Suddenly there it was, the Corona pandemic, and it really turned our lives upside down at first. Society first had to find a way to deal with the new situation by imposing new requirements and rules. And that led to massive restrictions and uncertainties for many people, both privately and professionally. Shops were closed and manufacturing in companies was shut down. Significantly more employees than before the Corona crisis were now to work from home. The corona virus is thus forcing us to separate from each other. But how does this affect modern companies that rely on teamwork? Do teamwork and management work now function differently when we relate this to jobs that used to take place in company buildings?
Christoph Niehus: I’m very pleased to talk to Ines Herdmann from Kristronics today about remote work. And of course we are talking remotely. Hello Ines!
Ines Herdmann: That’s what we’re doing, Christoph. Hello! Thank you very much for the idea and the invitation to talk to you about this topic.
Christoph Niehus: Ines, you’re the Head of Human Resources and Corporate Communications at Kristronics. You’re also a member of the Corona prevention team in your company, which was set up when the virus, almost like a comet, hit the economy . How has this affected your company? And how did you react when spatial separation suddenly became necessary for everyone in the Corona crisis?
Ines Herdmann: Perhaps first of all … Kristronics is a development and manufacturing company. We manufacture for example for customers in medical technology, the automotive industry, e-mobility, electronic and mechatronic systems and assemblies. And at the beginning of the corona crisis, we started with smallish measures, i.e. preparing notices with hygiene rules, pointing out distancing rules, for example in meetings, but also in the break rooms and in the smoking areas outside. But, like many other similarly positioned companies, we naturally wanted to have our staff working from home wherever possible, as quickly as possible, to protect them from infection.
Christoph Niehus: Yes, that’s understandable. But it’s not so easy with manufacturing, is it?
Ines Herdmann: That’s correct. It can’t be implemented in the production area. The employees there are on site in the production halls, assembling and testing the circuit boards on the production lines. Here, attention is paid to a safe distance. Disinfectants are available, and we have been given mouth and nose masks by our parent company, the Marquardt Group in Rietheim, and these have been distributed to all employees since the beginning of April. Things look somewhat different in the development department. Some of the developers had already had the opportunity to work from home before the Corona pandemic, but this was only taken advantage of occasionally. And in administration, for example in purchasing, finance and controlling – including my own department – we have given employees laptops wherever it was possible and sensible to do so. And then we discovered what it means when entire teams, including team leaders, have to agree on different formats within a few days.
Christoph Niehus: I find that very interesting. How did you approach it?
We have tried a lot, looked to see which tools are suitable, where we have to look at processes in remote mode again and design them differently.
Ines Herdmann: Especially in the early days of the past eight weeks, we have been gaining new experiences every day. We have tried a lot, looked to see which tools are suitable, where we have to look at processes in remote mode again and design them differently. And we then exchanged ideas about good practices in the management circle. How this each person’s area is handled when working from home and how we maintain an overview. Personally, I found it important above all else, and I share this experience with all our managers, that the mind set is clear to everyone, that with the restrictions resulting from the decisions to contain this virus, the individual needs of the employees have moved to the forefront, that it is first of all necessary to show understanding for this and that solutions must be worked out together in individual cases, for example in the event of illness or childcare. After all, everyone basically has to contend with similar challenges. And of course there are colleagues who have been hit harder by this difficult situation than others, or who were more quickly overwhelmed by the technical problems when working from home during the first few days. In many cases, it helped us to ask in one-on-one meetings, for example when work packages or deadlines had to be agreed, how the employee was doing personally, to listen to them , to let them know that they weren’t alone, and to simply ask whether there was anything I as a manager or we as a team could do to be supportive.
Christoph Niehus: So the managers at Kristronics are once again being challenged differently than before. What is challenging you in particular right now? And in retrospect, what do you notice most now?
Ines Herdmann: There are many managers in our company who feel more challenged by the current situation as leaders among the employees, because the employees are looking for security during the crisis. So they ask how things are going to proceed from now on. But they also demand more sensitivity and understanding for themselves. We can’t get rid of all their worries, but we listen to them and we try to give answers to questions, even if they cannot be answered with one hundred percent accuracy in these difficult times. But from the very beginning, we have openly expressed the challenges that the company also faces. And we now share that information via monthly employee reports, either directly from management, via posters, but also via the managers in their team meetings. Perhaps another challenge that not everyone, but some managers were faced with: this was the workload situation in teams with employees who can do most of their work on their laptops from home, but who under normal circumstances are also in the production area several times a day to coordinate their work. But, apart from such interface problems, from the very beginning every manager was required to put together and distribute the work orders in such a way that they could be reasonably processed by the employees at home while meeting the deadlines. In order to ensure that this all went smoothly, the team leaders – most of them in the early hours of the morning – held short coordination meetings. But there were also status meetings in between times. Yes, and these are then arranged via various meeting formats.
