HR is all about supporting employees and keeping things running smoothly for them and the organisation. But it’s one thing to do that on a straight track with no obstacles. Real life is rarely so simple. Unexpected things can happen in even the dullest of offices, which is why we need to get used to managing uncertainty at work.

Office life is usually one of routine. Maybe you’ll have a team stand-up in the morning, then get started on your tasks for the day. Break for lunch and come back refreshed. Perhaps there’ll be another meeting, or maybe you’ll have the rest of the day to focus on work. Update your goal-tracking, log off, clock out and go home.

Pretty simple, eh? But a hypothetical schedule is a lot like a sterile research environment. The expectations it creates rarely survive contact with reality. That’s what we mean when we talk about uncertainty in the workplace.

Now, we’re not saying a hands-off approach is bad or anything. HR should enable managers to lead teams in the ways they feel best. Different management styles all have their own benefits and applications. But there will always be times when it’s on managers to take the wheel to support their team. And HR must help them do it.

What causes uncertainty at work?

Unexpected things happen all the time. So, unless you interned with the Oracle at Delphi, you’ve no way of knowing what’s on the horizon. That means managing uncertainty at work is easier said than done.

Things like sudden illnesses, technical issues, or a fire alarm interrupting a busy crunch period. But random happenstance isn’t the only thing you have to worry about. Uncertainty can also be the result of issues in workplace culture. Or even national or global events that nobody in your business has any control over. Let’s go into more detail…

The thing about uncertainty is that it’s… well, uncertain. The name wouldn’t be very fitting if you knew exactly where it was going to come from, would it?

All the same, there are some common types of issues that managers have to deal with. So, while we can’t account for everything, we’ve established some categories of unpredictability, complete with examples. It’s worth having an idea of what you might have to deal with. After all, being able to think ahead can make managing uncertainty at work at least a little easier.

Poor communication can lead to uncertainty

When we talk about issues with your work culture, poor communication is more or less what it boils down to. At least, as far as workplace uncertainty goes. Lack of effective communication will negatively impact just about every level of your business. And these issues can crop up in all kinds of ways.

Poor policy communication results in employees not knowing how to handle certain things. They might not know how to pursue an issue with HR, or the rules around booking time off. They might unintentionally break rules, or do something hazardous.

Presumed awareness is another recurring problem. The grapevine being what it is, it’s easy to assume any information you’ve shared has become public knowledge. But that assumption can bite you when it comes to informing your people. If something important comes up organically in a meeting, add it to the minutes and don’t forget it may still need a formal announcement.

Then there’s selective communication. This may be through a lack of transparency, where leaders shut employees out of important developments. Or it might be through a lack of equal access to lines of communication. For example, remote workers often miss out on key information because it was discussed verbally, in-person. In 2022, 17% of surveyed remote workers cited issues with communication and collaboration as their biggest struggle.

Uncertainty thrives when there are rapid changes at work

It’s been said that real change is a slow-moving thing. But, if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that change can happen very suddenly. And that’s as true for the world of work as it is for the world at large. That’s why managing uncertainty at work is such a vital skill for leaders to have.

All kinds of huge decisions happen at the corporate level that can have world-shaking consequences for employees at the bottom. Mergers, acquisitions, lay-offs, successes, failures. For an example of this, you only need look at how quickly things changed at Twitter since Elon Musk bought out the social media platform.

And, quite often, people in HR and management aren’t that much more informed than the people they’re responsible for. So, quite often, managing uncertainty at work means responding quickly to find the best way of supporting employees.

Societal events have increased uncertainty often

Inevitably, things happen on the macro level that affect all of us. The COVID pandemic. The ’08 financial crash. The war in Ukraine. As we learned in 2020, managing uncertainty at work is never more important than in times of crisis. When lockdown was in full swing, people across the country (and entire world) were stuck not knowing if they’d even have a job by the next day.

These are the kinds of developments that can make or break a business. How HR handles times like these will have far-reaching consequences across your business. We’ll be going into that more in a bit. But, for now, we’ll say this: If your ship seems like it’s about to sink, you can’t really blame people for heading to the lifeboats.

