Room for the new

How will we be working tomorrow? In the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, the Chairwoman of the Management Board Microsoft Germany, Sabine Bendiek, and Petra Scharner-Wolff, Chief Financial Officer of the Otto Group, take time to discuss the flexibility, creativity, and the office of the future.

 
 

How do you get good ideas?

SABINE BENDIEK I do something that has nothing to do with my work. I enjoy walking or sailing. That clears my mind! Or I go to an exhibition or listen to music in the hope of getting a fresh perspective on things. Above all, I have learnt that you can develop lots of new ideas simply by chatting to other people.

PETRA SCHARNER-WOLFF You rarely get good ideas when sitting on your own in the office. I find it useful to be in an unusual environment: a Fintech trip to New York or a trade fair in Germany. Somewhere where you not only meet colleagues from your own industry but also other people from other areas. You can then exchange ideas and reflect together. Good ideas come from interaction. But sometimes I get a good idea in the shower. That’s practical, of course, because a shower is a daily occurrence.

Many companies including Microsoft and Otto Group are going to great lengths to try and create conditions that encourage employees to work together as creatively as possible. Why is that? Are good ideas and innovations really more important than ever before?

PSW There has been pressure to be innovative for decades. On the one hand, we have to adapt much more quickly today – that’s one thing that has changed. This inevitably also calls for different working methods. On the other hand, industry has become far more permeable. More and more companies are also operating outside their traditional business zone. For instance, Google is now building cars. The online bookseller does not only sell books anymore but food, fashion – basically eveything you can imagine. This means that the pressure is generated not only by the normal competitive environment but also by entirely different sectors. Nowadays, completely new competitors are involved. Therefore, we have to ask ourselves a lot more questions, more often, constantly seeking different approaches, particularly as far as new technologies are concerned.

SB At the same time, the latest technologies have greatly accelerated product development cycles in companies. The fact that technology is simply everywhere today means that innovation is becoming increasingly important in all company sectors. Previously, at Microsoft, we only talked to our customers’ IT managers but now we are frequently in touch with product managers as well as the marketing and financial departments.

PSW We are trying out a lot of new working methods for the first time in IT because IT staff had to reinvent the wheel years before the rest. Previously, many activities in our company were carried out in entirely separate units. Even the various IT sectors were still working traditionally, alongside each other. When these areas started to really communicate with each other and network – triggered by a Group-wide IT project – other departments throughout the Group followed suit. Today we are working virtually as a whole – the previous units are pretty much a thing of the past. Ideas are now being developed in small packages – along the lines of agile working in IT – and quickly converted without initially having to draft a thousand or so Powerpoint slides.

Petra Scharner-Wolff
Ideas are now being developed in small packages and quickly converted – without a thousand or so Powerpoint slides.”
– Petra Scharner-Wolff

The Elbphilharmonie where we are today is also fascinating because even when you are in the upper left-hand corner of the great hall, you can still hear when someone in front of you, to the right, is speaking quietly. How do you ensure that your employees hear about important company developments and contact each other?

SB We have developed a series of formats and channels for this purpose in addition to conventional methods such as e-mails or newsletters. These range from quarterly business talks, where we are in touch with all employees through seminars and a Skype video stream, via daily dialogue on our social media network, Yammer, through to my videoblog books with updates on strategies and business developments. Thanks to this diverse, two-pronged approach, all opportunities for discussion are covered. Personally, I recently held a so-called “YamJam Session” for all employees via social media. There were over 100 questions and responses in 30 minutes. You cannot get such low-threshold feedback with meetings or newsletters alone. This type of exercise promotes dialogue and boosts knowledge. There’s also another point to this. You also have to create the right environment for people to chat and network together.

So what do such modern facilities look like?

SB Much more open and transparent than before. In our new Munich office, which we developed in conjunction with the Fraunhofer Institute, there are four different areas. There are workplaces where people can work quietly, in a concentrated manner. Then we have areas with sofas and armchairs where people can relax and chat. The design of this area is friendly and inviting. Then we have meeting rooms where the emphasis is very much on technology, allowing all teams to work together virtually. Last but not least, we have areas where employees can simply take time to sit comfortably and reflect on ideas, with a pleasant view over the surrounding area. That’s also an important part of the work.

Sabine Bendiek
We have to create an environment where people can talk and network with each other.
– Sabine Bendiek

Do these areas work for you?

