5-in-5 with Craig Rice – Pivoting in a crisis

In our ‘AHA’ Moments 5-in-5 leadership conversation series, we spend 5 minutes with inspiring leaders who are making a difference through their leadership, asking five critical questions of the now.

To kick-off, we are in conversation with Craig Rice, Head of Mercer Administration Services in Wollongong, to explore how Mercer Wollongong embraced an elastic workforce model quickly during the crisis. Building on existing philosophies to drive results and engagement, Mercer focused on the new normal while investing in ongoing flexibility to consider new possibilities in the workforce of the future.

What has Mercer’s journey been like transitioning through the phases of the crisis? 

I think we’ve done an exceptional job. Right across the organisation, we’ve corralled behind the global principle out of our head office in New York, which is about people first. We’ve always had policies in place that reflect that principle and this made it very easy for Mercer’s leaders to have a clear context to assist decision making.

As an organisation, Mercer has had, for several years, a concept around the flexibility of roles and a technology infrastructure that can be leveraged quickly to allow agility in work environments. For example, about a year prior, we had provided everyone with laptops. So, moving to work from home was very seamless, given our investment in business continuity practices over time.

Has your leadership style had to adapt to the crisis? 

I think it’s fair to say my style, which is to check in with people, give them the space to be able to do their work, hasn’t changed. I’m a very much an output-oriented leader, so I don’t mind how you get there, as long as you get there.

But we also needed to acknowledge that closing the gap on the connection you’d had in the office, of being able to eyeball someone, walk past them, have corridor chats, etc., had to be replaced with more targeted and mindful communication. We introduced the use of instant messenger and zoom, enforced policies around being on time for meetings and showing due respect for people – it was about adapting our style for the situational aspects.

We also surveyed our colleagues to try and understand the shifting moods during this period and the need for greater flexibility. Tapping into the most up to date sentiment has been important to address emerging issues in a timely manner.

What is the new workforce for Mercer? 

The new workforce model is around flexibility, which has been a philosophy of Mercer’s for some years. So this crisis has just proven that one area of flexibility – your environment – can work differently. Now, we’re rolling out a program that extends our different ways of working, by looking at job sharing, decompression of hours, and more. It’s going to be about tailoring individual needs, balancing business needs and breaking down some of the taboos of old school management.

It says to people that I do trust you, I am valuing your contribution, and I don’t have to micromanage you.

So, I think we’re going to see lots more people approach their team leaders and ask for permanent arrangements with flexibility around locations or hours and a host of different things. We have to be creative and smart enough to overlay the service expectations. We have an opportunity to look at the design of work, our resource profile and capacity, so that we can deliver more efficient and sustainable services.

We’ve also seen location doesn’t matter anymore and we’ve proven we can operate as a team no matter where we are, so when you look at the future of work, it’s about more opportunities, thinking and possibilities than before. It’s about creating an environment where leaders across the business realise they can make things happen and be bold enough to suggest something a little different.

What was the pivotal ‘AHA’ moment for Mercer in this time? 

What I was trying to do in that early stage, as we transitioned to work from home, was look at the broader operational trends, and this is where the Enlighten dashboards came into play. We needed the information to drive that rapid and agile decision-making.. It was critical being able to look at the macro picture of your operation and ensure your team remained informed and in control.

Whilst data is interesting, it’s about the insights that you drive from that data. The team were able to answer the big questions – has our productivity dropped, has our productivity improved, why has it improved, where has it improved, etc. It has provided insights around opportunity to optimise your business; you need to be in there understanding what’s happening day by day.

How has this shaped Mercer’s view of operational resilience for the future?

There are various stages of resilience. It starts with personal resilience; how you are coping with change, and how people have transitioned through the emotional phases of this forced change. The other part of resilience is about really making sure the context around why you are operating and what you are doing everyday fits into the broader picture.

We spent a lot of time helping people reconnect with the purpose of the business; we exist to serve our client’s members. We have had many conversations with quite distressed members, some that are financially challenged, and are really struggling in the current COVID environment. When your people align to your purpose, objectives and values, they will go that extra step, as they know they are making a difference in the lives of members at this time.

Overall business resilience comes back down to the ability to tap into your people and know when they’re going well and when they’re not. As leaders we need to reinforce the desired behaviours, show empathy and support our people deliver the service they want to provide to our clients and their members..

Get Enlighten’s insights on operational resilience for a changed future here.

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Crisis leadership. Learn more on Enlighten.