New Work at Otto empowering employees

Hamburg News visits dynamic, progressive, cross-functional Otto Campus
03 January 2018

Nothing has been left to chance at Otto GmbH & Co. KG’s co-working space in Bramfeld. The campus has food trucks, bicycles, soundproofing carpets, soft light and social areas. Stefanie Hirte, Head of Personnel Development and Marketing at Otto, has spent 25 years working in e-commerce companies and gave Hamburg News a look behind the scenes for our series on “New Work”. 

Taskforce restructuring working world 

Around 7,000 employees work on the campus, which is about the same size as 37 football pitches. The campus even has its own postcode and the effect of the new working world is palpable. To meet this challenge, the company has come up with the “Future Work“ initiative managed by Irene Heshmati. She noted: “Living conditions are changing and artificial intelligence is spreading and gradually replacing routine work procedures. On the one hand, employees are making different demands on their workplace, the surroundings and technology. On the other hand, employers’ demands and expectations are becoming ever more complex. That leads to other work methods and workplaces. Future Work aims to structure this development process and to allow Otto to press ahead as a unit.”

Focus on people 

People are at the centre of this development based on the choice of freedom and accessphilosophy, said Heshmati, adding: “We wish to empower our staff and let them be able to work wherever and whenever they wish.” Dr. Max Neufeind, an industrial psychologist, added: “Trust plays a central role in the working world of the future. Productivity gains promised by new technology cannot be achieved without involving the employees. Establishing trust in change is elementary in both social and economic terms.”

Cross-functional teamwork 

Six people in the “Future Work” team have been doing interdisciplinary work since November 1, 2017. This is where area management meets corporate communication and IT specialists. Cross-functional teams are the norm at Otto. “Managers must learn that their staff are not in the office 24/7. Thus, we set up a strategic *leadership and co-operative initiative” in 2015 for managers. Now, our employees are responsible not only for the contents for their daily work, but are also free to decide where and when they work. Managers must be open to and foster this new world,” said Hirte.

Four core values of cultural change 

Cultural change goes hand in hand with the World of Work 4.0 and protocols and meetings culture is outdated. “Technical tools are changing the way we work together. We send each other SMS, take photographs of our sketches and have used the German “you” instead of the “Sie” since 2016*. Formal limits are disappearing,” said Heshmati. New values are developing that pay tribute to the changing corporate culture and boost innovation. This flexible working culture means each employee has a laptop. Hirte explained: “I have done home office work for 16 years. We want to give flexible working a huge boost and we wish to escape the nine to five mentality. Our employees’ working hours should match their own bio and creative rhythms.” Otto has created diverse opportunities for that on the campus. 

© Otto GmbH

Feedback and freedom

New kinds of rooms and means of communication and fewer formalities should create an atmosphere which employees ask questions and give feedback. Transparency and networking should make decisions more comprehensible and break up departmental and silo thinking. Once a month, the board of management meets in the foyer and with the employees to discuss the latest developments. Questions are not welcomed and feedback plays an important role. This tool allows managers and employees to meet at eye level.

Away from nine-to-five to personal work rhythms 

"I have spent Mondays working at home for 16 years. We want to promote the topic of mobile working solidly. We want to get away from the nine-to-five thinking. Our employees can organize their working hours according to their own biological and creative rhythms,” said Hirte. Otto has created a wide range of possibilities on site to this end.

Co-working spaces at Otto

In January 2017, Otto Group opened a co-working space called “Collabor8” across 1,700 square metres in Hamburg-Bramfeld for some 200 employees. Staff can work freely in a relaxed atmosphere that boosts flexibility, networking and creativity to push ahead with digital transformation. In spring, the company opened a boulevard allowing staff to work outdoors where workspaces are even equipped with waterproof sockets. Hungry staff can stock up in summer at food trucks. And there is even a Christmas market during Advent. The campus also has a beehive in line with Otto’s emphasis on sustainability. 

Boosting the “we” feeling 

Hirte has a clear goal for 2018. “We wish to boost the ‘we’ feeling next year and to disrupt thinking in terms of divisions and siloing. After all, we are all working towards the same goal. That unites us – not the status, hierarchy or membership of a certain division.” Apprentices are already living accordingly and describe their work at Otto as “working among friends”.