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March 18, 2020

VUCA and Coronavirus

Simon Bell

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented. We face changes to our working lives, our social lives, and our freedom of movement. Global financial markets plunge, recover, and plunge again. Whole countries go into lockdown.

Even if we're not personally affected at the moment, chances are, people we know are self-isolating. We all have to come to terms with the fact that it could be us next.  

When United States Army War College planners came up with the VUCA model, they were reacting to the end of the Cold War. The model addressed a world suddenly shorn of certainties, in which events were Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous – hence the acronym. They may not have had a pandemic in mind, but coronavirus is as VUCA as it gets. 

Coming to Terms With Coronavirus

I was skeptical to start with. Was this such a big deal? It seemed to be basically a re-run of the SARS panic from 2002. A nasty dose of flu for a few people in faraway places, and then everything would be back to normal. I read projections of possible casualty figures with a raised eyebrow. 

That initial attitude has changed, as the pandemic comes closer to home. My mother is elderly, and therefore part of a high-risk group – even though she denies it indignantly. My elder son is at university in a city which recorded one of the first cases of COVID-19 in the country. He has a history of asthma, which might make COVID-19 more dangerous. My flippant skepticism has given way to anxiety.  

And now I'm faced with the prospect of a long-term office closure which requires me to do my job remotely. No more friendly co-workers about the place; no more coffee-break laughs. I'm a naturally laid-back sort of person, but I'm starting to notice symptoms of stress.

Finding the Positives

So I try to be positive. When it comes to work, I'm lucky. My experience as a freelancer means that I'm used to the discipline of working while home alone. As long as I've got my laptop and Wi-Fi, I'm good to go.  

Others aren't so fortunate. You can't take your work home if you're a construction worker, a bus driver, or a nurse. And even for those who can simply stay home and do the same job as they did in an office, the sense of isolation and dislocation is sudden and intense. 

Being Flexible in a VUCA World

VUCA indeed. So how do we react to the threats coronavirus poses? Well, we all have to understand that things are going to have to change. We may not like that: well, too bad.

Flexibility is going to be a must. At the very least we need to find ways to work as effectively as possible beyond our usual comfort zones. On a positive note, this situation may drive us to learn new skills and embrace new technology.

Staying in Touch

Good communication is crucial, even when face-to-face meetings aren't possible. And we need to communicate not just to be good co-workers, but good people, too.

Sharing information means sharing the right information, not rumor and speculation. There are ways to stay safe and minimize your exposure. Your organization, and your government, should be promoting them. You need to know what they are, and understand how you have to follow them.

Loneliness and isolation can be a real challenge to good mental health, particularly for those who aren't used to them, so keep as many channels of communication open as you can, in work and outside. Phone people you think might be struggling, or share a coffee and a chat over a video link.

That kind of contact is particularly valuable for people struggling to cope with sick family members, or having their kids unexpectedly sent home from school.

Facing a VUCA Future

It's pretty clear that this is going to be a long haul. Many people face the prospect of having their lives turned upside down for months. It really hit home for me when I realized I might not see my mother again, face to face, until after the summer.

But on the other hand, I can Skype her. And I'm already starting to discover and master other remote working tools. Maybe we'll find innovative ways to get by after all.

A friend of mine lives in Italy, where a near-total quarantine has been in place for a while. On the balconies of apartments throughout the country banners have appeared bearing a simple three-word phrase: "Andra tutto bene": "everything will be all right."

As a communal statement of hope it couldn't be simpler, or more moving. And it's something to hold on to.

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