Interview: How do you lead back from the home office?

By new, VUCA Blog

The first teams return from the home office, the lockdown becomes looser.

Dr. Britta Müller (BM) from the Coaching Gesellschaft team interviews Waltraud Glaeser (WG), process facilitator, initiator and owner of the popular website, about what this means for collaboration and how managers can deal appropriately with the return from the home office. Waltraud Glaeser works with her clients as a process facilitator in change processes and runs the website as an expert.

BM: On the VUCA-World website you were already addressing a hot topic more than five years ago. As a VUCA expert what has your experience of the current situation been?

WG: Although up to now, VUCA has been a familiar term, it was still often very abstract and not necessarily "accessible". The term referred to volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

The direct transferability to one's own experience, one's own concerns, differed greatly depending on who was looking into the matter.

As the term is starting to be used more frequently, the most common reaction is driven by curiosity to know what VUCA stands for. It was interesting to see that there was a sense of at least being able to explain what the acronym stands for to be able to join the conversation. Individuals feel the need to assign/classify another buzzword, a phenomenon I also observed with the concept of “New Work”.

When asked which of the four issues – volatility, uncertainty, complexity or ambiguity – was specifically conceivable or applicable to their own situation (especially in organisations), “complexity” was mentioned the most. However, sometimes I was under the impression that that specific term had already been overused for some time in the context of globalisation, Industry 4.0, Digital Transformation, etc. The term is thus already employed and specific consulting techniques have also been developed (see authors such as Niels Pfläging, Lars Vollmer, holacracy methods).

Based on my own observations, the thing that distinguishes the current situation, triggered by Covid-19, is that every person – regardless of their role in an organisation – is now experiencing their very own VUCA world and can, within a very short time, specifically determine how the four VUCA factors manifest themselves. VUCA is therefore no longer a topic that is only addressed in a business context, but it actually describes our experience in an absolutely comprehensible way and with tangible clarity.

Volatility as a term was previously more likely to be associated with events on the stock market, but now describes the dynamics and non-existent predictability of the development of a virus and all the resulting restrictions and uncertainties. The uncertainty about life has, in some cases, even resulted in suicides (Hessian Finance Minister Thomas Schäfer, as well as another victim from the Hessian Finance Department; I have also heard of cases in companies that have not been released to the press). I am very shocked by this and it has had an emotional impact. The complexity of the situation is emphasised by the support packages offered by the government, which seem to make it almost impossible to take every specific need into consideration. Ambiguity is highlighted by the different groups of epidemiological experts who have provided differing evaluations and recommendations. This provides you with one example per VUCA factor.

BM: Let's look ahead: What do you believe is important when people return to their workplaces after working from home?

WG: An essential point to consider when returning to work is that people must be given space to communicate and describe their own experience of this VUCA Covid-19 world. They are justified in expecting people to be interested. There will be no "let's get back to work". Just because work is now being completed in the office again does not mean that things have returned to normal.

Depending on how long this return to normality takes for each person, in the meantime everyone has gained their own experiences and has developed their own way of processing these events.

On the one side, there are fears and insecurities. For example, about what has or will actually remain of the "old" way of life. People liked a lot of the old ways, everything was "arranged" or a routine had been established, something that is necessary for people and which should not be disregarded as a supposed comfort zone. This previous "order" guaranteed reliability and stability.

On the other hand, people will return to work in the office realising that even though they were forced out of necessity to accept a new kind of working day at home with all its adversities (such as childcare), they may have actually discovered and experienced the advantages or even how much fun it could be. The topics of self-determination, autonomy, leadership through trust and redeeming responsibility were put to the test for numerous weeks. It became possible to check and validate one's previous perspective on these topics. People may have even developed new incentives, ideas and plans for their own life. Values have changed or have a new meaning. People were able to make use of their skills and experiences in a completely new context. Personal VUCA fitness was strengthened. "Learning by doing" was the order of the day, perfectionism took a break, pragmatism and a view of what was feasible set the tone in the home office. All of this has left its mark and these marks may be visible. Above all, people will want to share their experiences, which parts they enjoyed and which they didn’t, how well they mastered it over all, while also evaluating what the experience may have been useful and helpful for. This is referred to as separating the good from the bad in the coaching sector.



BM: And how can managers best prepare themselves for this?