SB Yes, but some people do not like to sit down there yet because it might give the impression that they have nothing to do.

PSW We are also remodelling everything on our campus, especially our new networking areas such as our new coworking area, Collabor8, two new bistros and a new boulevard which encourages staff to work outdoors, all of which have been very well received by employees. However, some areas are not as popular yet. For instance, we have a row of comfortable seats directly facing the window, where employees can sit quietly and reflect. This area is known as “Elbstrand”. Directly behind this is a normal working area. It means that someone is relaxed, sitting down and reflecting, looking out of the window whilst others right behind them are working hard on the computer. That hasn’t worked so far. The quiet area should be a bit more secluded. But maybe it’s a case of getting used to it.

SB But do you know what I find charming? You say, we’ve tried something and learned from it. I believe that this is a very important skill that has to be developed even further in the company. Just simply trying something – and then being ok to admit that maybe we are not there yet. But we will keep developing and we will learn from it.

What meetings and events do you use to encourage staff and their creativity?

PSW The formats have become much more diverse in recent years. It is interesting to note that this doesn’t only apply at management level. A lot of incentives come from the workforce. The Hackathon is a typical example of this.

You are talking about the events in which staff work together on developing software or hardware.

PSW Yes. We have a very active community within the workforce that organises this type of event. Members of staff book the rooms, prepare topics, invite guests from outside the company and simply carry out the event. And everyone involved gets a great deal of pleasure from this exercise. I believe that one of the key strengths of the Hackathon events is that they are directed towards practical implementation. It’s not simply about philosophy and theory. Solutions are developed and can be put into practice the next day in the normal working environment. It’s also great to network with all of the different workshop participants. I can see what staff get out of it – sheer enjoyment and they are really inspired!

SB I agree. It generates incredible drive and a positive element of competition prevails. Everyone wants to do something good in the individual group – participants encourage each other. We carry out Hackathons with many customers and other external partners. There are also unusual elements which are not really businessrelated. For example, one Hackathon with Germany’s Aktion Mensch lottery, to generate ideas as to how technology can be used to improve the living conditions of people with disabilities. Great things came out of this exercise.

Could such joined events prevent you from overlooking your customer in times of rapid internal change?

SB As a technology company, it’s easy for us to be enthusiastic about the exciting things we are developing and forget what use really means. Therefore, one of the key doctrines for me is that we are only successful if our customers are successful with our products. That means we constantly have to do a reality check: what we are doing here? Does it help the customer? It’s important to check this over and over again with concrete examples and in conjunction with the customer. have we achieved what we set out to achieve together? Have we improved? Is follow-up required? What can we learn from this?

PSW New technologies help to bring us closer to our customers – over and above our normal market research. It has become much easier for our customers to provide direct feedback via social media. We can better understand interactions between our customers and us, and we have a better idea of requirements. We can also offer much lower threshold contact options than before. Chats on our website, for instance, encourage more fluent dialogue than if someone has to call our telephone hotline first of all.

 

New communication technologies facilitate different ways of working. How do you deal with employees’ requests to work from home or whilst on the road?

SB The younger generation simply expect flexibility. They have difficulty committing themselves to the idea of a nine-to-five job in one fixed location. Furthermore, employees who become parents often find it difficult to integrate their family into their conventional daily working routine. So it’s a good thing if we can allow mothers and of course fathers to say, “I’m taking the afternoon off, picking my child up. I will make dinner and then sit down to work again in the evening”. However, it is also important not to forget about the other generations in the company. There is a risk of excessive demands because some people feel that they have to be constantly accessible or have to prove to others that they are working. This is where managers are questioned. They must explain that this is not the case.

PSW I often feel that employees think they have to be permanently available although that is not true. It is important for the management to always convey a clear message. We also make conscious attempts not to make “flexibility” a female issue. Because people will soon be branded with the following label: a woman works from home and is only looking after her children. Firstly, not only women take care of children. Secondly, anyone who has children knows that it is difficult to work and bring up children at the same time. Therefore we have renamed home office into flex office. Most people are not working at home. They are somewhere in the world working – just like both of us work from anywhere.

How many Otto Group employees use this option?

PSW We have examined that recently: 30 percent. I was personally surprised at this figure. I thought it would be low. But once again it shows the rapid pace at which the world of work is changing.

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