A huge loft space, a range of different working environments, lots of small coffee tables, seats dangling from the ceiling: the “Collabor8”, the co-working space that has been available to Otto Group employees on the Hamburg campus since January 2017, is also an answer to the changing requirements of the working environment of the future. Working to the time clock is over; the focus now is on value-oriented management, meaningful work, and an open feedback culture – and this is exactly where Kulturwandel 4.0 at the Otto Group comes into play. But can you really bring security and self-fulfilment together in the age of digitisation? Our first interviewee is Tobias Krüger, Kulturwandel 4.0 Division Manager at the Otto Group.
Mr. Krüger, this feels like a start-up environment. How did this change come about for the Otto Group?
TK: A few years ago, it became clear that the Otto Group needed to take action in order to remain relevant and successful in the digital culture. We had to revise our corporate strategy while also analysing the existing culture. In hindsight, it was an incredibly bold step to set up this change in culture, because none of us could predict what that would mean at the end of the day. All we knew was that the economic cost of doing nothing would be higher in future than if we took action and implemented real change.
What does such a process require?
TK: First of all, it is dependent on commitment. Kulturwandel means that everyone needs to participate. Secondly: you need to get to know your own organisation. This results in some pretty significant findings – for example, that processes are too slow. This could in turn indicate a far more fundamental issue, i.e. colleagues don’t trust each other, which you then need to address directly. Thirdly: you can’t solve all the problems at once. You have to prioritise them and set realistic targets.
In your opinion, do younger employees find the upheaval of Kulturwandel easier to handle?
TK: Interestingly enough, no. In my experience, the way in which you get to grips with Kulturwandel isn’t so much a question of generation or hierarchy, but more a question of type. One of the most avid supporters of the Kulturwandel has been with us for decades. On the other hand, however, the Kulturwandel allows us to recruit outstanding young employees who can see what we’re doing here and that the change is being implemented in harmony with the values that the Otto Group has been living for decades – such as trust and reliability. It’s clear in job interviews today that young applicants want to work in a different way than was usual a few years ago. And they can do that at the Otto Group.
How is that noticeable in concrete terms?
TK: The new generation is far more assertive. They ask: what can you offer me? They ask for continuous feedback and are prepared to work very intensively and creatively, but at the same time it is also important for them to get away from work at the end of the day. These are all excellent developments. The most interesting fact here is that demands on management have changed entirely.
ITo what extent?
TK: For a long time, it was standard practice for you to follow your manager’s orders – and that was never questioned. You simply delivered ideas “upstream” – and that was it. It made your own work less meaningful and others could run with your idea and shine – that no longer flies, particularly with the younger generation. They – along with most of our colleagues – want to shape the future and make creative contributions, and they require management to let this happen. That is the mentality we need in our Kulturwandel. The Otto Group offers an incredible range of opportunities to try different things out and push the boundaries, while also working in a reliable, stable environment with long-term perspective.
One of the young colleagues that Tobias Krüger is talking about is Paul Hess. The 20-year-old is a trainee with Otto Group company Schwab in Hanau and has direct experience of the positive consequences of the Kulturwandel.
Mr. Hess, why are you working for Schwab?
PH: The answer is rather dull to be honest: I come from the area around Hanau, so I looked around to see what was available there. Schwab has a good reputation in the region. I knew from the start that I could rely on Schwab and that it would be a good, secure job. I also thought about joining a marketing agency, but I quickly realised that I would only be employed on a project-by-project basis for the first few years. But I wanted to do something actually meaningful.
Did it work?
PH: Yes, very much so as I was involved with a major project right from the start. As part of the Kulturwandel, we developed the idea of building an outlet for our Sheego brand at our headquarters in Hanau. What was special about this was that it was thought up and then also implemented by trainees. It seemed crazy that they would trust us trainees enough to manage the project alone.
How did it go?
PH: Everything moved very fast. We came up with the idea in October 2017. We wanted to get it up and running by the beginning of December in order to take full advantage of Christmas business. So all the trainees pitched in. Really – all of us! Although the actual shop was built by tradespeople, it was our job to turn the empty space into an outlet. A total of 14 trainees were involved in the project. We also had a colleague acting as a mentor. Then we had to think about marketing, which was part of my job.
What exactly did you do?
PH: We thought about the customer base. How could we reach the right target group? We made direct contact with customers via Facebook and newsletters, and the local press also reported on our campaign. Trainees open a shop – that story almost tells itself. When we finally opened, we had accomplished quite a bit. We were all pretty happy and people were soon beating a path to our door. It was a great experience.
The working atmosphere that Paul Hess describes is more often found at a start-up. Sandra Hartwig, Head of Communications at the Group’s own company builder Otto Group Digital Solutions, knows this sector well.
Ms. Hartwig, to what extent can established major companies and start-ups profit from one another?
SH: By bringing together the best of both worlds: our aim at Otto Group Digital Solutions is to combine the speed of a start-up with the knowledge of the Otto Group. My own networking experience has shown that a lot is changing in the Otto Group culture. It is entirely possible to be an employee of a strong established group while also working independently in an agile way. It’s all about empowerment, open access, freedom and, above all, not being afraid to make mistakes.
How does that work in concrete terms?
