It seems as if proven process flows must now be catapulted directly into the future! The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many companies to rethink established work processes and realign their organizational structures. How do entrepreneurs gain clarity now? How do they manage their company correctly? What does it take to redesign departments and processes intelligently, and what new opportunities can companies now also offer themselves?
We talk with Bessie Fischer-Bohn, director at enomyc, about these questions in our current podcast episode. Bessie Fischer-Bohn, who studied medicine and psychotherapy, has combined her expertise with business knowledge and has been advising managers and companies for many years in the areas of process optimization, organization, and development.
Mrs. Fischer-Bohn, with you, we have a very versatile and experienced expert. You have combined economic knowledge and medicine. That is interesting. Can you tell us a little more about your career?
Yes, gladly. I originally studied medicine and am also a psychotherapist. Using these developed skills, I have accompanied the change and development of people in various environments and at the same time have a business background with a focus on entrepreneurial organization, quality management, and change processes. The consulting projects that I have accompanied for many years are always the combination of change and development of the individual, the team, and the management team of the employee and the company in processes and departments – in other words: throughout the entire setup and the structuring of a company.
You are certainly in demand at present. What are the particular changes in your main areas of work?
I think you can divide that into two blocks. One block is work organization and processes. Many companies are dependent on rethinking their organization in a completely different and new way. Supply chains break down, but they still have to keep production going. Sales reps suddenly work from home. They can no longer travel and visit their customers. This means that processes that have been rehearsed for a long time are now breaking down and have to be rethought. The workforce is on short-time work and can no longer provide full-time support as they normally would.
The other block relates to leadership. Managers must now lead their employees through the crisis in a different way and communicate differently, and this is regardless of where they work – from their home office or in the company. These are the questions that are also topical in consulting. In addition to all the economic issues that many companies are now facing, there is a pressing need for the right leadership and the right language.
How does a manager gain clarity in this time? Where is the best place to start?
It is important that managers do not think they have to do it alone – that is one characteristic of many. They think, “I can do it alone; I have to do it alone.” It’s better to put together a crisis team. This is really a tried-and-true and very good method. It has proven to be a good idea to put together a management team that makes decisions and brings in different strengths and with whom the management of the company regularly consults.
The special thing about a crisis is that the guidelines and the framework on which managers base their decisions can change very quickly. This means that they must be open to constantly rethinking their decisions, reflecting on them with the team, and being courageous: if they do not have the right experts, they should consult employees from other hierarchical levels or external parties who can provide input on which decisions can then be made.
One hears that in some companies the workforce sometimes goes on sick leave even though they are not sick. What do you think: what are the reasons for this and what have you observed yourself?
To be honest, I have had the opposite experience. I think that in this crisis – which is a truly global crisis for the first time and affects all industries and hierarchical levels – people are showing solidarity. That they are more loyal to their employer than they might be under more normal circumstances. That they are more likely to stay on the job and perhaps even come to the office sick. It is not for nothing that the rule “As soon as you feel the slightest sign of illness, please stay home!” applies. The danger is that the employees will come anyway.
Of course, there are always people who call in sick. Certainly, there are also uncertainties. Many do not want to expose their own family to risk and therefore call in sick although they are not. But I believe that loyalty and solidarity outweigh this.
There are fewer people on-site and many in the home office. There is less capacity to continue to produce actively. How do you restructure a department, and what steps can be taken to reorganize a department intelligently?
The key questions are: What do I actually do? What is the core, what is the activity of this department? What are its tasks and what are its processes? In these times, some managers realize that they may not know their employees’ areas of responsibility very well. When they do, they usually find that tasks can be made more efficient and processes can be defined more clearly, reorganized, and merged.
The die is cast anew: suddenly many entrepreneurs realize that efficiency can be achieved by merging what was previously separate. In most cases, such new efficiency can also save labor. However, this can be a temporary decision: you have a part of the workforce on short-time work and a part on-site, so you have to cope with fewer employees for a certain period of time. During this time, you should simplify processes that you can rethink and set up differently afterward.
Can you give us a practical example? Let’s take a personnel department with tasks in recruiting but also in accounting and more. Which employees should go to the office and which to the home office? How could job interviews be conducted now?
This is a good example. If I imagine a classic personnel department, then it is currently as if it were being catapulted into the future! Recruiting, job interviews, and even assessments can take place remotely via videoconferencing, for example. You don’t have to sit opposite each other for this. This is something that HR departments are now learning. Although personnel accounting and payroll accounting are often handled with a corresponding program, many personnel departments still have the familiar Excel lists that are kept in parallel. These filing systems often consist of double and triple paper – despite the paperless office.
How are the processes here designed? It is worth taking a closer look to find out how to work more efficiently, whether the software can really only be used in the office, or whether there are also tasks that can be done in the home office. Many companies then realize that they are not equipped for the home office at all. In the beginning there were many difficulties here. But slowly the technical equipment came, and work could be done just as well as from the office.
What is the situation in manufacturing companies? Of course, you can’t send everyone to their home office. What kind of experiences have you had here?
Here, great efforts are made to divide the employees not only into shifts but also into groups. The aim is to avoid having to send the entire workforce to quarantine if there is a case of COVID-19 or a suspected case. This means that, in addition to the shift schedule, a group schedule must be created so that the same employees always work together. Here, the legislation has now also opened various doors. For example, the Working Hours Act has been amended so that shorter rest periods must be observed and working hours can be extended. This gives you more freedom to keep production going at most times.
