Digital empathy: is Germany rewriting its rulebook on workplace design?

Behind the façade of efficiency and introversion, the 2018 WORKTECH Munich conference exposed Germany’s softer side of community and people-centred technology

While some cultural stereotypes can miss the mark, Germans will often be the first to admit that they feel more comfortable in environments that are efficient and regulated rather than warm, fuzzy and open. So, when more than 20 speakers came to Microsoft’s German Headquarters on 27 June to talk about open work communities, WORKTECH Munich was destined to lead us into uncharted Teutonic territory.

Community values

Traditionally, urbanism has sparked mental images of imposing skyscrapers and impenetrable workplaces, but Susanne Mayer and James Grose of architects BVN argued that now is a chance to ‘rethink, recalibrate and regenerate’ these images in favour of open communities.

Showcasing key projects from New York skyscraper 1100 Avenue of Americas to Auckland campus B:Hive, BVN showed how the practice has transformed these formerly closed and exclusive workplace environments into places of interaction, collaboration and community. Such schemes help work to blend with community through ‘masterplans’ that consist of blurring boundaries, vertical integration and creating vistas.

Christine E Kohlert of architects RBS Group emphasised the importance of the physical office space as a catalyst for creative thinking and employee wellbeing in five key principles: space for mindfulness, authenticity to express ideas, a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, and vitality through biophilic design.

But community does not only exist in the physical realm, as Sebastian Hild of conference host Microsoft pointed out. Hild believes that digital tools such as Microsoft Analytics can also play their part. Norman Romaiks and Michael Grosam of Combine Consulting supported this with their case study of Adidas’ new headquarters just outside of Munich – the first fully digital office that is centred around creating community through technology and sports.

Digital deliverance

The workplace has often been the testbed for technological innovations – some more successful than others. Philip Ross of consultants UnWork explained a whole spectrum of ways technology has not only influenced the office but also tapped into our senses. From biometrics, cameras and touch screens to conversational computing and coffee aromas, our senses are being hacked and heightened by technology and this assault on the senses has reached the workplace.

Mary Ann de Lares Norris of software company Oblong went on to discuss the need for technology to integrate with space. Combining the three pillars of culture, physical space and technology, she explains how a measurable ROI can derive from creating workspaces that promote collaboration, engagement and efficiency.

Matthew Marson of consultants WSP supported this by recognising the importance of creating a synergy between the office and technology. As employee expectations of workplace grow, the office has become the battleground in the war for talent. Workplace design is in a constant state of beta, and technology needs to adapt to help employees work more easily.

But with smart buildings comes big data – the root of much workplace angst. A panel of four tech experts – Sander Schutte of Mapiq, Mary Ann de Lares Norris, Matthew Marson and Philip Ross – debated the fundamental question of data collection in the workplace: who owns it? If we don’t know who owns the data, how can we properly secure, share and use the data to produce experience that are truly beneficial to the user?

Alignment, leadership and empathy

Germany, like many other forward-thinking countries around the world, is progressively growing its flexible workplace market. Ben Munn of Instant Group showed figures of a 10 per cent growth in German flexible workspace, with Germany now hosting a total of 870 flexible centres. With a shift in workplace environment comes a shift in workplace behaviours. Mark Bӧhmer of designers AECOM said Germany is experiencing a shift to self-management and autonomy. Technology made with employees – not for them – is helping employee behaviour align with company values and the workplace.

But while there is certainly a shift in German attitudes towards new ways of working, we shouldn’t forget that Germany prides itself on a firm regulatory framework. This framework can be restrictive in the face of change according to a panel led by Philip Tidd of Gensler and featuring Javier Lamo of Bayer Real Estate, Martin Brueback of Roche Diagnostics, Rainer Huff of Telefonica and Katerina Matheis of Merck KGaA. Change in workplace means organisations need to think more strategically about their priorities and the way they manage employees.

‘Change management as an afterthought is very expensive and difficult to do…’ – Claudia Hamm, JLL

As technology and workspace collide, there are calls for leadership to become more empathetic towards employees. A panel including Marc Nicolaisen of Steelcase, Claudia Hamm of JLL, Andrea Lipp of Chance-Change Consulting and Allan Chester of any2any, who chaired WORKTECH Munich, debated how this more empathic approach might influence workplace design. Queue a sharp intake of breath from the German audience.

Empathetic leadership does not, in this case, refer to weekly meetings where leaders discuss feelings with their employees. Instead it recognises the need for the employee experience to be an integral part of organisational productivity. As a result companies need to look at space and technology holistically. If it doesn’t complement the employee experience, it’s not worth having.

Lexicon exposed

After several hours of hearing about ‘seamless’ technology, ‘exponential’ growth of the flexible market and AI, and the rise of ‘wellness’ and ‘digital natives’, James Woudhuysen of London Southbank University concluded the conference by telling us exactly how this lexicon is blinding us from recognising truths in the shifting workplace.

‘Italians haven’t made a seamless suit in 250 years, so how can tech be seamless?’ – James Woudhuysen

Woudhuysen started by saying that ‘human ingenuity trumps information technology’ and sociology develops at a faster rate than technology. So the promiscuous use of the term ‘exponential growth’ in the context of AI, robots and jobs is a scare factor, not a reality. Similarly the term ‘digital natives’ forces a certain demographic into a stereotype that should neither be indulged nor discriminated against.

While Woudhuysen is not denying that the workplace is changing, new ways of working are emerging, or even the importance of technology, he is managing expectations by questioning the jargon carelessly thrown around the workplace to disguise the extent of change.

Will Germans manage their own workplace expectations? Germany may not have the most open office environments yet, but WORKTECH Munich opened up the possibilities of a better, human-centred alignment of management, technology and employees needs. We might yet see a softer side to the German workplace emerge.

View the WORKTECH Munich review site here.
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