‘Learning by doing’ very well describes the situation we now find ourselves in. Normally, getting up to speed with new tools and better familiarizing ourselves with all things virtual is something we do gradually. Now we have been confronted with this situation faster than we thought. A question familiar to many: “Help, how does it work?”
The leadership team from Siemens IT Application Platforms and Digital Solutions (APD) recently faced a challenge in the context of the New Normal: organizing a virtual management team offsite, that usually takes place locally.
We talked to Erik Mohr (Head of IT APD, responsible for more than 1,200 employees in 40 countries) and Sonja Hoppe (Head of IT APD Business Excellence, NewNormal@IT Lead) how they mastered the situation and why it is so important to maintain the team spirit in these days.
Erik, normally the IT APD management team offsite takes place twice yearly at one location and in a common space but not this time, right?
Yes, exactly. Due to the current situation, we made a conscious decision not to forgo the offsite, but to hold it purely virtually. Normally, we always meet offsite twice a year. Together as a management team, we reflect on and discuss key issues around customers, employees and strategy. This time, we also wanted to learn something about virtual collaboration. As managers, we must lead by example.
Completely virtually – that was a new experience for you both, wasn’t it?
Sonja: Actually, as I had the pleasure to organize and moderate the whole event, I acquired a lot of new knowledge and it was very enjoyable. I drew heavily on the experience of colleagues from different units. It was also great for me to be able to learn a lot from a young ‘digital native’. We immediately turned this into a reverse mentoring exercise.
Erik: From a technical perspective completely virtually works and can be very productive, but social elements, like meeting at the bar, is missing. Honestly, it’s not the same experience, even if it can be as productive.
What preparations did you have to make for your virtual meeting?
Sonja: We set up a “Digi&IT Executive Session” for the entire management team and spent a one-hour lesson going through various tools in compact form, applying them in practice. The focus was on Microsoft Office 365, with the interpersonal side also examined. We practiced in a virtual test environment that became our new virtual setup immediately after the event. Beforehand, we used MS Forms to ask about requirements. It was very important to us to familiarize ourselves with interactive elements that also foster creativity, team spirit and collaboration. We then carried out the “Digi&IT Executive Session” with management teams from other corporate departments. The best way to learn is to acquire new things, apply them immediately and then teach them to others.
Which tools and services ultimately proved their worth during the virtual offsite?
Sonja: We held the entire offsite over 3 half-days via Microsoft Teams. What really proved itself was MS Forms. We used this tool both before the event to ask participants about expectations, focal points or wishes and afterwards. It was also used after individual presentations to capture participants’ direct feedback for the presenters. Integrating the chat function allowed us to interact during the sessions. We also worked with Conceptboard, which offered fantastic opportunities for creative breakouts. When discussing high-potential employees (Potential Panel), we integrated the Siemens Snapshare app, which won a HR excellence award in 2019. Beforehand, there was also a call for self-nominations via the internal Social Media channel.
So did everything work during the offsite or were there also situations that made you smile?
Sonja: I can remember two funny situations. Once, I wanted to try out using smilies in Conceptboard to gauge the mood in a ‘check-in’. The participants were supposed to simply move their mouse pointers to the smilies. But everyone grabbed a smilie and dragged it into the corners of Conceptboard somewhere. I probably hadn’t communicated the procedure in sufficient detail – or colleagues simply wanted to play a joke. We then had a good laugh together about the result, which was also a nice start to the meeting.
In another situation, we were carrying out a group task. Each team was supposed to meet in a sub-channel in MS Teams and at the same time record to various Conceptboards. We lost a few colleagues on the way there and then had to clarify who was where over the phone. It was so nice and you simply have to laugh about scenes like that.
What key learnings emerged?
Erik: ‘Camera on’ is a key feature to make sure everybody is really in the call. If you are a role model in putting camera on, others will follow. Breaks in between are essential, latest after 2 hours, better after 1,5 hours. Intensive interactive means are key as well. The chat function as a feedback channel can be very helpful. We need to think how we can virtually ensure the same experience to some extend, e.g. “meeting for a virtual drink” as replacement for the “meeting at the bar”.
Sonja: Yes, I totally agree. Regarding the camera I do invite everyone to switch the camera on and most do it. That makes me especially happy.
For successfull meetings, I would add: Ideally, a few minutes should be scheduled at the beginning for personal interaction and ‘small talk’. Then, a clear structure to the meeting and rules of play are very helpful. Before the meeting, it should be clarified which tools are to be used and how. Good preparation on the part of the person presenting, timeboxing and assigned roles are very important – as many participants as possible should be able to play an active part from the outset. You may also try things out – and if something doesn’t work: keep calm and laugh about it. Sufficient breaks also play a role and should be scheduled in. It’s also very nice to end the meeting 5 to 10 minutes before the full hour to give participants a quick breather before the next event – there’s a great, simple setting in Outlook.
Erik, you are responsible for quite a big team at Siemens. What are you doing to stay virtually in contact with your directs and to stipulate the team spirit? And why is this so important for you in these times?
The regular Jour Fixes with my management team members, now scheduled all virtually, are similar as on-site meetings. One important fact is to put even more emphasis on calling people than emails. Call people just to know how they are doing. When you start your meeting you should take conscious time for small talk. Raise awareness for topics outside of normal work to compensate the missing coffee/lunch meetings, emphasize positive feedback and the fact that topics have been mastered despite COVID.
We have a constant dialogue and communication. For example, we implemented a quarterly All-hands meeting which continues fully virtually as well.
Why it is important? The perception that we cannot meet in person can increase risk of loneliness even impacting personal health. Build connections between people, think who can help and find practical ways to make sure people don’t feel alone.
What will the future look like? Do you want to hold the next management team offsite virtually again?
Erik: After long time being virtual I would like to meet in person again at a point of time, not from a technical, but from an emotional perspective.
A lot will depend on the actual COVID situation and what’s possible and what’s not. COVID shows that we might need on-site meetings less than we might have thought before.
Sonja, you are now taking care of the NewNormal@IT. What does that mean exactly?
A New Normal Working Model has been launched at Siemens. At the same time, we would like to establish the New Normal with all its elements within the Siemens IT organization for the good of employees, customers and partners, be a role model for Siemens and provide impulses. NewNormal@IT was recently launched to that end. I would like to tackle issues that bring added value. In doing so, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but ideally to build on things that are already in place at Siemens or being developed. There are a number of New Normal best practices at IT that are being driven forward by dedicated employees. And the initial dialog has already produced more great ideas and innovative formats.
Thank you very much, Erik and Sonja, for the interview!
The key message is clear: there is no need to fear the virtual world but it is important to not forget the social together. Being virtual is no longer just a means to an end, but a firmly established part of everyday working life. If tools are used correctly, productivity increases and the social component can also be addressed. The New Normal offers many opportunities and fresh possibilities, and also breathes new life into all levels.