SH: A good example is the company Risk Ident which focuses on online fraud prevention. As with a successful start-up outside the Group, the business idea arose from a concrete need: employees in the OTTO Fraud Department reported problems with attempted fraud in online orders. Our team then developed a technology that was loosely based on one already established in the US. We were able to use the huge retailer databases of our Group companies OTTO or Baur as trategic levers. It’s unlikely that OTTO would have granted access to assets like this to an external start-up, but it was no problem for us working in-house, and our techies created a self-learning artificial intelligence solution that became the basis for the Risk Ident business model. OTTO also checked out our solution in comparison to established market providers, but as we had built a specific solution for OTTO, ours worked the best. That was truly a great success. Today, Risk Ident is the market leader in fraud prevention in Germany.
Why is this new way of working – combining self-fulfilment and security – so popular, particularly among young colleagues?
SH: The so-called Generation Y lives in an information society, which simply didn’t exist before. Knowledge is accessible everywhere and is no longer an instrument of power. They don’t take things for granted. If something doesn’t suit them, they say so. They have a very precise values compass – which includes the knowledge that self-determined work and security are no longer contradictions in terms.
Marina Jozic, Marketing Assistant at Eos in Slovenia, tells us about living out values in your job and what that means for your team. The Otto Group company is a financial service provider focusing on receivables management. The concept of the Kulturwandel also fell on fertile ground here.
Frau Jozić, how did you find out about the Kulturwandel?
MJ: I first read about the Kulturwandel in the Eos Group employee magazine. In it, the Board was inviting all employees around the world to submit their ideas about how they wanted to shape Eos in an active way. Soon after, all the employees here in Ljubljana met in the lobby. We had a lot to talk about and identified a project that we wanted to work on.
What was that?
MJ: As in all highly specialised companies, there are a lot of very different jobs at Eos: call centres, IT, strategy and so on. It became clear that colleagues often didn’t know what other people actually did. So we worked on establishing a team in the truest sense of the word.
How was it implemented?
MJ: It was all about the basics. For example: if a colleague has a problem with a tricky project, it’s not just his or her problem. It’s everyone’s problem. We’re not lone wolves. We at Eos in Slovenia are a real group – and we stick together. We achieve this through many different routes. For example, we sometimes meet up in the evenings, so that we have fun together. Or we simply talk about the things that are important to us.
MJ: It’s really all about giving meaning to our work. This also came up during our “cultural journey”, the adaptation of the Otto Group Kulturwandel for the Eos Group: a worldwide employee survey indicated that we wanted to know what we were working for. Perhaps this can best be summarised in our new mission statement: “Eos – for a debt-free world”. The slogan is short and snappy and shows why our job is important. All of us – whether we’re working in a call centre, in IT or as a manager – can agree on this purpose and identify with it.
The topics that are so important to young people in their working life today – value-oriented work, creativity, more freedom while maintaining security – are also interesting for Sebastian Purps-Pardigol. The author and coach has written bestsellers such as “Leading with the Brain” and “Digitisation with the Brain”, in which he applies brain research findings to the modern working world – including a reference to the Otto Group as an example of a successful transformation.
Mr. Purps-Pardigol, you’ve written a book about digitisation and one about leadership. What links the two topics together?
SPP: Two things. Firstly, digitisation increases pressure on companies and throws into question the way in which employees should be managed. You need to react to the disruptive business models of competing companies – quickly and creatively. You won’t get far with the traditional militaristic values that have shaped working life for decades. These days, managers are finding out that there are a whole lot of things happening in the outside world that they can no longer sort out alone. It’s not enough to delegate tasks and have someone follow your orders. Managers who commit to digital transformation and the accompanying change in culture will only succeed if they give their team the chance to develop and evolve creatively and come up with new solutions. That’s one point.
What’s the other?
SPP: We’re always “on” these days, constantly reachable. This means that we spend no time relaxing properly or at least a lot less. We can observe the consequences directly in the brain. In neurobiological terms, the neurotransmitter mix in our brain no longer changes at the end of the day when we are meant to be going to bed as it used to. Young people are particularly affected by this constant state of being “on”. Their life is characterised by a high level of connectivity. This has plenty of advantages: these people are very good and very fast at finding information and communicating. Bu that also has a downside: they find it really difficult to focus. This is the direct impact of rapid digital communication.
NHowever, the digitisation cannot be stopped anymore.
SPP: No, but we can shape it. And that’s where work culture comes in. The sociologist Aaron Antonovsky researched what actually keeps people mentally healthy. He found that this involves three things: life being comprehensible, meaningful, and manageable. Today, we are in a situation that puts these three dimensions constantly at risk. Example: who understands what happens on the financial markets and what the best option is for investing your own savings? It’s an enigma for most people. This makes it all the more important to integrate these three dimensions into your job. And that’s the new task for today’s management: employees need to understand what they’re doing. They need to find it meaningful.
What does this mean for the Otto Group exactly?
SPP: This is where the values of a company group come into play. After all, employees need to feel like decisions aren’t being made over their heads, that – as is the case with Kulturwandel 4.0 at the Otto Group – they are helping to shape the change together. If this all comes together properly, these people not only remain mentally healthy but are also able to act in the creative and agile way that the market demands today.
Source: Otto Group Annual Report 2017/18