“The pandemic has been a catalyst for digitalization”
“How will we shape the future of work?” The second SpreeTalk at HTW University of Applied Sciences Berlin will be about the new world of work. Brain City Ambassador Professor Dr. Kai Reinhardt is one of the guests who will be speaking and participating in the discussion at the virtual event to be held October 29, 2020. Brain City Berlin spoke to him about the current fears many workers have, the challenges for companies in the face of digitalization, and how the pandemic is both a threat and an opportunity for companies and employees alike.
Dr. Reinhardt, how has working life changed in general as a result of the virus?
A key question that arises in this context is: how will the virus permanently change the working environment where we are asked to act competently on a daily basis? For years, we have been seeing signs of disintegration in the old world of work thanks to the coming of digitalization, virtualization, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence. All of these have been small, yet significant crises in every company. In and of itself, change is nothing new: it always results in an organizational realignment. For about ten years, we have observed that the crises are happening much more frequently and are much more severe.
Can you be more specific?
Many micro-transformations have already been taking place on different levels. That makes it difficult to recognize the crises as such. Let’s take the example of the transformation to the so-called Gig Economy. This is a massive shift from working for a single employer to freelancing. This development has led to an increase in project-based jobs. It has made it necessary for both freelancers and companies to set up completely new competence structures. The pandemic has had a similar effect, only much more suddenly and invasively. The key is building new skills, for workers and managers alike. The COVID-19 crisis is now brutally revealing which companies have to date failed to move out of their comfort zones.
Speaking of comfort zones, for most people, working during the pandemic is also frightening. For half a year now, many of us have been pushing the limits of our comfort.
That’s true. The increase in uncertainty is a part of this development. Uncertainty leads to fears: we can see that in employees, but also in companies. A recent US study shows, for example, that around three-quarters of all employees consider quitting if they feel that their employer is downplaying the COVID-19 risk. But companies and executives have their own fears, too. In order to be able to act competently in this crisis, it is important to empower employees and managers and develop competence structures. In my book I speak of “antifragile companies,” that have anchored these capacities in their DNA and can handle crises relatively well.
And what physical aspects are there to fear in the workplace?
On the individual side, this is first and foremost the fear of being infected by one’s co-workers. This is paired with a fear of loss, the longing for social exchange with one’s co-workers which doesn’t take place as readily when working from home. In the study cited above, around 90% of those surveyed complained that they lack direct contact with their co-workers.
In your keynote speech at the SpreeTalk, you’re going to be addressing the impact of COVID-19 on organizations. Can you give a rough outline of what you’re going to say?
Technology companies are role models for how to deal with the situation. They have long used certain coping practices. Remote work is just one example. We have learned from companies that only exist as a virtual network how to maintain digital relationships with customers and suppliers without physical contact. Companies with traditional business models were not nearly that far in their transformation. It is now exciting to see how quickly these companies are developing new competence structures and what new business opportunities will arise from them. Because after a short period of stabilization, this is now an opportunity to relaunch a business!
What challenges are companies currently facing?
Companies have to become more agile and faster. And they have to question existing structures. Let’s take the topic of flat hierarchies: in most companies, these still contain hidden hierarchies. It’s just not what’s needed anymore. It is currently more important than ever to accelerate decisions, especially on the fringes of organizations. The pandemic has been a catalyst for digitalization. Because the new strength of destruction brought about by the virus is creating new urgencies.
And what does the crisis mean for workers?
They will generally have to take on more responsibility. Hybrid work offers great advantages. This includes organizing one’s work, ongoing training, and new, better communication. That’s great for many, but not everyone. Most employees first have to learn to organize themselves when working away from the office and develop their own sense of initiative. However, I am talking about the elite level of knowledge workers. In the medium term, poorly qualified workers are very likely to fall through the cracks. Management plays a crucial role in a hybrid business. Managers need to learn to let go of outdated leadership principles of the industry.
In a few days, the Berlin universities will start the second semester of digital classes. What has changed for you personally?
I am fortunate enough to teach in a humanities faculty. In many of the natural sciences, my colleagues are now almost back to normal. In the humanities, however, we have become real pros at streaming. Like many of my colleagues, I broke new ground in the past semester: I learned about technology, video editing, and even lighting. I could imagine that this will become more professional. In the US, some 80,000 students are taking part in online university courses. Personally, of course, I miss the direct contact and exchange with the students. On the other hand, I have recently taken part in many virtual conferences that I could not have attended in real life for reasons of time and money. The world is currently getting a little closer, even if it is physically distancing itself.
Let’s return to the SpreeTalk, which is taking place for the second time on October 29 at HTW Berlin. Why was the event launched?
HTW Berlin invites people to come to the SpreeTalks because it sees itself as having social responsibility and specifically wants to shape its district of Berlin-Schöneweide. This is already happening in a variety of ways. The researchers, students, and employees are networked in numerous activities at the district level. There are student projects, application-oriented research collaborations with locally based companies, and with key players in the wider society. The SpreeTalk brings all of these people together around a single table. Or, as in the year’s case, in a shared virtual space.
What can university events such as the SpreeTalk achieve for Brain City Berlin?
Formats such as SpreeTalk make the Brain City Berlin something tangible even in the local neighbourhood. The guests will become aware that science is not sitting in an ivory tower, but instead that the scientists at HTW Berlin are dealing with the same questions that they are themselves asking and are coming up with concrete answers. At the SpreeTalks, people have the chance to enter into conversation with one another and reflect on changes that they are experiencing and observing themselves. Together they can develop positive images of the future. There are enough topics, because Schöneweide is clearly changing for everyone: not least because it is one of the eleven Zukunftsorte in Berlin.
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