Prof. Dr. Alexander Güttler and Managing Partner Jelena Mirkovic discuss what effects spatially separated work are having on corporate culture and the team feeling – and what factors can positively influence the “underlying system”.
The effects of mobile office and remote work on corporate culture
That Team(s) Feeling – Corporate culture in the age of Teams, Zoom, etc.
Güttler: What does “team feeling” really mean, and what happens now that people are all sitting at home and only communicate through their displays?
Mirkovic: Something really new is happening and this can be confusing. The technology that people use here actually isn’t that important. The phenomenon remains the same: My contact and interactions with others are entirely virtual. I can’t go from desk to desk anymore to talk to people. You talk into the box in front of you, then you’re alone, and then you sit in those endless video conferences again until your back aches. And now it’s much more difficult to decode people, too.
Güttler: “Decode” – that’s a good word. Are we different in a video conference than we are in real life?
Mirkovic: Yes, definitely. Things are different there. At least so far. When you only have two people talking together, that’s very normal: It’s like talking on the phone, but via screen. But in meetings you miss out on a lot of feedback. When you’re in a room, you can feel the reactions. Now in big virtual groups you’re often staring at a lot of poker faces – if people’s cameras are even on. You really miss the reactions, especially when you’re presenting. And then you can only see a small number of participants in the image bar. Who really said we should remain as motionless as possible and not show any reactions in video conferences?
Güttler: So what can we do about it?
Mirkovic: Ask questions, request feedback openly and directly, at minimum leave the camera on, so that people know that at least there are other people out there in the ether. And be sure to give signs and reactions yourself, like thumbs-up, clapping. It’s also important to accept working hours and breaks. Home office (HO) or remote work doesn’t mean 24/7 availability.
Güttler: So more than anything it’s a difficult learning process?
Mirkovic: Not at all. I think the benefits clearly outweigh the drawbacks, but we shouldn’t gloss over anything here. The prerequisite is a quiet place and decent IT. For a lot of tasks that you need quiet for, HO can’t be beat. And the flexibility it offers is also unbeatable, especially for parents. A not-insignificant portion of white collar work can be shifted to HO. And long-term, too. Now is the stage where we learn about the “how”. And we’re enjoying time gains because we have to travel significantly less.
Güttler: So the days of business trips and frequent-flyer cards as status symbols are over?
Mirkovic: Basically yes. And they won’t ever really make a complete return. We’re all saving a lot of time and money through canceled business trips. And on top of that you have the significantly positive effects this has on the environment. But the same goes here as internally of course. We’re human and we want to get to know people or talk to them in person, at least on the very important points. But a lot of the meetings we had in the past weren’t really necessary.
Güttler: So home office will be permanent, at least in part, but the future is hybrid?
Mirkovic: Mirkovic: Definitely yes. COVID-19 has accelerated digitalization enormously, and now we’re working out just what “new work” really can be. This means core changes to the challenges that companies – and all of us as individuals – face. As a company you have to guarantee that people have access to everything they need for their work and that they can still keep communicating externally with their target groups or contacts. As an individual, you have to organize your work a lot more independently. No one’s going to stand next to me or come in to my office to tell me what to do. And excessive video conferencing – internationally as well – is the new time sink. A lot of places have to redefine, or at least adjust, their processes and consensus mechanisms.
Güttler: Don’t critics often mention the fear of losing oversight and control?
Mirkovic: I see a fundamental mistrust behind that. Probably these executives are thinking: I can’t see my employees, can’t look through the glass doors anymore, so they’ll probably work less. In some cases this is probably true. In the communications industry where you have very well-educated and often intrinsically motivated people, I don’t see so much of a problem. People who’ve managed university degrees should be able to work independently, and actually a whole lot of things have gone really well during the COVID-19 transition. And there, where it hasn’t worked out, people have come up with their own bypasses and workarounds. At lot of people have taken on responsibility themselves. Now that we have a few IT conversions and a lot of successful improvisation under our belts, we’re learning what’s decisive is the underlying system.
Güttler: The “underlying system” decides?
Mirkovic: The software, laptops, and data access from home are only the beginning. People who have already worked in agile structures before COVID-19 are at a tremendous advantage. Because what they say is true: The old centralized and more or less hierarchical structures were often problematic back in the office, and they don’t work at all with decentralized home office work. Agile means that the responsibility is moved as closely to the operational task as possible, that transparency and therefore performance demands are very high. It also means individual freedom and individual responsibility are two sides of the same coin. You don’t have less control; it just lies with individual responsibility bearers who have clearly defined tasks. The tasks in the communications industry are a perfect fit for agile approaches. With our 3A model, we offer a pragmatic and adaptable model of our own. The goal is having more performance – and fun – through transparent empowerment and efficient project organization.
“You can say with a wink that we’re experiencing something like a 'forced agilization' in the German and European economies.”
Güttler: Does this mean challenging tasks and decentralized home office work will automatically lead to agile structures?
Mirkovic: With everything we’re seeing, yes! You can say with a wink that we’re experiencing something like a “forced agilization” in the German and European economies. At least in the companies and in consulting and administration.
Güttler: Won’t this become a huge cultural issue?
Mirkovic: It already is. Leadership is happening less via status and more by coaching various teams. Leaders have to learn to trust and share decision-making power. People who’ve made comfortable niches for themselves will realize that others are now able to look in. We also have to accommodate the people who tend to need precise instructions. Independence is a learned skill, too. So company cultures will change automatically – whether they like it or not.
Güttler: But if I have a strong company culture, how can I keep it then?
Mirkovic: I’d rather speak of a suitable company culture. When circumstances change, we have to adapt. Those who act fast will have the best chances in competition. If your company has always emphasized flexibility, accountability, team work, transparency and even healthy competition, then you’re in the best position to face the challenges of the future. If not, then it’s probably time to be very active about making changes. While COVID-19 is in fact a booster for IT and agile structures, budgets are also shrinking due to the difficult economic situation. So this really speaks for more speed, more upheaval and high pressure to adapt.
Güttler: Won’t pride in your company still be a really important motivator?
Mirkovic: Yes, as will a clear sense of solidarity. A lot can still be done for that. And we’re doing it in a lot of places, too. Appreciation can be expressed in a variety of ways. But we need to be clear about one point: When companies have cumbersome structures, pride won’t save them. In my home office I can only be Allianz or Mercedes to a certain extent. The trappings of power don’t pair well with pajamas. Pride has to be earned in daily teamwork, not through privileges but through challenging people and supporting them. Always competing to have the latest goodies is totally senseless. A culture where I actively use my company’s potential, where I can help shape my company no matter where I am in the hierarchy, can be a huge incentive. And obviously I can take the trust capital I’ve built with me when I work from home. Just my thesis: We’ve got to be more constant about working on this.