Shifts in the Culture of Workplace Attendance: Opportunity for a Strategic HR Organization - A Guest Column by Kai Kuhlow, Senior Vice President HR Standards and Compensation & Benefits, Schaeffler AG

Wednesday, 15. April 2015

Perhaps you have already wondered, "How on earth did we manage ten years ago without Smartphones, WhatsApp and emails keeping us jumping around the clock?" Maybe you look at your children, shaking your head, and ask yourself, "What is this world coming to?" Children are permanently online, and the moment they aren't, they are instantly out of the loop. Scarcely a minute goes by in which a Pling! isn't announcing an incoming message. And I'm not talking about Generation X, Y, or Z, but of elementary school students.

Without a doubt, there is already a paradigm shift indicated in the earliest phase of socialization. What impact will this have on our society? On the way we live and work together within existing organizational structures? And how can we respond to these changes, or even better, proactively manage and utilize them?

The Culture of Workplace Attendance in Transition

First, some examples to illustrate my point:

  • There are mobile software developers and call center employees in all the hotspots of the world: Berlin, New York and San Francisco, as well as Denpasar, Delhi and Chittagong. They do not need much more than a high-speed Wi-Fi connection and those gadgets which enable communication between the community and their clients, the laptop and headset. This is easily provided by a cafeteria with multiple outlets and an espresso machine to provide a congenial atmosphere. Troublesome rules? Bureaucratic laws? Nagging supervisors? No such thing. However, you can't say that they are not doing anything significant, just because their time and attendance are not being tracked. Of course, software development is only one side of the coin. But today even a missing spare part for a car gets ordered through a call center in Ankara; only the delivery is still carried out locally by real employees.

  • Then, there is the IT specialist who relocates his office to the harbor cafe in Palma de Mallorca and moans when his boss orders him back to Germany for some time where work means fixed structures and rigid targets and guidelines.

  • And then there is the 16-year-old from Wilhelmshaven who is graduating from Princeton University. Keeping in touch with family? No problem, thanks to Skype. And the time difference leaves room for parties and the boyfriend.

If these, admittedly extreme, examples describe our current situation, then that can mean only one thing: that we are facing a radical change in our culture of workplace attendance.

HR as a Shaper of Change

In order to make this change comprehensible, it helps to take a brief look at the past. Where do we come from?

Very simply, from a background of rigid routines. Barely 15 years ago, it was hailed as a success if we introduced flexible working hours in our organizations or if we set up work time accounts with which personnel could "independently" decide when to take time off to make up for overtime. The laws have been amended to protect employees from "exploitation."

And those of us who work in HR? Have we driven the changes that have taken place during this time? How do we run our organization today? With targets? Or would we rather watch the clock to see which of our people have not yet arrived by 8:30 and who leaves before five? Which, after all, is nicely awarded with, "So, half a day off!?"

And I don't even want to get started on the discussion of collective bargaining agreements and laws at this point, because what matters is how we can manage to change the culture of workplace attendance from the situation outlined above. The HR organization must now accept its role as a shaper of this change and take this responsibility into the strategic planning of the company.
Classical Training Alone is Not Enough

HR organizations must adapt to these changes NOW by responding to them and taking appropriate actions. But one thing should be clear; tactical measures alone are insufficient for the fundamental nature of this change. Executive personnel, particularly those of tomorrow, must be made strategically fit.

Each training session must increasingly focus on the cultural gap that is causing the shift in the culture of workplace attendance. A generation socialized in an entirely different way, one that garnishes emails with emoticons, is making its way into companies and into the boardroom. Traditional classroom teaching styles alone will not sufficiently sensitize executives and managers for this phenomenon. New formats are required.

Results-oriented discussions must address the issue of what this cultural revolution means for the future of a particular company. If we do not integrate these discussions into the training sessions, we will not bring about cultural change, and then we will not be able to groom any 55-year-old business leaders for the future.

But who among us is already coaching leaders in this sense? Where nothing can really be controlled by manuals or work instructions... Therefore, I urgently call for coaching programs that are already answering the following questions for managers today:

  • How do I deal with employees that I never see?
  • How do I monitor work results when it is already difficult to handle the paradigm shift from "attendance" to "results" in practice?
  • How do I handle my commitment to be responsible for the welfare of employees?
  • When in doubt, how can I ensure compliance with labor laws, if I have no personal contact with the employee for two weeks?

