VUCA bootcamp: not a freakin’ work in progress!

The acronym VUCA has been around for a while, but never has it been more relevant or real than it is today. COVID-19 has been the ultimate bootcamp to working under conditions of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. When we think about the impact this pandemic has had on the global workforce to say that this has been a true VUCA environment is an understatement.

We would like to share a glimpse into how Spotify tackled VUCA in 2020: 

Volatility: COVID-19 has created an environment that is both unstable and unexpected. Spotify has been trying to decrease the amount of volatility this pandemic has had on our people by proactively resourcing and planning for the challenges that our workforce faces as we all adapt to living with COVID-19. In early March, we asked all our employees to WFH (work from home) as well as cease all business-related travel. Understanding that thrusting people into a remote working environment overnight would have many short and long term challenges for them to adapt to. Therefore, we immediately went into emergency planning mode, proactively addressing topics such as expensing IT equipment for home use, planning a WFH food program, shifting our learning & development sessions and Px (People Experience) events from live sessions to virtual sessions, as well as increasing focus on health and wellbeing throughout these very difficult times. There never was a playbook built for this situation, so we had to draft it as we were executing it. Our culture at Spotify is built on controlled chaos, operating with speed, testing without fear of failing and collaboration, so our cultural DNA helped tremendously with limiting the amount of volatility that COVID-19 has created. Operating in this volatile environment is, in a profound way, something that Spotify has prepared all of us for.

Uncertainty: As COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, this pandemic seems to be creating more questions than answers: we are absolutely living in a world of uncertainty. Given these unprecedented times, we all feel a loss of control and stability in our lives. Our most effective solution to mitigate this uncertainty is simple….over communicate, over communicate, over communicate! Even when there is nothing to update, sending an update to our employees to let them know that there’s nothing to update them on, has been helpful. Also, in uncertain times, showing vulnerability as leaders is tremendously important. Discussing uncomfortable topics such as grieving in isolation due to losing a loved one, the impact of mental wellbeing, depression, stress, challenges of being a parent WFH full time and living in isolation, are all topics we’ve been discussing together on company-wide communication platforms. Providing support and empathy while guiding Spotifiers to the right resources has helped many of them stay grounded through this uncertain time. Never underestimate the impact and power of empathy, sympathy, and compassion when communicating during these difficult times.

Complexity: COVID-19 has created an environment of increased complexity on so many levels, both at home and at work. Really simple tasks such as walking into the office and getting into an elevator can become more complex with COVID-19 and social distancing rules. Being able to walk over to your coworker to ask a quick question or just see how that person’s day is going now requires a few IM’s, finding a time where both people can connect on video calls, etc. And at Spotify, we acknowledge the added complexity and challenges that COVID-19 has put upon us. Whilst in many cases, these added layers of complexity are out of our control, we have focused on one area where we as an employer do have the influence to help create a less complex environment for our people by offering our employees the most valuable commodity for them to own: time. We have entrusted Spotifiers to create the schedule that best works for them to get through COVID-19 and our remote working situation. This is the ultimate test in time-management with the important first step of making sure Spotifiers know and understand that they own their calendar, not their managers. By doing this we’ve made room for creating the balance that works for them, given their personal situations at home. We’ve also been actively encouraging Spotifiers to take the time off they need to continue to have a good work-life balance. 

Ambiguity: Can you remember a time where life has been more ambiguous than it is today? The COVID-19 updates we receive from public health organizations are often confusing, and (depending on what country you live in) contradicting messages on best practices is not helpful. This ambiguity also naturally seeps into our workplace, and we found that in times of ambiguity, creating clarity on the things that we can control within our sphere of influence is key. Given our state of vulnerability, creating safe boundaries and being clear on what our company philosophy and guidelines are helps mitigate fear and anxiety that ambiguity often creates. Simply put, over communicating in an honest, transparent, empathetic, and clear way with regular cadence helps to alleviate a lot of ambiguity. It’s not rocket science, but it is easier said than done. 

In 2020, life for all of us has changed and the term VUCA has moved from a philosophical “future of work” trending topic to today’s workforce reality. There is no playbook on how to address this unprecedented event, and at Spotify we’re doing our best to manage this as safely as possible for our people, while also learning from the experience ourselves. This is a time when strong leadership and living company values are more important than ever. We recognize that life will be a bit more uncomfortable, working conditions will not be ideal, things may get worse before they get better, but we believe that we can get through this together and come out stronger than ever before, actually embracing this new VUCA world we’re all living in. Taking care of people, and creating a sense of security has never been more important. This is the time when company values will be tested, and those companies that live by their values will be much better equipped to survive this pandemic than companies that do not. 

Stay safe everyone and don’t forget to take a break!

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Michael is a highly accomplished global Human Resources leader with over 15 years of experience in strategizing and implementing global talent initiatives that drive business results and improves both employee and company performance. He is a trusted business partner to C-level and executive management teams with an extensive record of executing high impact global talent solutions.

Michael currently serves as Head of HR APAC at Spotify, where he is responsible for driving the overall people strategy for the region. His innovative design of Spotify’s revamped parental leave program has received global recognition for taking the #leadonleave for companies supporting families, establishing work life balance, and driving inclusivity within the workplace.

Michael has worked across a broad spectrum of industries including Technology, Investment Banking & Markets, Media, and Advertising. Prior to joining Spotify, Michael was a Vice President of Human Capital Management at Goldman Sachs, where he was responsible for leading strategic people initiatives across the Technology division globally.