Why The Labor Problem Feels Unsolvable Right Now

How the global pandemic made a complicated problem even more complex, and what you can do to fix it.

Danielle Riha
February 1, 2022

In a recent webinar by The Garden Continuum, host Monique Allen set out to show attendees how to “stop hunting & start attracting perfect fit employees.” It was geared towards landscaping business owners, but the lessons are relevant across all blue-collar industries.

Before going through the three-step framework she developed for building a dream team, she spent 30 very important minutes digging into the reasons why the labor problem feels so unsolvable right now. This kind of critical thinking exercise can be especially motivating because if you can understand why a problem feels insurmountable to you, it will help diminish your fears and anxieties surrounding it. As we’ll cover later in the blog post, Monique says to “Name it, claim it, and reframe it.”

Screenshot of Garden Continuum Webinar with Monique Allen

Here’s how she broke it all down:

We Are Living in V.U.C.A.

VUCA is an acronym coined by the U.S. Army War College used to describe “the more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous multilateral world perceived as resulting from the end of the Cold War.” Today, we can use the same acronym to describe life in a post-Covid world.

V - Volatile (things are always changing)

U - Uncertain (inability to predict the future)

C - Complex (many interconnected factors at play)

A - Ambiguous (a lack of clarity about how to interpret it all)

This is also where the phrase “the fog of war” came from. In a new environment with no indication of what the future holds and no clear direction for the best next steps to take, it’s like going to work blindfolded, or navigating your way through a thick, dense fog.

Hiring and retaining employees in this new post-Covid world is the very definition of VUCA. Everyone—employees and owners alike—is struggling to figure it out and make sense of it all. It’s important to keep in mind that you are not the only one feeling confused, frustrated, unsure about what to do next, or if you’re even doing the right thing at all. It is simply the nature of the beast before us.

Simple vs. Complicated vs. Complex Problems

All problems are not created equal. They can be ranked according to how prevalent the elements of VUCA are within the issue.

Simple Problems

  • An easily identifiable cause-and-effect relationship
  • The context of the problem is subject to little, if any, change
  • The realm of “known knowns”
  • Problem is solved by: assessing the facts, categorizing them, and basing a response on established practice

Over-simplified example: My stomach rumbles. I categorize the sensation as hunger. Usually when I’m hungry, eating solves that problem, so I make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and eat it. Problem solved.

Complicated Problems

  • May contain multiple right answers
  • Cause-and-effect relationship exists, but may not be obvious to all
  • The realm of “known unknowns”
  • Problem is solved by: assessing the facts, analyzing them, and basing a response on any one of the multiple options that could be right

Over-simplified example: Same situation as above, except when I get to the kitchen, I am out of supplies to make a sandwich. Multiple possible solutions exist. I could make something other than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I could place an order for delivery. I could go out to eat at a restaurant. I could go to the grocery and purchase the supplies I ran out of. All are viable options that might end in cessation of my hunger. In fact, multiple solutions might bring me the same result!

Complex Problems

  • Many interconnected factors at play
  • The realm of “unknown unknowns”
  • Typically, a major change introduces unpredictability and volatility into the situation
  • Problem is solved by: probing to learn more about the dynamics of the factors at play, developing a theory about what is happening, and letting a solution emerge

Over-simplified example: Same situation as above, except I’m not at home right now with access to my kitchen, I don’t have a vehicle to get around, it’s 10:30 at night, and I also have to feed the rest of my family. Someone suggests renting Lime scooters and riding to get food, but then we learn nothing nearby is open and go back to the drawing board. Someone else suggests Ubering to the grocery, but we don’t have access to a kitchen, so we can’t prepare anything. This process continues until we find a late night pizza joint on the other side of town that’s a $100 Uber drive away. Not ideal, but gets the job done. And we’ve learned how to better prepare so that next time we’re in this situation, we can handle it better.

Here's a slide from Monique's presentation summarizing the difference between simple, complicated and complex problems:

Webinar Preview: STOP Hunting, START Attracting Your Perfect Fit Employees

Covid Made Recruiting More Complex Than Ever Before

Recruiting used to be a simple and linear process: recruit, retain, release. In more recent years (before the pandemic) it was becoming a complicated problem—somewhat predictable, but not reliably predictable—due to new technologies on the market, new generations entering the workforce, and changing habits in the way we communicate.

But today, we are walking through the fog of Covid. Things are always changing, no one knows what the future holds, and the effects of the pandemic continue to ripple through nearly every aspect of our lives. The labor problem by itself isn’t new, but within the context of Covid, it is. And it’s unbelievably complex.

So what can we do? Downgrade the problem from complex to complicated. How? Start by probing to learn more about the dynamics of the factors at play. Then, use those learnings to develop theories about what is happening, and start making incremental changes in response.

Two things to keep in mind:

1. Measure a baseline before you start making changes, and compare against that baseline over time.

A complex problem is solved by “letting solutions emerge.” Sometimes it might be obvious when a solution isn’t working, but in other instances you may need to rely on data to make that call.

If you’re not already, start tracking the numbers in your hiring funnel: number of applicants, number of interviews, number of new hires, average days from application to hired, amount spent on recruiting ads, etc.

2. Make incremental changes over time.

Change—as Monique put it in the webinar—freaks people out. Change has elements of VUCA and thus gives people anxiety. So, clearly communicate all forthcoming changes and what they mean, and then implement those changes slowly over time. (If needed, it’s also easier to course-correct when changes are made incrementally instead of all at once.)

After identifying possible solutions, starting to put them in place, and continuing to experiment and refine those processes, the issues that arise should start to become somewhat predictable. It won’t be a perfect system, but better than before. Then rinse and repeat as you continue to optimize and refine, always with the goal of simplifying and standardizing your processes until they’re linear and trainable.

Solving The Labor Problem

So, back to the "unsolvable" labor problem. The most important thing you can do right now is determine where there is a lack of clarity in your business (even if you don’t have a solution) because a lack of clarity creates VUCA. Monique says to “Name it, claim it, and reframe it,” before you lose the staff you already have.

Talk to your team regularly, not just this one time. Engage with them on a consistent basis, be candid and vulnerable with them about what you know and don’t know. Create psychological safety, and they’ll return the favor in spades with valuable insight about problems you might not have visibility to. And remember: the solutions will not be obvious and readily available; you have to let them emerge, and then test them to see if they work. Double down when they do, and go back to the drawing board when they don’t.

In the second half of this webinar presentation, Monique shared her three-step framework for solving the complex labor problem, which you can use to start letting solutions emerge at your own organization. It begins with assessing your current team and making sure there is a long-term plan for their growth and development within the company. Then she covers brand awareness within the context of hiring, because “recruiting is marketing.” Lastly, she explains why and how to make recruiting an evergreen activity that you’re always engaging in, regardless of how many open positions you have.

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