Leading Your Workforce Through Uncertainty and Change
As executive leaders, we are being put to the test and must rise to the challenge of leading our workforce through today’s unprecedented change and uncertainty. At Udemy, we are fortunate to have great leaders across the company, from HR to IT to Product, coming together to devise, implement, and communicate our response quickly as events unfolded in real-time. While we are continually improving and evolving our response as leaders, here are a few tips and lessons learned from our experience on how to lead through change and uncertainty.
Calm is more valuable than panic
This might seem obvious, but when you are feeling seemingly infinite stress is the exact moment your team needs to see you calm. It can be hard to remember that in a time of crisis, leaders should strive to exude a sense of calm. Remember calm is more impactful than panic. Your employees will look to you to determine their own sentiment. It’s crucial for leaders to be the calm in the storm and show confidence in the path you’re taking. Demonstrating you’re the unflappable captain navigating your ship through uncharted waters is crucial. Showing that you are prepared as an organization, informed as a leader, and making calculated and strategic decisions in a time of crisis builds confidence.
Authenticity as a leader
Be sure to show your authenticity and vulnerability as a leader. Calm is important, but authenticity means avoiding sugar-coating your communications; instead, be transparent and straightforward about the situation. Employees appreciate this honesty. Today’s environment requires you to show your vulnerable side and bring your whole self to work as a leader. As you work remotely, this might be including your dog in your Zoom meeting or letting your kids run by in the background. The more employees see a 360-degree view or the “human side” of their leader, the more confident and trusting they will feel about your leadership.
Overcommunicate and lead with empathy
We strive to always put our people and communities at the forefront of our decision-making. Empathy and communication are the most important priorities for us to lead our workforce and business through this time of change and uncertainty. And we’re communicating more than ever at Udemy. We’re hosting more frequent all-hands meetings, Q&A sessions, weekly casual “Kitchen Table” talks via Zoom, and we’re reaching out directly to employees. It’s not just about communicating the big things but also connecting with people on a personal level. For example, this might mean posting fun photos of ourselves on our Slack channel or participating in our virtual pet happy hour.
However, as a leader, you have to think carefully about how you communicate in our new remote world. Leaders often transmit their feelings about the business through subtle body language, but employees can’t see these cues in a remote environment. Conversely, video conferences can magnify even the most subtle of nonverbal cues. Check in with yourself and think about what your words, tone, voice, and entire manner are communicating. How do we replicate nonverbal communication and casual hallway conversations? To compensate for this, overcommunicate to every group possible, watch every signal, and be intentional about the message you’re sending to the team.
Tap into key stakeholders as your “response team”
In any crisis, the first step is to create a small response team of key stakeholders. We had daily standup meetings for our executive leadership team to discuss the rapidly unfolding situation and strategize our response. The leadership team monitored the latest news, kept pace with local and national health authorities, and followed how large enterprises were responding to the situation. Our top concern is our employees and their families’ health and safety. Nothing is more important. We are also laser-focused on how Udemy can help our students, instructor partners, and customers in this trying time.
As a second step, we created several working groups to conduct scenario planning across several business continuity issues. For example, one working group focused on what it would mean if we all worked from home. Another group analyzed possible scenarios on how our product would be impacted. In our scenario planning, we focused on reacting to what might occur in the next two weeks. In a fast-moving crisis, we were planning for what will happen next, rather than the current situation. Being predictive in our scenario planning enabled us to move quickly and announce mandatory remote work to help protect our employees and community.
Build a resilient organization
An organization that is able to navigate these fast-changing and uncertain times usually lays the groundwork long before the crisis hits. There are several elements of our company that helped us be prepared and resilient in this time of change. Here are a few key elements that can help an organization be resilient in uncertain times:
- Agile planning principles
We already used an agile planning process which we’ve been implementing across functions to meet our quarterly and annual goals. Having this muscle enabled us to put together a rapid response plan on-the-fly.
Moreover, we can’t stay on autopilot with our goals and strategy and charge straight ahead. We have to ask ourselves: What has changed? What doesn’t matter anymore? What really matters now? We are constantly re-examining everything we’re doing in this new world. At the same time, alignment absolutely matters. If we’re all not rowing in the same direction, we’re just going in circles.
- Cutting-edge IT infrastructure with built-in redundancies
We were already building our IT infrastructure to be the “best of breed” to support a globally distributed workforce. This included video conferencing, Slack communication tools, and key digital project management tools. As part of long-term preparedness and resilience, our Engineering Infrastructure team also built redundancies into our cloud server infrastructure by relying on multiple cloud and internet providers to ensure our business can continue without any downtime even during a crisis.
With more people around the world spending time at home and learning new skills online, traffic to Udemy.com has increased dramatically in recent weeks. However, our infrastructure could scale quickly, enabling us to respond to a sudden spike in traffic and usage on our product. Our Engineering Infrastructure team has been essential in adding capacity to ensure tens of millions of learners, instructors, and customers have access to our platform when they need it.
As an e-commerce and SaaS business, redundancies in our IT infrastructure were critical for our business continuity and preparedness. For other businesses, preparing for a crisis might involve building in redundancies and diversity in your supply chain.
- Learning mindset and change agility
In addition, it’s essential to develop change agility within your organization and workforce. At Udemy, we’ve been working on developing this competency over the last year and are seeing the payoff in these uncertain times. This isn’t about the traditional approach to change management where we think through how to cascade change down. Instead, we focus on helping individuals build the skills necessary to thrive in changing environments. For example, because we’re a fast-changing startup, we developed a Change Agent workshop to help our employees build change agility and resilience. Our workshop incorporated escape room puzzles and quick-changing rules to simulate an environment of surprise and sudden change. We recently took this workshop virtual for our remote workforce to help our teams develop the tools and mindsets to navigate the current situation of change and uncertainty.
- Workforce planning
Workforce planning is a vital element of business resilience and crisis preparedness. Managers need to take an inventory of skills at the team level to understand which individuals can help employees impacted by the pandemic or crisis. You’ll want to support employees who need to take time out to care for a child or a loved one. For example, having a buddy system for employees to cover each other’s jobs if someone is out is prudent planning even without a crisis. Upskilling and reskilling employees is also another strategy for short-and long-term workforce resource planning.
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Plan for what’s next
Post-COVID-19, there’s no doubt that what we’re experiencing now will fundamentally shift how we work. Remote work is happening at scale and will become more accepted. This opens up the talent pool to candidates in all geographies, not just in the cities where you have offices. Business travel and conference attendance will likely be re-evaluated. Online learning has officially gone mainstream. Our instructors are helping millions of students around the world in a time where learning has never been more important. Businesses, governments, and organizations are focused on supporting their employees right now, and they’re turning to online learning. Outdated training models have been thrown out overnight, and companies are pivoting to virtual, asynchronous approaches.
Organizations need to start thinking about what happens in a post-COVID-19 workplace. Will they let people choose to work remotely if they prefer? Will they need a smaller office footprint as a result? Now that learning has gone digital, will they continue to rely on digital learning tools as part of their training resources? Will organizations reduce business travel to only what’s essential? These are some of the lasting effects that might redefine the workplace over the next few years.
We are living through an unprecedented time which will no doubt go down in our history books. There are many lessons learned and challenges for leaders as we lead our workforce through this uncertain time and keep our employees safe. We’re doing our best to run the business prudently, understand and anticipate what’s happening, and chart an intelligent path through a fast-changing situation.