Christoph Niehus: Which meeting formats or tools do you work with?
Which tool we use depends, among other things, on whether it is an internal meeting at Kristronics or with one of Marquardt’s locations, or a customer meeting.
Ines Herdmann: In the meantime, we’re using different tools. One of the reasons for this is that, depending on the department, we work closely with employees from our parent company. Marquardt, by the way, has around 11,000 employees worldwide, and they use different, proprietary meeting formats. Which tool we use depends, among other things, on whether it is an internal meeting at Kristronics or with one of Marquardt’s locations, or a customer meeting. And in addition to GoToMeeting, we use Skype for Business, Slack is also used as a tool in certain departments, and Jira is used for tasks and planning, where of course the status of projects can be checked at any time.
Christoph Niehus: Company culture also seems to me to be an essential point. After all, trust is essential if the professional input of an employee is important and the company must also disclose a lot of valuable information in order for cooperation to work well at all. Doesn’t trust grow much easier in person ? What does that mean for your management?
Ines Herdmann: I think that in this situation, in which it was also necessary to react quickly, the trust of managers in employees and vice versa is essential, and that this also reflects the quality of the respective relationship. Trust creates trust in return , and we at Kristronics trust that everyone will do his or her part for the team, just as before, only partly from home. And this requires guidelines and clear rules on the procedures, availability and deadlines within which work is to be done, and, in addition, as you just mentioned, we maintain open communication. And, by the way, we now update the workforce regularly via monthly reports, more so than in the past. For me, trust depends on the attitude and implementation by the manager, who takes the initiative in approaching employees, talking to them, and also signalling his or her own responsiveness. Active communication creates trust. Whether in person or remotely. Take the personnel department as an example. The corona pandemic caused us a significant amount of extra work, which meant that we really did have to coordinate our efforts very often. And I’m positively surprised at how smoothly we worked on sometimes very challenging topics, which were also new to us, with the desired outcome . And until today, every morning, before we start our daily business, we start with a ten-minute call where everyone says what’s on their mind, what they’ll be working on that day, and what needs to be completed. And then we get started.
Christoph Niehus: Does remote work for Kristronics perhaps have advantages over working in person?
Ines Herdmann: Always depending on where and in which function and departments remote work can be done, and where it really makes sense, it certainly has advantages. I’ve had the experience of being less distracted remotely, and this is clearly noticeable in productivity if I am not interrupted. In addition, the time I usually spend in the car on the way to the office is already pure working time at home. On the other hand, what I really miss are my colleagues, and the ability to exchange information quickly and easily in the office. I have also noticed that I find it even more difficult to put my laptop aside at home in the evening and that I work more and longer than in the office.
Christoph Niehus: Can you imagine that at some point in time, from a management perspective, there will no longer be any significant differences between the two forms of work? And how would you want to organize your work then? In person or from a distance?
Guidelines are needed which, for example, regulate call answering times, email traffic and so on.
Ines Herdmann: What I am convinced of is that the current situation and all the experiences we are gathering now will have an impact on the future world of work. And I find the idea very appealing to take the chance now and help develop new perspectives. Because now is the opportunity to try things out and to sum up and to further improve the cooperation between remote and local teams. More or less we are all in a kind of discovery phase at the moment, through which we all have to go and in which we can always define new requirements. In any case, I believe that communication and transparency, as I have already mentioned several times, will be of great importance, because expectations simply have to be clearly defined in this context. Guidelines are needed which, for example, regulate call answering times, email traffic and so on. It must be clear which formats are to be used for communication, in what periods of time and, above all, how the objectives are to be tracked.
Christoph Niehus: Our Minister of Economics, Heil, wants to present a law by autumn that provides for the right to work from home. He believes that everyone who wants to and whose workplace allows it should also be able to work from home. He also sees what you just described, namely that there is a danger of working more at home than in the company. I am not quite clear what a law is needed for. I would intuitively say that the decision about working from home should remain with the managers in the companies. Many companies, which are currently forced to make the so-called home office possible, are also finding that this was perhaps somewhat unusual in its radical nature at first, and also of course unintentional. But it often works well, in fact often just as well as working in person . In any case, we will follow further developments with interest. By the way, I read on tagesschau.de earlier that Twitter employees, for example, can decide for themselves whether they want to return to the office or continue working from home after the crisis. Well, dear Ines, thank you very much for these interesting insights into your company. Stay healthy and productive, everyone!
Ines Herdmann: Christoph, with pleasure. I thank you for the conversation and for the interesting questions.