to make decisions at all. It is called decision fatigue, the deteriorating quality and pace of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision-making. Even decisions about what to eat for dinner and what to wear count as decisions, which is why we read about people like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg wearing nearly the same outfit every day; they want to avoid spending energy on decisions that are trivial and save their brain capacity for things that matter. As the proportion of flexible workplaces is becoming more common, it’s worth reflecting on the not so often discussed perspective of flexible working: it actually adds even more decisions to our day.

In a flexible environment we not only design our work day, prioritise what to do and in which order, we also need to choose where to do it. So when an organisation moves from allocated seating to flexible, employees actually go from knowing where to sit to constantly choosing where to base themselves – which again means more decisions. This fuels the UCA environment as it adds to the feelings of ambiguity and uncertainty. And our data consistently shows that the majority of employees in flexible workplaces remain quite fixed to a single work setting, without getting the benefit of the variation of settings provided to them that would better support their activities. As many as 70% of employees working flexibly say that they perform most of their activities at a single work setting.

While we’ve often speculated that these are the employees who don’t see the benefit in using multiple settings, could some of these sedentary campers simply be running out of brain power to make yet another decision? If seemingly simple decisions about what to wear or what to eat spends a part of our brain capacity, is navigating a workplace full of choices also deteriorating our ability to make rational decisions, and increasing the risk of decision fatigue? It is worth considering, especially as nearly one in five workplaces that we measured in 2017 (with more than 50 respondents) sees more than half of their employees working from an unassigned setting. Helping employees to choose where in the office to work might be more important than we’ve thought.

It’s also worth reflecting on whether we can continue having standard work days of eight hours, if advancements in AI will mean that knowledge workers will be focusing on more complex work. Can we still be producing highlevel content at the peak of our ability for 8 – 9 hours straight? Or will it mean that work days need to be shorter – not because computers may take over some of our workload – but because we simply are not able to stay focused for that long?

And what may make staying focused even more difficult is the additional stress factor of interruptions, another main reason that workplaces are being described as VUCA. In the physical environment, we may get interrupted by colleagues who are seeking our expertise or who unintentionally interrupt us in other ways. And in the digital environment, we actually constantly interrupt ourselves. We try to multitask and focus on many things at once, with the risk of not completing any of our tasks to a high standard. And every time we get interrupted, either in the physical or digital environment, it takes energy to regain our focus. Eventually, we will run out of energy because the human brain is not an endless resource. Just as the muscles in our body get tired after even shorter very intense workouts, so does our brain. And a tired brain is less alert and might also struggle to make decisions.

So, just like the rest of our body, our brain also needs time to relax and recover after a workout. But worryingly, only 51% of the respondents in our database think that ‘relaxing / taking a break is important’. That leaves nearly half of the employees not considering breaks and a moment of recovery to be important. This is while our latest research showed that relaxing and taking a break is a super driver; it is one of five activities that are important in driving all aspects of the employee workplace experience. So not only is it important in driving employees’ experience about whether their workplace supports their work, it is also one of the main drivers for how employees feel about their organisation.

Out of those who think relaxing and taking a break is important, only 60% work in a workplace that supports relaxing and taking a break. Across the Leesman+ high-performing workplaces, 82% say that it is supported, making this activity the one with the largest gap between the global score (our entire database) and Leesman+. This is where Leesman+ workplaces really excel.

We sometimes see really inspiring results: one of our clients, who recently received a Leesman+ certificate for their outstanding office accommodating some 800 employees, introduced a library space with a variety of silent settings supporting a multitude of activities, including working with your laptop, reading, or taking a power nap. It’s no coincidence that 96% of employees in this building said that relaxing / taking a break was supported. Imagine the resilience within that organisation. But also imagine the culture of trust created by leadership saying that it is ok to have a snooze if you need it. These organisations are combatting all of the pressures of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity by making the workplace a space where employees can re-charge to face challenging problems with a fresh mind.

Simply creating the space for recovery is not enough, it has to be modelled from the top. If taking a break to read a magazine, go for a walk or a run, meditate or take a power nap is not perceived to be acceptable, then the best breakout spaces in the world cannot fix what is actually a cultural challenge. Providing a culture of rest is the first step towards combatting the negative effects that VUCA will have on individuals and, ultimately, whole organisations.

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