Agility is everything in our business.

Interview with Markus Köhler, Head of Human Resources, Microsoft Deutschland GmbH

Mr Köhler, do you know where your desk is right now?

Absolutely! It’s right here in front of me on the table. The laptop I work on is effectively my desk. The great thing about it is that I can take it everywhere I go. In fact, it has been a long time since I had a desk in the conventional sense that you probably meant.

Your new office in Schwabing has been called a “smart workspace”. What is so smart about it?
The employees and their range of needs and requirements are at the heart of the smart workspace concept. Every employee can decide for themselves where, how and with whom they want to work. This opens up a whole new range of options for exchanging views and information. Various workspaces are available for different tasks throughout the building, from places of retreat for quiet activities requiring a great deal of concentration through to office spaces which are specially designed for team work and collaboration.

There is only space for 50 % of the workforce in your new office. What happens if 60 % of your employees turn up for work in the morning?
Due to the works agreement on trust-based working hours and trust-based workplaces, today around 90 % of our employees already make use of the option to work flexibly and are not in the office everyday. On top of that, lots of our employees regularly work at our customers’ sites. Today, many workspaces in Unterschleißheim have already been deserted. The exact requirements for workspaces for our new HQ were calculated based on a very precise analysis of the actual current department-specific attendance on site. Overall, there are 1,100 workplaces for around 1,900 employees. On top of that, there are many additional spaces like meeting and conference rooms, quiet areas for making calls and lounges.

What motivates managers to completely give up the reigns?
Our positive experience left us in no doubt. It is a process which has gradually evolved from trust-based working hours to a trust-based workplace. Our approach facilitates a better balance between family and working life, and gives our employees the individual freedom to decide for themselves where and how they want to work. This has a direct positive impact on motivation and performance. On top of that, we have also been able to substantially increase employee loyalty.

And what do employees do with their new-found freedom?
It varies greatly from employee to employee. The flexibility paves the way for many different work models. Some use the time for their children in the afternoon, others like a change of scene and take up the option of working at home. Some drive to the mountains on a Friday, while others haven’t changed a thing because they didn’t want to alter their routine. The options available mirror the diversity of our workforce.

Spaces are always also like a home. Are your employees now homeless in a sense?
I don’t think I would anyone to call an office home. If the office is your home, something is decidedly not right. If you mean that an office provides a kind of orientation and sense of community, I completely agree with you. That’s why every department is assigned to a specific zone within the building – so-called “anchor areas”. These provide orientation within the building and make it easier to bring teams together. The connectedness of employees cannot be achieved with specific workspaces, but with the people who work there and their team spirit. The office is increasingly becoming the social supply line of a company. It is where personal contacts are maintained and the venue for discussions, collaboration and networking. We create the perfect framework conditions for this with our new office.

But if employees don’t come into the office every day, doesn’t their identification with company fall by the wayside at some point?
I don’t think that going to the same office every day necessarily increases how you identify with a company per se. The shared time, colleagues, superiors and work satisfaction are much more important identification factors and these have to be right.

How can employee alienation be prevented and identification with the company fostered within the new work culture?
The flexible work culture requires a more conscious form of communication. This demands more of managers in particular. For instance, feedback has to be far more specific, while personal contact takes on more importance. Many of our colleagues primarily come into the office to talk to one another. Work which requires quiet surroundings is increasingly being done at home. There are regular status meetings within all teams, both by telephone and in person.

Some critics have claimed that companies are only enthusiastic about new work models because they have discovered the huge savings potential.

I believe that companies implementing flexible work models due to savings are doomed to fail. A tremendous amount of work in advance on the company’s side is required for flexible work models to be effective. In addition to the technical requirements, the corporate culture and processes like target agreements also have to be adjusted. Managers need training, while employees need clarity. This is a long process which has to be constantly monitored and not simply implemented overnight.

Which developments in the field of new work are you hoping to see, and which developments are you sceptical of?
I assume that flexible work models will continue to increasingly prevail and that this will facilitate project work. Topics are becoming more and more difficult to delimit and networking within a company is therefore vital to remaining successful. We have found that a more flexible working structure also helps to break down “silo mentalities”. This new approach also requires fundamental changes to management: away from a controlling instance with superior knowledge, and towards the role of a team manager and coach. I am sceptical of companies that want to introduce flexible working environments in double quick time. A works agreement alone is not enough. Above all, the company and management culture within the company have to be adjusted, too. Implementation can only be successful if the concept is well orchestrated.

Mr Köhler, has the emergence of new work changed your personal approach to work?
Most definitely. I use my time more effectively because I have learnt to listen to my instincts. What do I need to do right now to achieve my best performance?

Design Offices is primarily synonymous with flexible working environments. Can you imagine making use of the Design Offices offerings?
Personally, I could well imagine that, because there are a lot of similarities with our approach to work. From the company point of view, we have – so to speak – now already created our very own “Design Offices” for our employees worldwide.