“The current pace of vaccination is staggering – more than one million people per day in Germany. “We are finally making major strides in the return to everyday normality,” says ERGO CDO Mark Klein: “And there is no question that we really want this – both for our private lives and our workplace. The pandemic overwhelmed us virtually overnight, forcing us to implement emergency plans for work organisation and drive ahead with digitalisation. But with all respect for the virus and its impact, we can clearly say that it worked and coronavirus became an accelerator of digitalisation. We tried out a new approach to working, and there are many sides to it that I would not like to abandon after the pandemic is over.”
“We cannot run companies just from home,” argues Professor Michael Hüther, head of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, in an interview with the public broadcasting radio station Deutschlandfunk. He believes the reasons for this relate to innovative ability and “the way we interact with each other.” We have recently been living on the substance because we have not seen each other in person for so long.
This is a view that I would share 100 percent. Increased efficiency, and a reduction in socialising – that is how I would sum up my personal experience of the last twelve months. Meetings, for example, have become much more efficient. To begin with, we had to learn that the appointment diary entries are too generous. We always finished well before time because you get to the point faster when communicating remotely, and people work through the agenda without any beating around the bush.
But all the same, there was still something missing. With in-person meetings, the remaining time was seemingly spent on other matters, such as socialising, getting to know and appreciating one another, and occasionally talking about other topics. Everything that is so important when people work together with people. That is why I’m looking forward to the time after the pandemic, and to seeing my colleagues again on a regular basis.
On the other hand, in this extreme crisis mode, during this permanent emergency situation, we tried out things that we would otherwise not have attempted for the next ten years. Some things worked more or less, some not at all, but some were really successful. I am quite convinced that we will need to adopt many of these in our everyday work routines after the pandemic.
In this article, with some help from my management colleagues, I have put together ten things we have learnt from the coronavirus over the last year:
In comparison with other insurers, we at ERGO are front runners when it comes to digitalisation – and indeed are ahead of the pack for some technologies. Despite this, there was considerable tension when staff had to move from their offices to working from home last March – and our IT suddenly found itself having to provide remote access for 11,000 users each day.
I have the greatest respect for our colleagues who managed this task. The majority of ERGO employees switched overnight to working from home. The systems were able to cope, but without the pressure from the lockdown, we would never have tried this out. It would be nice if this realisation encourages us to try out some other things – this time without being obliged to.
“I don’t really like working from home.” This is one of the more celebrated manager comments on the subject of working from home. Or rather it was. The coronavirus pandemic has changed all that. The home office is no longer anything unusual. Instead it has become an aspect of what is currently often referred to as the “new normal”. All of a sudden, the question is no longer whether, as a manager, I am in favour of it or against home working. Instead, what mattered was how I organise working from home so that the work is actually done and staff feel supported.
But the situation became more complicated, because colleagues were no longer just a room away from one another. That meant that, all of a sudden, team spirit had to be properly activated. And admittedly, remote working cannot succeed without a basic level of trust between manager and employee. In this context, we all profited from the period before the coronavirus, when the relationships were first established. Obtaining open feedback is particularly important when working at a distance – that is what we have found.
In this sense, we need to see the coronavirus as a starting point. What we now need to do is re-design our processes, digitalise them and make them suitable for a hybrid approach. We need to take advantage of the current momentum.
But that is also part of my work: teasing out what is possible without constructing unrealistic dream worlds. I am learning every day and can demonstrate time and time again that the best solutions are found when you put your heads together – and get down to the nitty-gritty.
The coronavirus crisis illustrated that we should not be lulled into a false sense of security about seemingly invulnerable business models and companies. In some cases, what struck in the wake of the pandemic felt rather like disruption (and we should not forget that the insurance industry has fared relatively well in comparison with other sectors).
For example, we (unsurprisingly) lost significant market shares for what are known as annex insurances, for products that are sold in permanent retail trade. But to compensate for this, we invested heavily in annex business in the online sector and are now seeing very good growth figures in this area.
This should help keep us on our guard and encourage us to constantly embrace change – even when things seem to be going well. That applies in particular for me, as a senior manager. We can sometimes operate in a bubble, screened off from the rest of the organisation. For that reason, you need to constantly check that you are focusing on the essentials, on reality! Be respectful of risk, and use this respect to drive forward change.
As I said earlier – working from home is a success! At the same time – whether you now work at your kitchen table or in your private study – the boundaries between life and work are becoming blurred. Where does the office stop and home life begin? Everything is merging, and the clear lines of separation between the professional and private spheres, such as previously the journey home, are no longer there. Colleagues repeatedly tell me that they find it more difficult to separate the two areas.
