How IKEA Is Navigating Global Crises With Mindfulness And Humanity
This article was originally published in Forbes.
Today, it’s difficult to find a leader who doesn’t comprehend that global events have forever altered organizations and the nature of work. What is more difficult to find are leaders leaning into this great upheaval to remake their organizations and to reimagine what work feels like. For the past two years, Potential Project has had the great privilege to partner closely with Ingka Group, the largest retailer in the IKEA franchise system* to train its top 1,000 leaders in mindful leadership. Ingka Group’s Management Board is a stand-out example of acting with urgency, agility and courage during a time of instability and uncertainty.
I sat down recently with Ulrika Biesèrt, Chief Human Resources Officer at Ingka Group, to hear more about how they are responding to the global pandemic, and how they are rolling out major new initiatives to support their global workforce of 166,000 people.
How did you react in the beginning to the pandemic, and what is underway now?
“This crisis has exposed a new level of vulnerability, both at a human level but also as an organization. So, at the beginning of this pandemic, we didn’t have all the answers; we simply knew we must act. To determine the best path forward, we asked ourselves: Is this good for our people? Is this good for the business? Are we taking care of our people? Are we taking care of our business? We let those questions be our guide.“
“We decided in this crisis to make a significant investment in reskilling and upskilling, to do everything we can to keep co-workers employable, either within our company or outside, taking a long-term perspective.”
“When the pandemic struck and much of the world saw unemployment rates spike, we ensured income stability for their employees, launched an Employee Assistance Program (a resource for co-workers, including access to psychologists and health care professionals, to alleviate fears and anxieties), provided financial support for those in great need, focused on leadership training so leaders in turn could support employees, and did a massive investment in mindfulness training.”
The focus has been to build long-term resilience, to strengthen leadership capabilities, and to support health and wellbeing as this is important both from a human and a business perspective.
“People are at the heart of our business and our main priority. Their safety, physical and mental health, and well-being are our main priorities”, says Ulrika.
“We are humble. It has not been easy to navigate in this crisis, but tough decisions and enormous work, including huge efforts from all of our markets, made things possible. We need to continuously keep focus to be relevant to the needs of our many co-workers as well as to respond to the needs of our customers.”
In May, Ingka Group* launched two large-scale global initiatives – a leadership development program for 21,000 managers with direct reports and a broader digital training program for its entire workforce of 166,000 people.
“Our goal has been and still is to increase each co-worker’s capability to lead themselves during this period with a very high degree of uncertainty. It has been amazing to see how fast we have adapted to new ways of working especially when it comes to focusing on online sales. I think we could say that we see that the crisis has put our company culture and values through a stress test and strengthened us to even better meet our customers’ needs.” says Ulrika.
A key part of your new programs is mindfulness training. Can you share more about why that is?
“Early on, we got signals from co-workers that there was a high degree of anxiety and worry. ‘How can I cope with this?’ We got many questions from our leaders too saying, ‘how do I lead my team and respond to my co-worker's worry when I'm worrying myself?’ So, it's really to support our co-workers in coping with the situation in a hands-on, pragmatic way that actually gives results.
“We are operating with even more unknowns now, and we still don't have the answers. With mindfulness, we can see that together as a community, we as an organization, in a positive way, slow down to make more conscious decisions, and with that, we can then speed up and work better going forward.
“To summarize, we are doing this because we care about our co-workers, but we also know that in caring for our co-workers, we in turn care for our customers. And we're about both.”
The regular practice of mindfulness, being implemented across the entire organization, is helping employees to feel seen, heard and supported. It reminds them that they are not alone, and it reduces loneliness and isolation. With mindfulness practice, employees recognize their normal behavior patterns, especially in times of uncertainty, and can take a step back and ask: do these behaviors actually serve me well? It prompts them to assess whether they’re handling a situation in a helpful or hurtful way, with the goal to make better choices in the future.
We have delivered mindfulness training and mindful leadership development in hundreds of organizations around the world. We have never seen any organization go as bold as you. How is it going and what is helping?
“To be honest, not everything is perfect, and we started this without knowing exactly how it would go because we started as soon as the crisis began. I think that is the beauty in this – that we do it, we listen to our co-workers and leaders, and then we do our best to adapt and find solutions based on their needs. It is co-creation and very agile. We are practicing what we say is important.
“One of the prerequisites for success is that it’s not in isolation from the business. If an organization wants to do something similar, my absolute recommendation is to put it in a broader business context and position it as both a business and people initiative. Don't separate it.”
You have practiced mindfulness for a while. What has this done for you as a leader?
“When I practice mindfulness, I see the immediate effect. It creates a higher degree of awareness for me about where I put my energy and how I make decisions,” Ulrika says. “It helps me to act less reactively or impulsively, and instead to stay grounded and be more present with whatever is happening in that moment.
“I have a strong belief that the way we can practice mindfulness especially in this situation is the right thing to do. When we can see the benefits from our investment and the positive results not only in business, but also in the increased levels of resilience and the positive atmosphere from coming together as a community, that’s enough proof for me to know that this really works.”
What advice would you give another Chief Human Resources Officer who may be thinking of doing something similar?
“I think you need to make up your mind what you want to stand for and what your legacy will be. What do you want to be remembered for? That is my advice. And then when you're convinced, you need to act upon it.”.
* Ingka Group (Ingka Holding B.V. and its controlled entities) is one of 12 different groups of companies that own and operate IKEA retail under franchise agreements with Inter IKEA Systems B.V. Ingka Group has three business areas: IKEA Retail, Ingka Investments and Ingka Centres. Ingka Group is a strategic partner in the IKEA franchise system, operating 380 IKEA stores in 31 countries. These IKEA stores had 839 million visits during FY19 and 2.6 billion visits to www.IKEA.com. Ingka Group operates business under the IKEA vision - to create a better everyday life for the many people by offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible can afford it.