How can managers ensure that their teams work in a results-oriented manner without giving them the feeling of too much control or even mistrust?
The word control often has a negative connotation, but it is something that ensures that a task is completed within a certain period of time. Managers expect feedback on whether something has been done or not. This must of course be agreed upon and is something quite normal in working life. In this respect, an aversion to control is unnecessary. In the current times, companies are even more dependent on control. They have to be sure that everything is going in the right direction.
What managers notice in this context is that they have to communicate much more clearly than usual and have to communicate their expectations explicitly. Then they also receive feedback from the employee about what can be achieved in the given time – or even what cannot. This in turn creates clarity: many managers only now become aware – through these precise agreements – of the effort required for certain tasks. This is a huge step; it means transparency and an opportunity: work packages can be created that are designed for a week, for example. The daily asking of questions is then no longer necessary; only the results count.
How can managers learn to trust?
As a coach, I say through coaching. One should talk about it and reflect. Awareness is the first step. The second is to learn through positive experiences. That means you should delegate a task and trust. In most cases a lot cannot go wrong. The staff will give feedback – on whether or not the timeline can be met, for example. Then everything is good; there is a relationship of trust. If managers do not receive feedback, the relationship must be investigated. Managers must make it clear that they expect feedback on the process. So they should state a clear expectation and then give feedback if it is not met.
“Communication is essential,” you said in our preliminary interview. So what about when entrepreneurs need to communicate negative decisions, such as sanctions?
What is important is to communicate at short intervals. In a crisis, managers must not allow the intervals between information to become too long. They must take the workforce with them. For example, there could be communication once a week on the current situation. This is important in order to give those involved the feeling that things are moving in a consciously controlled direction. In other words, as a manager, I have to give them the feeling that I have a goal and a strategy that I am pursuing – even if it has to be readjusted.
Another thing of importance is that decisions – even negative ones – must be made comprehensible. Take the example of short-time work: it must be introduced, and the reasons for it must be made transparent and explained. The expectations for the period of time can be mentioned, but in any case, the management and employees stay in contact, and the development of the company is discussed regularly. In this way, managers achieve that the employees feel included.
How can managers motivate their teams during this period? What possibilities are there?
I think there are many possibilities. One is to be a role model, to maintain exemplary, active communication with employees. Whether on-site – in production or in the groups that carry out other activities in the company – or from their home office, managers should hold regular meetings and show that they are always available to answer questions. They should seek regular contact by video- or teleconference to engage in an exchange of ideas and make an effort to not just go over the facts.
An example: there is an agenda for the videoconference, and one often tends to go straight into it. It is better to start with personal questions because, after all, there is no need for the usual coffee break in the canteen or kitchen where people talk about the weather or other topics. Asking first how the employees are doing is elementary. Managers need to be aware of this in order to keep the team together.
How can managers still motivate?
By eliminating tasks in some areas and also saving time, managers can use this to positively influence the corporate culture. For example, how can they achieve that the entire team grows together better? Cross-divisional projects could be set up, such as Working World 5.0 – the working world after the COVID-19 pandemic. Guiding questions could be: What do we learn from the current situation? What do we consciously take with us? Have we had positive experiences? How can we maintain them?
Many employees show extraordinary commitment. How can we not only motivate them but also reward them? What are the possibilities and ideas?
First of all, it is important to recognize their extraordinary commitment, to acknowledge it, and to express praise clearly. You should show employees that you notice their performance. You can then consider what interesting tasks you would entrust to the employee that they would perceive as a reward and advancement within the company. This can be very motivating!
If managers suddenly see budding talents and strengths, they can give their employees the gift of further training – for example, a webinar or coaching. Telling employees that you have thought of something for them and want to invest in them is a nice reward that can be implemented right now. Just in case some managers now wince at the word invest: there are also numerous free but very professional webinars.
Let us come to the opportunities: what does the current phase hold?
The fundamental opportunity is that we are now – especially in Germany – being digitally catapulted forward. This is a huge opportunity for all companies. Now we have to keep at it and ask ourselves: What technical equipment – both internal and external – do we need? What software do we need to work collaboratively? Going digital is a huge opportunity for all companies to reorient themselves.
However, one must keep in mind that the office in the company cannot be represented 1:1 in the home office. Now only the results count; the teams work when they want, where they want, and how they want. Developing yourself as a manager also means no longer sticking to the same processes as before and from now on measuring yourself by results. By the way, if you measure by the result, then you also measure those who work quietly and diligently in the background. Otherwise, they wouldn’t speak up in the office during a meeting because they are not the type. Performance is now perhaps judged more objectively because results can be brought in in a different way.
Digitalization naturally affects technical equipment, and this in turn involves investment. How can entrepreneurs reconcile change, the necessary resources, and finances?
This is of course very much dependent on the sector, but this is a calculation that could be made. For example, if a significant proportion of employees will continue to work in their home office in the future, companies could reduce the amount of office space at their headquarters. Many workers plagued by traffic jams save themselves the stress; there is no need to travel to and from the office. Managers can count on their staff to be sitting at their desk at eight o’clock in the morning and – if they are technically well equipped – can work optimally. They can manage their own time and are certainly motivated to do so. So entrepreneurs save themselves a lot of back-and-forth and gain pure time.