Calling for external support in human resources will not suffice for this. HR professionals need to radically change their self-image. One or another should consider mediation training.

Hardware Also Makes a Difference

The HR organization must also begin to raise awareness in the company about new work equipment.

Smartphones and Tablets will determine our daily work routines instead of phones and PCs; the "bring-your-own-device" philosophy will open up more latitude; professional social networks are replacing the traditional email.

The traditional office has had its day. Sitting areas, "social areas," and workplaces with relaxed atmospheres will define the interior design of the future. R&D employees, for example, should work in a creative space that is worthy of the name, because this is where ideas spring from, not from cheerless desktops.

Of course, all this costs money. Looking ahead three to five years, any budget created must answer the following questions:

  • Which employees belong to my target group in the first place, and what are their specific requirements?
  • What are the objectives of the organization as a whole?
  • What are the long-term costs over and above purchases?
  • What immediate steps can I take to bring the changes within reach?
  • Which adjustments will take more time?
  • What are the opportunities and risks presented by this approach?

Loosening Rather than Tightening Rules
One issue that we must not neglect in this scenario is that of employee representatives. How do they react to these changes?

Even now, conflicting demands are being made. While home offices and mobile workstations are advocated, servers are required to be turned off after working hours, and individual rights are protected 24 hours a day.

My fellow HR colleagues are not off the mark with this. At this point, I would however like to vote against regulations that are too rigid, because in these times of a fundamental paradigm shift, we are not able to address all eventualities with laws.

Of course, it makes sense to consider one regulation or another. For example, the home office. It is essential for all organizations to clarify who pays for a home office in the first place. Furthermore, how do we deal with sick leave, if there is no longer a classic time recording system?

But do we really want to shut our servers down after working hours? When is “after working hours” anyway, if the designated lunch break has not even been taken in some of the worldwide branches? Also, the result of such a shutdown is known: Employees just have more emails to answer the next morning. The all-important question has to be: Does our target group even want this rigid set of rules, or has this mindset long since been outdated? I think the latter is likely.

A look across the Atlantic sometimes brings things back into perspective: At the multi-billion dollar start-up Uber, the employees create working structures themselves. So, the trade unions for once should simply sit back and relax.

Last but not least: the money. This is where the fun is known to stop, and no one seriously questions the need for binding rules here.

But one thing is also clear: The compensation systems will have to change significantly. Payment based on attendance? This cannot continue. Compensation must be oriented toward the management model. Or even better, compensation should be oriented toward specific targets. Managers must be trained to formulate targets which support the new mode of working and which must be defined in the new compensation systems.

HR of the Future and Strategic Planning

The HR organization outlined here, which is already fit for the future today, supports a company's strategic planning in many ways and, in many cases, is critical to success.

If, for example, a strategic gap is identified in a corporate portfolio during the analytical phase of planning, it must be closed by means of an acquisition. Everyone knows that such a merger involves more than just bringing two balance sheets together. It is the fusion of two corporate cultures which, in these times, may be at very different stages in changing over the culture of workplace attendance.

Specifically, while one company may already be pursuing flexible work schedules and organizing social networks for employees who are not geographically bound, compulsory attendance still prevails in the other company whose work environment is dominated by the stationary PC. Now is the time for a sustainable HR strategy that recognizes the cultural problem area, supports the opportunity for change, and implements a desirable new form of organization.

Those of us working in HR must begin to pervade our company with this spirit of change today, prepare managers for it, and use the motivation of junior staff members to change our organizations, so we don’t lose the fun of working.

I am not suggesting that HR staff should withdraw into workshops and occupy ourselves with the topic of "setting ourselves apart," but that we must all "join together." Each corporate division is therefore queried. New IT systems must be installed in order to enable a digital work environment. We need to enter into discussions with employee representatives to make this work environment possible with the current laws and regulations in Germany.

I am certain that we can do that. The road is long, but it is irreversible and we have to take it. The goal is clear, and I am happy to repeat it:

That we don't lose the fun of working.