Matthias Langenbacher: Mr. Klampfer, in recent times, almost all sizable organizations have introduced remote working and, by and large, have found it to be successful. So what’s the issue?
Wolfgang Klampfer: If, by remote working, you simply mean transferring your office workstation to your home, then there is no issue. All you need is a laptop, a desk and a reliable Internet connection. However, there’s more to remote working than simply working in a different place. A much more important question is how remote working impacts on relationships between employees when their only interaction takes place virtually. How does this alter roles, status, communication and cooperation? How can I ensure each individual is actively involved and what can I do when the technology lets us down? Behind all these questions are requirements that overwhelm many people and are of increasing concern to organizations.
M. Langenbacher: Even Siemens?
W. Klampfer: Yes. Although we may have become aware of the issue earlier than many smaller organizations, given that our management teams have been spread across the globe for many years, COVID still acted as an accelerator. When the pandemic broke out, it became all too clear to us just how many people needed support in making the switch to virtual meetings. What’s more, we had rolled out Microsoft 365 at around the same time, which led to further uncertainty. One interesting aspect of the situation at that time was that there was an unspoken expectation of managers along the lines of: ‘You can manage it – you are managers, after all’. However, many managers were just as overwhelmed as everyone else by the new infrastructure and the complete change in the overall situation. Prior to that time, there had been practically no training on the topic of virtual leadership.
M. Langenbacher: It was shortly afterwards that you and your People Excellence team rolled out #collaboGreat to support virtual teamwork. What makes this training concept special?
As a team, we have experience in driving innovations in relation to learning, so we found the switch to virtual collaboration very easy. We therefore asked ourselves how we could share our ideas and methods to enable managers to feel at ease again, or at least to perform in such a way that teams would remain together and loyalty to the company would be kept intact.
Of course, we could have simply referred people to our LMS, where there is an abundance of material on topics such as virtual leadership and virtual meetings. However, we didn’t want to do that, because people get completely overwhelmed by it – they need to click umpteen times to reach the learning content, and it often doesn’t even address their issue when they get there.
Instead, we wanted a practical solution that would be really easy to access. In the end, we decided on a collaboration hub on SharePoint that involved a story-based approach. In this context, story-based means that we identify a specific situation that an individual finds themselves facing. This might be ‘How to Conduct Virtual Team Meetings’, for example. We then tell a story, complete with an introductory video, infographics and other elements, to provide users with a step-by-step approach to a solution – a best-practice method instead of 20 possible solutions that just cause confusion.
M. Langenbacher: How many of these best practices have you now put in place?
W. Klampfer: We have created a total of 13 ‘how to’ stories for CollaboGreat on the subjects of virtual teamwork, virtual leadership and technical support, thereby covering all the important issues that arise. We knew we had to act fast, so we also agreed that we would go live straight away, right from the very first story, and add a new story every three weeks. This agile approach proved to be a good decision, because we made fast progress, got valuable feedback right from the start and were able to draw attention to the project every three weeks.
M. Langenbacher: You worked with tts to implement #collaboGreat. What was the allocation of roles?
W. Klampfer: tts took charge of all the project management, leaving us free to focus on the content without constantly having to worry about deadlines, milestones or deliverables. tts was also in charge of executing the collaboration hub. In other words, they developed and implemented the SharePoint concept for CollaboGreat, ran workshops, created the videos for all the stories and were responsible for the graphic design of the infographics for the steps of the solutions. As the project owner, tts was also able to work live, directly in SharePoint, which was another advantage, since that meant everything happened very quickly. In fact, ’all’ we had to do was write the stories.
M. Langenbacher: What sort of response have you had to #collaboGreat?
W. Klampfer: It’s been overwhelmingly positive. Even people who are experienced in using technical tools have welcomed it. It looks good, and they love the fact that it takes them just one or two clicks to reach the content. They also find it super-easy to understand. Other departments are now increasingly asking us if they can provide links to the stories to draw their staff’s attention to the support that’s available. Some even want to use the stories, or parts of them, on their own platform so that users can access them in their everyday working environment.
M. Langenbacher: Are the stories only intended for managers, or can anybody gain access to them?
W. Klampfer: When the idea of the stories was first put forward at a management conference, the focus was very much on managers. However, at People Excellence, it was immediately clear to us that this was our topic – we wanted to be in the driving seat and, of course, take account of all employees. This means a target group of 20,000 people in our division alone. However, right from the start, we also said that we wanted all 270,000 employees to be able to access the stories. We currently have 2,500 unique users who have accessed the stories 24,000 times in total, with each viewing lasting five minutes on average. These figures are already very good compared to the 200 to 300 we had to begin with. Following the launch of a communication campaign, it all really took off.
M. Langenbacher: Based on your experience, including with #collaboGreat, what problems do employees typically face when working from home rather than in the office, and what particular support do they need?
W. Klampfer: Even with complete virtualization, and regardless of how many first-rate tools we have, we still need personal contact. It’s very important to remember that humans are social animals. No matter how widely dispersed team members may be, we need to come together in the real world, at least now and again, to interact in person, have a drink together, chat and get to know each other better – or just have fun.
Even virtual meetings offer a lot of scope for improvement. It’s not just a case of everyone mastering the technical side of things – it’s important to remember that there are still hundreds of ways to make meetings more interesting and more personal. For example, we always have a Teams chat open in the background, so anyone in the meeting can post something and others can respond to it. This might be related to the topic being discussed, but it doesn’t have to be – it could be something on an interpersonal level.
In the future, soft skills for the virtual world will be more important than ever – actively involving people, galvanizing them into action, addressing them directly by name and taking a holistic view of the virtual situation. These are challenging circumstances that call for new skills, including – and especially – amongst managers.
M. Langenbacher: How does a manager’s role change when it comes to virtual teamwork?
W. Klampfer: We need to bear in mind how important managers are for all these change processes. How well employees get on in this virtual environment and how much progress they make in terms of their personal development depends largely on their manager. The past two years have shown me that it’s well worth investing more in virtual leadership, especially when it comes to the skills of young managers, since they are the future of the company. If these young managers don’t like straying out of their comfort zone, their employees won’t make progress either. What we need is people who manage and lead the way, make sure others are on board, too, and create a psychologically safe space where people feel well supported. This is especially challenging when it comes to virtual teamwork, and managers need to know how to go about it.
M. Langenbacher: What, for you, is the particular appeal of helping people get to grips with new technologies?
W. Klampfer: It’s a subject close to my heart. After many years spent working in Learning & Development, I still get very enthusiastic about ‘innovation in the workplace‘. I’m hugely keen to keep driving this forward, to ensure others are on board with me and provide them with opportunities for personal growth. People who act as rudders demonstrate how to set sail – and I’m passionate about this.