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“It’s time to fundamentally question everything” – how the world of work is going to change.

An interview with Volker Rosenbach, Lead Partner for Deloitte’s Workforce Transformation Offering.
Written on 3/1/21

An interview with Volker Rosenbach, Lead Partner for Deloitte’s Workforce Transformation Offering.

1.    In recent months in particular the world of work has changed drastically. Is this only down to coronavirus?

From a human resources perspective we started to think about the future of work several years ago in the course of developments surrounding “Industry 4.0” and increased digitalisation and use of technology. We have realised that the implementation of major IT projects since the late 1990s have not always led to the expected increase in productivity. Instead of following the traditional approach to implement technology on top of existing processes and structures, we believe that in order to achieve greater results, we need to rethink and re-architect the work itself. 

2.    What impact has coronavirus had on this existing development?

In Germany at least, the coronavirus has acted like a mini time machine. Unlike other countries such as the USA, for example, employers here in Germany have found it hard to not only conceive and design new (virtual) working models but also to actually implement them -- this has certainly also been driven by strong social partners such as works councils and trade unions. The coronavirus has resulted in more openness towards alternative ways of working and contributed to a greater readiness to embrace change and implement things swiftly and at short notice. In normal circumstances, the developments we have seen in recent months would have required a much longer time of internal alignment and negotiation.

3.    Would work have developed further in the form it has if we hadn’t been struck by the coronavirus pandemic?

Work would have changed sooner or later anyway – especially towards more flexibility. With Covid, employees were suddenly confronted with the need to organise their work themselves both in terms of where and when they do it – balancing private as well as professional demands and circumstances. And if one considers the workforce as a whole, existing roles are being questioned and in future, workforces may no longer only consist of full-time employees on permanent contracts but more use will be made of freelancers working in project-related roles. The world of work will also be more open to new technologies – pen and paper are no longer the order of the day; they have been replaced with digital sticky notes. The coronavirus has merely served to speed up this development.

4.    What will the workplace of the future look like? Has the classic office as we know it become obsolete?

We will probably see some form of hybrid model. The working week will consist of days spent in the office and days working from home. In future, team meetings will have a more hybrid form.
Workspaces, too, are changing – the office is becoming a space for physical networking and communication. In future, more space will be devoted to foster communication, networking and exchanging ideas. Of course there will be still be individual offices and spaces to withdraw and have privacy if it is required; physical office times will increasingly be used for face-to-face contact and exchanging ideas and the importance of gathering and exchanging rather informally around coffee/water cooler corners will increase.

5.    The office is also a social space for exchange and developing relationships. Is social contact also possible remotely?

In my opinion, digital working does not replace personal collaborative working. An office as a physical location provides new impulses and gives work some structure. The external appearance alone – the entrance hall, the colours, the flowers etc. – helps to create a (corporate) culture and provide the framework for shared understanding.
In the manufacturing industries, in particular, it has became clear that only working from home is not suitable for this classic German form of industry. While the production staff are turning up for their shifts every morning – possibly having to cope with difficult coronavirus  safety measures – the administration building next door is empty. This is bound to lead to demotivation and may ultimately end up in a class struggle. 

6.    Does the future of work constitute value-add for employees or does it just mean even more stress?

Three factors are necessary for work to satisfy needs as an ideal model and to provide value-add. 1. Companies that offer their staff honest flexibility when it comes to deciding where and when they do their work, 2. social partners who support this flexibility and 3. employees who have the courage and self-confidence to do this very individually, within rough parameters such as core working times . 

7.    What are the biggest challenges for managers in the future? 

The biggest challenge for managers will be to encourage staff and to accompany them on the journey. On the one hand, they have to consider the team as a whole; on the other, they have to focus more on each individual team member and sharpen their understanding of the respective individual challenges their staff face also beyond the boundaries of work. 

8.    What are the main challenges we will meet when facing the future of work? 

Companies find it easy to initiate strategic processes and to define the future but they find it more difficult to critically review and then change things that are established and tried and tested. But this is the ideal time to do this. It takes courage to pause, quite deliberately, and to use the lessons learned made during the coronavirus pandemic in order to embark on a long-term strategic process. It is the companies that manage to do this that will be successful.