Munich faces up to the challenge of reluctant returners

The Bavarian capital was once an icon of well-engineered business success. Now its companies are battling to make the office relevant to the new hybrid era, according to the WORKTECH Munich 2022 conference

Business life in Munich usually whirrs like a well-oiled machine. But as the Bavarian capital finally opens up after the lockdowns of the pandemic, there are signs that a precision return to the office is not going quite to plan.

In a city renowned for sleek professionalism, there is both puzzlement and frustration as companies find themselves grinding through the gears to get back to a new normal. But according to the WORKTECH22 Munich conference which took place at Design Offices on 31 May, there is also a quiet determination to rethink the workplace.

According to conference chair Christine Kohlert, the Munich-based designer and academic, the German workplace has entered a phase of experimentation – it is in a ‘constant state of beta’ with many pilots and mock-ups but few conclusions as yet in the hybrid era. The good news, explained Kohlert, is that ‘there is a rich appetite for change’.

Pilot in the tower

No project demonstrated the conjoined emotions of uncertainty and creativity than Telefonica’s special pilot floor high up in the 02 Tower, Munich’s tallest building, close to the Olympic Park. Here, Telefonica is experimenting with a wide variety of different workstyles and settings – and partnering with smart building specialist Haltian to digitally coordinate the new approach and collect user data.

A pre-conference visit by delegates to the site confirmed the innovative potential of the pilot. Yet, as Rainer Huff, Telefonica’s portfolio and strategy manager, told WORKTECH Munich, numbers returning to the tower are still stuck at around 10-15 per cent despite the wealth of working options on offer.

Reluctance to return

Telefonica is not alone is facing a reluctance to return to the office. Speakers from other large corporate firms, including Roche, Allianz, JLL and Boston Consulting Group, reported a similar position during the conference.

In a survey of global trends, WORKTECH Academy director Jeremy Myerson cited various employee tracking studies including Unispace’s report ‘The Reluctant Returner’ – this surveyed 3,000 employees in nine European countries and concluded that nearly two-thirds of all workers (64 per cent) are unwilling to go back to the workplace for a variety of reasons.

The Germans workforce is not the most reluctant according to the Unispace research – that accolade belongs to the Irish. But it is showing some surprising obstinacy given the conformity that traditionally characterised the German workplace in the past. So what is to be done?

Certainty and light

In a session on how to build a sustainable approach to flexible working, Peter Otto, Condeco’s Chief Product Officer, proposed that the future workplace will need three things: certainty (so people can feel confident that they can book the right space or meet the right colleagues); collaboration (so teams can interact face to face); and capacity (so companies can calculate how much space they will need).

In a presentation on the significance of light, connectivity and communication, Jonathan Brune of German lighting company Luctra argued that poor lighting detrimental to wellbeing will only slow the office return. Brune talked about using connected technology to provide individual ‘light recipes’ for workers – these recipes are ‘present in the space when you are present’.

‘Nobody was under any illusions about the scale of the task ahead…’

But nobody was under any illusions about the scale of the task ahead. In a session on ‘reinventing real estate’ curated by Erin Horback of JLL Technologies, Roche’s workplace lead Christoph Rogge explained how his organisation does not just have competitors in the life science sector – ‘the competitors are also the airport lounge, Starbucks and the home office’. And Mayser Axel, head of global real estate at Allianz, revealed how much his company’s productivity levels had risen (reaching a five-year peak in 2021) with the advent of remote work.

Faced with data like that, said Axel, it was hard to argue strongly for a full office return. But, on the basis of the conference as a whole, that won’t stop Munich’s workplace industry seeking smart ways to revitalise the Germany’s once smoothly infallible workplace.

View the WORKTECH Munich 22 review site here.
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