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Tomorrow’s work environment: More leeway for the employees

Working from home or planning your shift by app – Audi is looking into various ways of shaping what form work will take in the future. In this double interview, Wilhelm Bauer from Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO and Jochen Haberland, Head of Audi HR Policy, discuss making everyday working more flexible.

You do work when at work – it sounds self-evident, yet somehow a little passé. Young people in particular increasingly seek more leeway when going about their profession. In concluding the “Mobile Work” company agreement, Audi has laid the foundations for a more flexible future approach to work. Wilhelm Bauer discusses tomorrow’s work environment with Jochen Haberland. Timo Pape asked the questions.

 

Where is the potential for greater flexibility in everyday working life?

Bauer: Greater flexibility simply brings so many advantages, because the workforce can manage their own lives. It becomes easier for them to organise their private lives and reconcile family life with a career. The problem is often that companies don’t understand what can actually be achieved in this domain. And opinions within the workforce itself are usually also divided. Half of them would love to work flexibly, and the other half not at all. The management needs to start by understanding that both positions are correct. There’s no good or bad approach, both are normal. The wide range of needs is the most positive aspect of this topic.

Haberland: The potential resides in the fact that it makes the employees more satisfied. Young employees, for example, who are taking parental leave. There comes a time when they’d like to return to work, for instance part-time, especially in production. But unfortunately their plans often come to nothing because shift work has always been organised rather rigidly. We need to make sure we hold onto these highly qualified employees, develop them and give them more leeway.

 

What opportunities does Audi offer its employees for flexible working?

Haberland: Since October 1, 2016 a company agreement has been in force at Audi that gives all employees a fundamental right to mobile work, provided their task allows it. And by the way, mobile need not necessarily mean working the whole day from home; it could equally mean an hour in the morning or evening.

 

But in what direction is the future work environment heading?

Haberland: We want to become more flexible on the shop floor too, in other words including on the assembly line. That’s rather difficult where work involves strict sequences. But we are working on other options in order to offer greater flexibility to the workers in assembly, too. Pilot projects on this are currently running at both Audi locations in Germany. On the one hand we are varying the starting time, and on the other we are dividing the shifts up into blocks that are ideally built around the timing of breaks.

Block one might for instance mean from six o’clock to the first break just after eight. The workers in the pilot project can choose for themselves which blocks they would like to work – maybe the first two blocks, maybe the whole day and maybe the occasional shift off. In the future this planning process could be handled by an app. When a worker logs on they can see clearly at which workplaces they can be deployed with their skills.

Bauer: I think organisationally that sounds like a really good solution. A lot of people claim it won’t work in a factory. But the reality is that there are already flexible processes in every department, for example to cover when someone is off sick or temporarily unavailable. Everyone knows how to handle such a situation. If a significant proportion of the workforce supports moving away from classic attendance times, it’s a win-win situation for all concerned. All it takes is a bit more communication effort.

 

The scope for working from the home office will mean less face-to-face communication in the future. Won’t that undermine the quality of results?

Haberland: The basis of mobile work is always a clear agreement among the parties concerned. Take the example of part-time work: with this working model, too, it’s clear to everyone in the department that an employee only works mornings, for instance. So all relevant topics need to have been discussed by lunchtime. You can plan that in. The work results obviously need to be of high quality. That’s something every employee needs to treat as a top priority, whether working from home or in the office.

Bauer: Many studies have even shown that working from home is extremely productive. Among other reasons because those employees really make an effort so that they can refute the hitherto widespread notion they might really be just lazing around on the balcony. That’s not normally the case. There will obviously still be points of contact between the home office and main office. These need to be optimised – through organisation and clever management. If that can be achieved, it will have a positive impact on employee satisfaction and on the quality of work.

 

To what extent is it a good idea to make the workplace an oasis of well-being for employees?

Bauer: Well-being is always good. But I don’t think it makes sense to bind employees so strongly to the company that they spend all their time there. What ultimately matters is that there is effective communication between employees. The design of the premises can play an important role in this, and for instance promote creativity among employees.

Haberland: That is why we are putting much thought into the design of our offices at Audi. For example we offer communication corners instead of simply setting up row upon row of desks. And the kitchenettes are often located centrally and open-plan, so that employees can meet there to share ideas over a coffee. There are clearly many areas where we can do even more, but on the whole it’s already working quite well.

 

In theory employees can continue teleworking from home after normal office hours. Does a company need to protect its employees against themselves?

Haberland: Yes, absolutely. But it needs to proceed with discretion. Obviously we have the health of our employees at heart and want to comply with labour legislation. But as an international company we operate worldwide across different time zones, so we need flexibility. The most important thing will be to establish trust in the employees and grant them individual responsibility.

To protect our employees, our new company agreement specifies off-limits hours from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., when people shouldn’t be working or making work-related phone calls. If it comes to someone’s attention that emails are regularly being sent at midnight, for instance, the manager in question needs to step in. We regularly give our managers training to raise their awareness specifically of such issues.

Bauer: Obviously there will always be exceptions when the regulation times can’t be complied with. It doesn’t serve anyone’s interests if there’s a problem in China and nobody in Germany is answering their phone. Responsibility for such matters rests to some extent with the head of department, who needs to have a feel for each individual situation. You can also adopt a hard-and-fast approach – such as resorting to technical means to prevent emails from being sent during the off-limits hours.

But that isn’t good, because people who are determined to work will always find a way round it – by using their private email address, for example. We don’t need a culture of surveillance, we need to treat each other with sensitivity. We need clear rules, but ones where exceptions are possible. And we need a culture of responsibility for this new, more open and more mobile form of working. A respectful approach instead of rigid rules – it’s all very much a question of leadership.