Employee’s personal lives and decisions are key causes for uncertainty

Everyone in your business is their own person with their own motivations, wants and needs. Sometimes, those motivations will push them to work harder and go the extra mile. But, other times, they can push people out of your work culture.

People might decide on a change of sector, or take a better-paying job elsewhere. The wrong person quitting at the wrong time can complicate important projects, and even screw up your succession planning.

Then there are the things outside of your employees’ control. Family emergencies, health problems, bereavement and all the other unpleasantness in life. Managing uncertainty at work in this case means supporting employees. But also means finding ways to mitigate the problems they can cause.

What uncertainty can do to a business

Uncertainty is a mess that will gum up the workings of your business like nothing else. And, to make things even more complicated for HR, there are consequences on every level to watch out for.

How uncertainty impacts an organisation

When it comes to any business, efficiency is essential. But uncertainty is the death of that. Organisation-wide uncertainty makes it difficult to accomplish anything. problems include:

  • Different departments struggling to collaborate.
  • Counter-intuitive projects working against each other.
  • Widespread disengagement and even turnover.

Then there are the organisational effects of big societal events to consider:

  • Economic uncertainty puts jobs on the line.
  • The company’s stability can be thrown into jeopardy.
  • Mergers and acquisitions become more likely.

For example, the economic fallout of COVID-19 caused 114 million people to lose their jobs in 2020 worldwide. And it’s not always layoffs. Uncertainty due to poor communication or lack of transparency is a recipe for high disengagement and even turnover.

How uncertainty impacts individual employees

As the people on the ground, individual employees experience some of the greatest levels of uncertainty. And, for individuals, it’s a clear and present threat to their wellbeing. A lack of certainty adds to the job stress people already deal with every day. This can include:

  • Fears about job security
  • Lack of clarity about their own performance
  • Uncertainty about career prospects.
  • Lack of awareness/understanding of issues affecting the business

When you aren’t transparent with people, you limit their ability to make informed decisions. In those situations, people may panic or switch off entirely. And, trust us, neither outcome is good. So, managing uncertainty at work means keeping people informed.

How uncertainty impacts teams at work

At the midpoint between the organisation and individual, we have the team. As their primary point of contact, it’s a manager’s job to keep their team informed. But it’s HR’s role to support them in that aim.

As with organisational uncertainty, an uncertain team will struggle to work together effectively. On top of that, a lack of transparency can cause the perception of favoritism.

For example, rewarding high performers, but not being clear on the criteria. This kind of thing can build resentment and alienate team members. Even if they’re not at each other’s throats, perceived unfairness can disincentivize hard work.

How to manage uncertainty at work well

Hopefully, by now, we’ve given you some idea of how problematic uncertainty can be. So, the question remains, how can HR start managing uncertainty at work more effectively? Well, to finish up, we thought it’d be best to leave you with a few pointers:

Check-in and communicate with your people frequently

Don’t forget that poor communication is behind most cases of workplace uncertainty. The best way to combat it is by checking in with your people regularly. Keep them in the loop on the latest developments. But, even more importantly, see what they think. Employee insight is one of the strongest tools in HR’s disposal.

With a formal check-in system, you’ll even have documentation for everything that gets brought up. No more ‘best guesses’ and ‘as I remember it’ moments when reporting back how people are doing. Which actually leads into our next tip…

Digital-first documentation for as much feedback as possible

With hybrid workplaces becoming more common, and with important conversations going by the wayside, one thing is clear. We need better documentation across the board. Things like accessible meeting transcripts and ongoing feedback documentation.

And, most importantly, it needs to all be accessible online. In a hybrid workplace, documentation that’s only accessible in-office might as well not exist. Even if most of your people are office-based, a remote-first approach is best. That’s because, if a remote worker can access something, anyone in your business can!

Supporting employee wellbeing is essential

Managing uncertainty at work is just another facet of tackling employee wellbeing. In uncertain times, people need to have faith that their employer is looking out for them. But it’s hard for employees to have faith if HR has neglected their wellbeing up to this point.

So, if you want your people to be resilient against ambiguity and stick with you through adversity, you’ve got to look after them. This means helping to moderate job stress. It means ensuring job security where you can. But, most importantly, it means treating people with understanding. Giving people the support they need, regardless of what type of wellbeing issue they’re having.