Deutschland dilemma: Munich sends a mixed workplace message

How can Germany reconcile its status as the world’s innovation powerhouse with slow progress in transforming its workplace design? The WORKTECH Munich 2019 conference debated the issues

Germany has secured its reputation as a global engine of efficiency over many decades, creating a well-distributed and balanced economy across all of its major cities. It is recognised and celebrated for its innovative manufacturing, yet it struggles to keep up with workplace innovation. The WORKTECH Munich 19 conference, hosted by Microsoft on 26 June, was a platform for debate on how German companies should turn their focus to workplace experience and flexible design to yield more innovation.

Unlocking innovation

According to the World Economic Forum in 2018, Germany is the most innovative country in the world but it ranked the lowest for workplace innovation in a Gensler study. Philip Tidd of Gensler suggests this statistic is based on the lack of spatial diversity in office buildings in Germany. Of the 18 million people in German offices, only 27 per cent are in spaces which provide balance for different types of work.

This means that there are more than 13 million people working in underperforming workplaces across the country, claims Tidd. The Gensler report makes three recommendations for the German workplace: introduce transformation to create a greater sense of belonging; respond to demand for more open, more collaborative spaces; and prioritise employee wellbeing.

Office space is often used as a tool to unlock innovation. A panel led by Alexander Gutzmer of Quadriger and comprised of Philip Tidd, Martin Bruebach of Roche and Sofinias Demsas of Bayer Real Estate, discussed unlocking innovation in the life science arena – an industry known for its regulations and slow adoption of change. The German workplace is built on legacy and hierarchy, and culture change is difficult to implement, but Bruebach recommended engaging with employees and using pilot projects to see what works for the company culture and what doesn’t.

Digitally-charged spaces for change

Western Europe is the biggest flexible space market in the world, yet Germany is still relatively immature in that market according to John Williams of Instant Group. Only now are landlords starting to shift their attitude as corporate demand for flex space and alternative innovation space grows. The importance of flexible space cannot be over-estimated, the market is estimated to be worth $10 trillion by 2030, Williams told the conference. However, large corporates in particular struggle to understand how best to use their space. This challenge has seen the emergence of digital tools as a means to unleash the potential of workspace.

Derek Wright of Signify argued that a flexible and adaptable infrastructure is required to keep up with the constant state of beta in the workplace. Different sensors can be fitted into flexible infrastructures to allow companies to measure various aspects of their workplace, which allows for constant tweaks and adjustments to tailor workplace experience to the behaviour of the employees.

Uli Blum of Zaha Hadid Architects supported the idea that digital tools give us a greater insight into how and where we should work. His architecture firm has developed an algorithm which enhances the design process in the era of frequent disruptive change. The algorithm looks at connectivity (from a distance and visual perspective) and identifies the desks which have optimum communication potential. A company can then use this information to sit the right people in these spaces to optimise innovation and knowledge sharing within the organisation.

While most digital tools seemed to be reserved for facilities management, David Williams of Microsoft argued for the democratisation of technology – especially when it comes to raising the bar for innovation. Using the example of Microsoft’s new Redmond East Campus, Williams explained that IoT solutions can break down complex tech, which is often seen as inaccessible to most employees, and create new experiences through a digital ecosystem of partners.

Enhanced workplace experiences

Indeed, digital solutions are not only used to improve the spatial layout of a workplace, but also the employee experience. Elisa Rönkä of Siemens looked at the office building as a platform to enhance workplace experience and maximise the potential for connectivity in the building. She claimed that 93 per cent of people feel like their workplace isn’t the right environment for them, which means there is a worrying misalignment between what employers provide and what employees want. Rönkä looked at digital tools such as the digital twin and workplace apps to gain a constant flow of behavioural feedback.

Gideon van der Burg of Leesman and Anne Wernand of Mapiq meanwhile explored workplace experience on a more granular level in a joint presentation. They suggested the types of spaces needed within the office to create an environment which enhances innovation, productivity and wellbeing. Spaces included: focused areas, collaborative areas, spaces to relax and unwind, quiet areas and spaces which are well connected to other colleagues.

This approach was demonstrated in the creation of LinkedIn’s Munich offices, according to Ingrid Knigge of AECOM and Klaus Friese of LinkedIn. The co-creation of space with employees resulted in flexible spaces which allow for constant change to update the experience for employees based on the evolving company culture.

‘Brands are judged harshly on how well they create experiences…’

Design thinking and co-creation of space with employees is a big part of creating a sense of belonging in organisations. Adam Scott of Freestate claimed that brands today are more harshly judged on how well they can create a sense of belonging and experience. He explained the idea of a ‘narrative arc’ in which there is an initial attraction, then people want to get involved and then they feel a sense of belonging – at which point, they are actively engaging with the brand or branded environment.

Scott’s background as an architect in exhibitions, temporary events and pop-ups (‘when you’re live, you know immediately when you’re wrong’) was evident in his experiential approach – and at a time where workforce disengagement is costing employers huge sums of money, his ‘manifesto for the experience revolution’ really struck a chord with a Munich audience still reeling from the stark findings of the Gensler survey that argued for transformation in the German workplace.

If WORKTECH Munich 19 jolted the Teutonic efficiency engine out of any sense of complacency, at least there were no shortage of good ideas to take away and pilot back inside the organisation.

Expert interviews at WORKTECH Munich

Martin Bruebach, Roche Diagnostics, Germany

Adam Scott, Free State

Elisa Rönkä, Siemens

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