As a consultant at beetroot, Mario Niederhauser helps develop strategies for the digital workplace and ensures that the triad of people and culture, organization and processes, and technology and tools is ideal. As a work and organizational psychologist, Mario is primarily dedicated to the area of people and culture.
1. Mario, what you are working on? What does the area of people and culture involve?
As a consultant and work and organizational psychologist, I work intensively on the topics of New Work and change management. beetroot is at home in the IT industry. We are experts in digital work organization and strategic IT consulting and have been dealing with modern forms of work and communication technologies for years.
I complement this by devoting myself to the softer factors of digitalization and change management. In addition to giving speeches and keynote speeches on New Work, I also conduct workshops with companies in which we develop customized solutions for a successful hybrid workplace.
Since we don't have an industry focus and our clients are very heterogeneous and range from small companies, e.g. daycare centers, to large organizations, for example the federal administration, these solutions can look very different.
I also write blog posts on New Work, give webinars, and keep up to date with extensive research on New Work developments around the world. Certain geographic regions, like Australia or New Zealand, already have a bit of a knowledge edge because they've been working with hybrid work models for longer. I like to draw inspiration from this to better advise our clients.
2. You are working on the front lines with a wide variety of personae. What are the biggest challenges in the area of people and culture when introducing a hybrid work model?
In fact, there are several challenges there. A big challenge for many companies is to combine the pre-pandemic world with the full-remote approach during the last months and take the best of both worlds. Some are still trying to go "back to normal."
However, the Corona-influenced months have been marked by an intense learning process and I dare say that every employee has improved their digital skills immensely. It would therefore be a mistake to return to the old system today. Instead, we must try to reconcile the old office world and the home office in order to create a new normality.
However, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for this. Every company, every individual is unique, which is why tailor-made solutions are needed. Of course, it can't be a wish list for each individual, but the basis should be a dialogue to find out what makes sense for each team or department. Dictatorial directives without a say inevitably lead to resistance.
There was an incident with Apple about this in early June: CEO Tim Cook had announced in a memo that all employees would have to come into the office on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays starting in September. And Apple employees will also only be allowed to work remotely on Wednesdays and Fridays if approved by their supervisor. This requirement was not only met with a headwind from employees, the media response was also anything but positive. The resistance was to be expected, however, when such a message is decided from the top down and offers so little flexibility.
Specifically, this strategy involves two dangers: On the one hand, there may be a wave of fluctuation if employees unhappy with the decision fail to change it. After a period of rebellion, they will start looking for other employers that offer a better hybrid work model and leave the company sooner or later.
On the other hand, there is also the danger that dissatisfied employees will not dare to make this jump and will remain, but demoralized and unmotivated. This has a lasting negative impact on the working atmosphere and thus also jeopardizes productivity. The key to success here, as so often, is communication. Only through dialog can a hybrid working model be created that is profitable for everyone.
3. Often white collar workers are allowed to work hybrid jobs, but not blue collar workers. How can organizations deal with this?
I would like to answer this question with a counter question: Do blue collar workers really need to be on the job? I think so, but not always.
There are jobs that can be done remotely. I'm thinking of ward managers in a nursing home, for example. Patients have to be cared for on site, that's clear. But the shift schedule or medication ordering could also be planned from somewhere else. The percentage of work that can be done remotely may be small. But especially for blue collar workers, who often have a strained work-life balance, making these non-local tasks more flexible could add a lot of value.
This can also help ensure that the already existing gap between white and blue collar doesn't widen. This is, of course, a very revolutionary idea. But who would have thought in the early 2020s that so many of us would be working in a home office for such a long period of time? Probably few, so I think it could be possible for many more in that regard.
4. You already have a lot of experience with Swiss companies that deal with hybrid work. What grade would you give them?
Of course, that's not so easy to say in a generalized way with a school grade. But I would argue that Swiss companies and employees are aware that hybrid work is a model for the future. However, there is still a long way to go from awareness to everyday working life.
In conversations with clients, I notice that many companies are asking themselves how they can bring their employees back to the office. The underlying needs may be different, whether due to the removal of the home office requirement or seeing each other in person more often again, but the fundamental goal is the same: to introduce a hybrid working model.
Exactly how this happens, however, is not yet as clear to many. That's where we come in, offering help in the areas of technology, organization and culture by taking a holistic view of clients' questions and problems.
Through my work, I've also been able to meet companies with great approaches. For example, when the home office requirement was changed to a recommendation, one HR manager took the time to personally greet every employee who wanted to come into the office. He welcomed everyone, asked how they were really doing, and finally asked them to throw every piece of paper on their desk in the trash. After 18 months of not using these documents, they will not use them in the future. I think the idea behind this is just brilliant! After all, aside from documents that are required to be on file, there really is little to no paper that is essential. This clean-up is also a step towards digitalization. I like to put ideas like this out into the world and show companies how they can break new ground and break old patterns.
Another challenge in the Swiss corporate landscape is that every organization has a different idea or vision of hybrid work, if it has one already. These vary by industry, size or other factors. At the beginning of the pandemic, this was different because the Federal Council was quite specific about what needed to be done.
The implementation was not always easy, but somehow a clear line was given. Today, companies have to define their target state and strategy themselves. At first, you might only think about the workspace, its design, size, the number of office desks, whether you still need individual offices, how you can save on rental costs or whether a coworking space makes sense.
These questions are also valid, but in my opinion they are the beginning of a domino chain. Whoever brings down this first stone must expect a chain reaction. After questions about the work location come questions about the working time model. Flexibilization happens not only in terms of location, but also in terms of time.
Those who have made it this far will usually be allowed to deal with questions about work processes and work tools. At this point, it should be pointed out that labor law and the protection of employees must not be forgotten in the considerations. Especially at a time when the pandemic will have receded further into the background, the hybrid work model will, in my opinion, unfold its full potential.
5. What advice would you give to a workplace manager who wants to create a great work environment for people and culture?
- Ask employees about their needs and listen to their answers. Important questions may include: What do you need to work? How can I support you and what can I offer you? But also: What can I take away from you? What makes your work unnecessarily complicated?
- To create a high level of acceptance, make sure that your hybrid work model is designed to meet both the individual circumstances of your employees and the needs of your company.
- Employees often have great ideas on how processes can be optimized. They are perhaps not asked about them often enough or the topic is lost in the day-to-day business. The current time of "rebuilding" is a good opportunity to address such topics.
- Performance counts more than presence: Many employees, especially parents, have noticed how valuable more time with the family can be. For them, a lot of home office time can continue to make sense, and they desire to see their children grow up.
- Create real value in the office: When employees return to the office building, they should not be immersed in the same world as before the pandemic. Moments that have fallen by the wayside in recent months should be lived again. Time with colleagues, small talk, interpersonal encounters, conversations between door and door, which often produce exciting innovations, should be allowed and even forced again.
- Don't withdraw trust and responsibility: Many employees have seen more meaning in their work as a result of greater autonomy. In the future, we should continue to offer employees the flexibility to work at places and times where and when they are most productive.
- A culture of trust instead of a culture of presence: It is not how long you are present that counts, but what you accomplish.
Thanks for the insights into your work, the great inputs and food for thought, Mario!