One year of the coronavirus: what we’ve learned, and what we expect for 2021

This is a guestpost by Andreas Ollmann originally published in German on LinkedIn and translated by EnglishBusiness

On Friday, 13 March 2020, we in the Ministry Group spent our last workday together in our agency offices. Due to the increasingly dire coronavirus situation, we decided that if possible, we would not meet in the office for the time being starting the following Monday. The official notification from Berlin came in over the weekend. This means we’ve been working from home for exactly one year, and we’ve learned a lot during this period of time. To mark the one-year anniversary on 16 March, we want to look back – and also to look forward.

Andreas Ollmann quote

“What remains: working from home and digital workshops. What follows are new concepts, new rules, transparency.”
– Andreas Ollmann

To begin with, we have already been working in the cloud for a decade. We were among the first Google Apps for Business customers (later G Suite and now Google Workspace) in Germany, and we have enabled every single workstation to be mobile for years. We have also had trust-based working hours and completely flexible work-from-home arrangements for years. Anyone can work from home at any time if they coordinate with the team. We even had one team with a member who moved from Hamburg to Bielefeld: they worked together every day as though the person were on site.

First realisation: the office is more than a workstation

As far as work processes were concerned, we had no logistical, technical or cultural problems, and were able to continue working without a hitch. The entire project business in the Ministry Group’s communications and software division continued quite smoothly. What we did notice very quickly, however, was that an office serves other purposes than just as a place to sit in front of a computer. And we don’t mean that you can quickly call out to somebody across the desk. Quite the opposite: that behaviour is a sign of poor communication, and nobody misses it.

No, it’s more about the many little bits of social exchange that make a team a team: the meetups at the water cooler, the coffee machine or the stairwell, or while people are cooking and eating together in the kitchen. Our initial idea was to come up with a replacement for these places of social exchange – a virtual coffee machine or a virtual water cooler. Quite quickly, we made appointments with each other for “coffee drinking” or “walking”. These were very deliberately not in the name of “efficiency” but rather in support of team cohesion.

Ministry Group Kitchen

Would our brand workshops, Design Sprints and Learning Journeys also function remotely?

The next thing we asked ourselves was how we could best deal with our “official” appointments. We have a number of them: brand workshops with customers, Design Sprints, and Learning Journeys – mini-conferences in which we gather inspiration for our own transformation and process it in workshops. After it became clear that we would not return to the “old normal” in a few weeks, we looked for tools and principles that would allow us to hold these events online in a way that was just as valuable as when we did them offline.

Today we can say that, while there were certain start-up difficulties, all these formats now take place virtually with no trouble at all. All the necessary tools are also available in very good quality online. Naturally, the meetings have to be moderated differently, and they require completely different time management, but we have organised so many workshops over the past twelve months that we can carry them out in any form quite easily now.

One thing we still think is wonderful is that in principle, many more people can participate in online than offline workshops. One example: normally our Learning Journeys are restricted to ten participants at most so that they can collaborate efficiently in the workshop portion – for instance, in a Lean Coffee format. We painlessly organised more than 20 of these journeys for one Berlin customer. When so many people are sticking Post-it notes on a board at the same time, it has to be virtual. Another great thing is that we save all the travel costs and effort. This makes it possible to get inspirational people on board who would not be able to come to a “real-life” meeting due to the travel expense.

How can events that focus on an exchange of ideas and networking take place online?

Our next challenge was that before the virus hit, we organised various regular business events. We normally invite guests to come to us and discuss their digital transformation with us at our in-house bar. We call these events “fireside chats”. We also organise the New Work Future conference once a year, which brings together about 60 people over two days to engage in intensive discussions about new ways of working.

Ministry Group Beer

We tried out the fireside chats in several variations as Zoom conferences, and we must say: it’s hard to compete with standing together at a bar and talking about an inspiring lecture face to face. We’re going to start this format up again once personal meetings are possible. And the New Work Future conference? It also mainly consists of personal interactions on site. In 2020, we organised New Work Future completely online. This meant we had to rethink everything: the process, the programme, the number of days, the length of the slots, the interaction spaces. As a result, the conference was spread out over four months.

New Work Future Andreas Ollmann

We spread our Motivation Day out over two days in June with shortened inspirational talks, a lot of breaks, and breakout rooms for small group discussions. We moved Interaction Day to the autumn and met in short monthly meetings during the time in between, so that we could support each other throughout the crazy corona summer. We received very positive feedback from participants: Inga Höltmann from Accelerate Academy assured us that New Work Future was the best event she attended in 2020. That makes us very proud. Nonetheless, this year we’re aiming for personal on-site interaction once more, and we want to hold NWF21 here at our place in Hamburg in September.

What remains: working from home and digital workshops are fixed components

Which brings us to our outlook: how will the way we work change in 2021 and beyond? Working from home will continue to be a fixed component. We have all seen that we can concentrate on certain tasks at home much better than we ever could in the office. (Especially if we don’t need to school children at home “on the side”.) We appreciate how well professional work and family life can be connected. But we have also seen how valuable it is to be together in one room during certain processes.

So we know that, while we won’t be working from home all the time, we won’t stop doing it either. That wasn’t how we did it before, and it’s not necessary now. Working from home will continue to play an essential role. For this reason, we are currently working on a concept for how to really use our company’s beautiful 200-year-old building in post-corona times. We no longer need all the office space if a number of us will always be working from home. We have therefore decided to make the building a “shared household” where we “live” together with complementary companies or freelancers from our ecosystem. Our large kitchen, garden, bar and lounge, and the basement party room will certainly help.

Ministry Group Garden

Another thing we’ll keep is digital workshops. As previously mentioned, working together by meeting in person and on-site is without a doubt our preferred version. However, with some projects this can be difficult, for reasons of time or for personal or logistical reasons. In these cases, we and our customers all benefit from remaining flexible, and from being able to switch seamlessly to the virtual version if needed – no matter the subject. With the necessary tools and the corresponding experience up our sleeves, this work method provides us with wonderful new opportunities.

What follows are new concepts, new rules, transparency

We are currently working on concepts for the creation of “workspaces for all ways of working” rather than “workstations for all workers”, because when you go to the office, you frequently no longer need a desk. Instead, workshop spaces for co-creation are called for, with the option to quickly send a few emails on your laptop or tablet now and then. Of course there need to be concentration zones, but it’s not essential that “your desk” be in them – any desk will do.

Ministry Group fireplace

It’s very important that we regulate how we decide who can work where when. We need transparency about how the decisions currently stand, and we need to negotiate these regulations. We currently find ourselves in the midst of an exciting process.

Incidentally, we are also happy to help other organisations based on our experiences. If we can introduce our ideas and the things we’ve learned over the past year to you in workshops, events or Design Sprints – or if you’d like to hear our observations about the digital transformation of brands and organisations – we’d be delighted to hear from you!

About the author

Andreas Ollmann is the founder and Managing Director of the Ministry Group, a group of communication, new work and IT consultancies. He is a thought leader on Business Transformation for the 21st century with a focus on technology, communication and organisational development.

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