That is one side of the coin. On the other hand, we have never enjoyed so much private life, time with our families and partners as we have in the last year. We were present at home, and yet at the same time, at work. One colleague told me: “Hosting the world via Teams in my home was certainly an experience”.
For this reason, just like ERGO, many other companies intend to incorporate remote working to a much greater extent in their planning, even when normal times return. This will lead – and we are already seeing this at ERGO – to movement from the city to the country, to an exodus to homes in the country, with more space and a bigger garden – and to completely new models. I will be fascinated to see how this develops.
We really experimented a lot with remote working, and not only took virtual coffee breaks, but actually held after-work parties and played virtual Pictionary. We gave our thumbs-up not just on Zoom, but we are holding our management meetings in 3D worlds – where each person wears VR goggles and is represented by an avatar in the meeting space. It’s very cool, but also quite tiring.
Despite all the experiments, two values from the analogue world remain irreplaceable: inspiration and relationships. Building a relationship is only possible in the long term if you work together in an office. Inspiring people and being inspired yourself, chance meetings in the corridor that bring you on to other thoughts and ideas, these things do not happen in a remote setting, or at least not as often – you always need to make an appointment.
Remote working is also monotonous. It lacks the colourful creative spaces, the different atmosphere around you, in which you can let your thoughts flow, and sometimes think “just” about what is for lunch in the canteen.
People’s attention span is shorter in remote meetings than with face-to-face events. Maintaining flow and focus, making the session enjoyable, and shaking participants out of their usual ways of thinking – all these things are important.
We are not using just one, but a range of constantly new digital and intuitive tools. Creatively designed whiteboards are becoming the new virtual space, where participants can work together at the same time.
You can see what other participants are currently working on, can quickly insert templates, post-its and images, and work efficiently with votes and time boxing. And a huge advantage is that, afterwards, everything can immediately be saved and exported in real time as a PDF.
What is crucial for success – and this quickly became clear with us – is not so much the technology as changing forms of social behaviour. It is important to create an atmosphere for a creative remote working environment in which all participants have the feeling they can participate.
For such an atmosphere, it is helpful to have rules that have been jointly agreed in advance, along with spontaneous agreements during the process and effective moderation.
With digital sessions, you also need to mute participants so that background noises do not disturb the process, while keeping the camera on (provided the network is not about to crash). And of course, as always, show creative courage, give recognition to wild ideas and do not engage in mutual criticism (except in brainstorming sessions!).
All-day workshops are not feasible in a remote format. 2-day workshops have become week-long workshops with smaller sessions each day. The ideal length for a workshop is four hours. Having a break after a maximum of 90 minutes is a must. Integrating activating warm-ups worked very well for us.
A day’s break should be scheduled after two days of a digital workshop. It is important to have a good mix, not just of different tools and methods, but also to have the patience and flexibility to make spontaneous adjustments, and to enable breakout rooms and small, mixed groups.
The agenda should always be accessible to everyone, so that other tasks can be mentally scheduled on the day. What’s more – remote means remote! Having two socially distanced people in a room looking at a screen and talking into a microphone reduces the quality for everyone. And in the case of larger workshops, carry out a quick test and rehearsal beforehand. Sometimes things can go wrong because a headset that just worked perfectly in a Zoom session decides not to work with Teams.
For larger workshops, we send out a personalised care package beforehand that contains the agenda, rules, templates, a “Please do not disturb” sign for the home office, and occasionally even snacks for participants. It’s quite an effort, but it helps people to feel that distance between them has been reduced. This technique of “positive priming” before the workshop is important to allow it to start off in a good atmosphere.
Once the workshop has started, it is crucial to allow colleagues to actively participate in the process and selection of methods via Skype, Teams or Zoom. This continuous co-determination process creates a greater feeling of responsibility for the end result, and motivates participants to create their own formats and transfer them to other projects.
I mentioned above the management meetings with VR goggles. Everyone was immediately enthusiastic, and it was a little like a playground for adults. Each person has an avatar with recognisable facial characteristics, and you can hear the voices of the other people, which become louder or quieter when colleagues turn away or leave the room. We can even look out on a lake from the meeting room, and there is a balcony with a magnificent view (our virtual meeting room is not in Düsseldorf) that you can walk out onto.
But after the second meeting, I no longer felt like heading for this balcony. Things quickly become a routine and we will now see if VR is just a fun game, or if it creates genuine added value. However, you can only find out if you make the most of it, rather than playing it as a game. We have now condemned each other to wearing these goggles for an entire year. After that, and not before, we will draw our conclusions! That is also an insight – keep trying things out!
We have learnt a lot from the coronavirus. It is a starting signal, and what we now need to do is keep going with even more determination.
Text: Mark Klein