WG: In my view, managers can prepare themselves for their return to their management role in "familiar" surroundings, away from the virtual space and their home office, by drawing their very own "map" of experiences, insights and intentions for the future. On the one hand, this enables them to process their own experiences of this break due to Covid-19. On the other hand, it provides them with a level of credibility that is easily communicated and allows for closer relationships. It will be important to share one's experiences and to show a genuine interest in the experiences of employees. In other words, not "prescribed" empathy but credible compassion and empathy.

Managers would do well to make use of their existing knowledge of change management or to acquire it as quickly as possible. In this instance I am particularly referring to emotionally dealing with change. There are very effective tools such as the change curve or the "cycle of grief and change" according to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, which, by the way, can also be used like a map or route plan for guidance and future plans.

Another tool to ensure they are well prepared is their own understanding of leadership. The fact that the so-called heroic leader is a discontinued model in VUCA times was well established even before Covid-19. In practice, there are many examples of managers who have already abandoned this self-image and actually put it into practice. Be it in models of democratic leadership, through the introduction of agile principles, through working models such as holocracy, but also by getting rid of boardrooms or their own offices as a status symbol and features that distinguishes the hierarchy. There are certainly many more examples. Management requirements, the understanding of what is necessary but also what rights the management has, what management must and should achieve – these are definitely areas that need to be highlighted and which should be part of the discourse with those being managed.

There are also recommendations on what management needs more of during VUCA times. These include things such as bringing the sense of joint action into focus, naming and concentrating on common problems, focusing on values and authentic solutions, improvisation, experimentation, defining a culture of error, questioning the hierarchy already cited, clarifying roles and ensuring the acceptance of clarified responsibilities, promoting networks, managing in an intuitive, agile way according to the situation and based on results and needs, i.e. leading appropriately.

This is all still very abstract and open to interpretation. For this purpose, it must be substantiated and based on experiences to ensure traceability.

BM: What skills do managers need to lead their organisations well in the months following lockdown? I am, for example, thinking about the consequences of the recession, but also of the possibility that we will experience phases of recurring, temporary lockdowns.

WG: From now on, one thing will not be in doubt: VUCA is no longer a buzzword that you may have heard at some point and for which you can at best briefly explain its concept. VUCA will be used to determine markets, industries, organisations, people and all interactions between the system and individuals. Its characteristics and corresponding solutions will remain individual and will probably require even more differentiation.

To date, the skills required by managers to deal with a VUCA world have been described as follows:

Volatility requires anticipating and reacting to the nature and speed of change. Uncertainty can be countered by taking decisive action without always having clear direction and security. Complexity was a synonym for navigating through chaos and confusion, "driving by sight" so to speak. Finally, ambiguity was to be countered by maintaining effectiveness despite constant surprises and a lack of predictability.

These are certainly good recommendations and also include skills that can make it easier for managers to fulfil their leadership role after Covid-19. However, I believe speaking about "after" Covid-19 provides false hope. It will probably be about managing with Covid-19 (or possibly another corona virus) for a very long time.

The term "new normality", which is being used more frequently now, must be filled with life. It needs a specific but dynamic definition. During my change training with Klaus Doppler, I made a note of a sentence that was quite striking at the time and which, despite its seemingly trivial statement, is anything but trivial: "People need clarity, security and order". In my experience, managers must make even more of an effort to develop and train the skills to "pause", "tolerate", "look", and "listen". "Stopping" must not be seen as a weakness or inadequacy, but as a prerequisite for discussing, agreeing and living the characteristics of the new normality and presumably also of the future normality in conjunction with the people in a company.

It will be important to specify what will remain, but also what will change, what this means for the individual(s), what makes sense and what are the benefits, but also what this means for the responsibility assumed for common results (qualitative and quantitative).

Managers in the post-Corona era will be allowed to give up their educational tasks which they may have had to provide for their own children in their home office. They are allowed to trust in the ability of the people they are managing to deal with VUCA scenarios. They are allowed to offer help and support where it is asked for and really needed. They are allowed to admit their own vulnerability and exhaustion and work together to alleviate the situation and find solutions.

In doing so, they will demonstrate the previously mentioned and necessary levels of credibility and willingness for closer relationships, which, I believe, has been missed in the times of Covid-19 along with clarity, security and order.


BM: Dear Waltraud, thank you very much for your time and your clear, orderly view of what is needed next!