The digital workplace is becoming increasingly common practice in Swiss companies. But what exactly does it look like and what do you need to keep in mind on your way to the New World of Work? Pascal Grossniklaus, CEO at ahead and partner at isolutions, spoke to Persorama about the introduction and the associated obstacles and advantages of the digital workplace.
The full interview
What makes a modern, digital workplace?
Three factors play a central role: the physical space in which employees work in different roles, the technology (hardware and software) and the culture - in other words, how people cooperate and communicate with each other.
What is more important when we discuss New Work: Using technology efficiently or a new work culture?
It is above all a cultural question, because digital transformation is not an uncontrollable force of nature, but a man-made process of change. This means that we can decide where the journey will take us. It is a process that affects the entire organization.
Has this awareness already established itself in operational practice?
We find that most of the requests from customers come through the technology, i.e. the IT department has a budget for a project, such as introducing a social collaboration tool like Microsoft Teams, and approaches us with a list of requirements. Those involved quickly realize that the technical challenges can be mastered. But implementing a new way of working in a company is also an emotional and cultural issue, because previous ways of working and processes are changing dramatically.
Can you give examples?
It can be as simple as introducing shared file storage in the cloud. The culture then changes from "push" to "pull" - every employee is encouraged to be active on this platform and to regularly collect the information intended for him or her; the exchange of information by e-mail or telephone is significantly reduced. In general, New Work requires more transparency, participation and flexibility. This new openness is unusual and not pleasant for every employee. It therefore requires targeted internal communication and training measures to promote a new culture of work. And managers in particular must set an example of the new culture. We suggest to our customers to keep a document filing system based on the principle of public access. Up to now, it has been more common to use the seal principle for documents. But social collobaration cannot work according to the principle of closure.
But does this affect the security interests of a company and data protection?
You can clearly define what is and must be confidential - for example, personnel and customer data, strategic knowledge, financial data or patents. In our experience, only about ten percent of a company's data needs to be truly confidential. The rest can be open within defined teams or areas. Of course, this also requires trust in the employees.
How can a leader be a role model?
For example, by making it visible in internal media or on social media channels with your own comments and contributions on leadership topics. Then the tool will be taken seriously. Or a CEO no longer needs to send e-mails with attachments, but could go to Microsoft Teams or Slack, write a chat message there with a link for further information. Leadership in New Work means stimulating and exemplifying a growth mindset in the company.
Does this mean that a CEO or a person from the top management should initiate transformations?
Yes, this cannot come from any body without decision-making powers, but must come from the management. Ideally, managers are open and willing to implement the necessary changes and to make a personal commitment. So it is important not only to send out impulses to the employees, but to set an example of the new way of working. With their role model, leaders shape the culture in the company.
In other words, stimulate more agility and self-organisation through a top-down act? Isn't that a contradiction?
I think not. Top-down always has a slightly negative connotation. But it's important that higher-level and directional decisions come from the management. Even with self-organized teams, it must be clear in which direction to go. Employees need orientation so that they know what they are working for. And the management still has responsibility for the entire organization. New Work also does not mean that everyone can do what he or she wants, but means: clear structure and defined tasks or roles.
How is the transition to agile and self-organized best achieved?
There is no general recipe. It always depends on the size and digital maturity of a company. There are companies that switch from one day to the next with 300 people into agile work. With others, such a process takes months. Still others have a hybrid structure - i.e. certain departments work in a classic hierarchical fashion and have agile teams for certain projects. In general, we recommend not to stay too long in the concept phase and to specify everything down to the last detail. It makes sense to first define values and goals and consider how to achieve them. And then to start experimenting, to try things out step by step, to learn and then to constantly improve.
So experimenting is an important topic?
Absolutely. Because this is the only way for companies to develop today. None of us is an expert on what is coming. So we need an awareness of openness in companies: we learn something new together. And a new culture can only emerge in real life. You can't put something like that on top of it. This requires courage and a willingness to take risks as well as a new culture of making mistakes - in other words, an environment in which making mistakes is not a drama, but rather an opportunity to learn from them and to do things better next time. So everyone becomes a pioneer.
What is the biggest challenge?
Experimenting also means that none of us knows 100% how it works and what the best solution is. This is associated with uncertainty. In my experience, one of the biggest hurdles to transformation is to bear the uncertainty. After all, there have hardly been any changes in companies on the scale of the digital transformation in recent years.
How can internal communication best support this?
There are CEOs who, at the start of such fundamental changes, address their employees in a video with the message: "We learn together" - in other words, they convey to them that the company is in a phase of change and that, as a result, things are not always running smoothly. And then they appeal to everyone to get involved in the process and support each other so that things go well. The important thing with such communication is that it is authentic. In general, our impression is that internal communication is still not taken seriously enough. In this respect, it can greatly support cultural education in companies with offline and online media. At Isolutions, we use "ahead" as a social intranet as an internal information channel and can thus jointly live our work culture and also make it visible.
In which role do you see HR?
We often experience that a new software or professional collaboration tools are to be set up in the company and then an IT project is quickly launched. The HR professionals then organize the employee training as a kind of co-driver in the back seat and often don't even feel really responsible. Actually, it should be the other way around.
Prior to the launch of such a change, companies would have to form a mixed committee of managers who together develop a vision for the company before technology and measures are defined. And HR, in my view, has a leadership role to play in changing the work environment to create an attractive environment for talent that attracts good new employees. The young generation wants to work differently!
Often the cost argument is a very important one for changes. HR is not immune to this either ...
Achieving greater efficiency in decision-making on complex issues is indeed a sensible goal, which usually leads to better results. But if the primary goal of New Work is to save costs with new tools, open space or more agile teams, in our experience this works rather poorly. And we know: When such requests come to "cost cutting", management has usually not yet understood what New Work and digital transformation in essence means. Often they haven't given much thought to the change in work culture. We find that the emotional and cultural factor is grossly underestimated.
So what does New Work mean?
Anyone who wants more agility and self-organization, for example, must also accept as a manager that flat hierarchies are the result, i.e. management personnel lose power and influence and employees have more autonomy and a say. It is important to understand this and then experiment how the previous work culture in the company can be changed so that cooperation is as efficient as possible. A new spatial concept with fewer individual offices and more zones for meeting and exchange can help to promote this; but that alone is not enough.