In the first Vitra Session, Antje von Dewitz, CEO of Vaude, talked about how the outdoor equipment and apparel company implements a distributed work model.Antje von Dewitz, at Vaude you have thought a lot about how your employees can achieve sustainable working lives, and also how the company itself can establish a sustainable work culture. Are the two connected?In order to make work meaningful and promote a good quality of life, a company requires a culture in which those things can evolve. We have established a culture of trust and make it a priority for every individual to be able to develop in a way that suits their personal needs and desires. This also means that we need to provide the parameters for a good work-life balance. We want our employees to feel comfortable and know they can simply be themselves. It is our conviction that this way of working is not only healthier for our employees, but also releases a great deal of energy that is ultimately beneficial to the company as well. We can only meet the complex, dynamic challenges of today’s world with employees who are highly motivated and passionate about their work, and who can fully develop their creative and innovative impulses.
You had already established a remote working structure before the pandemic broke out. Have you observed any changes during the past months?Yes, it works even better than before! Now remote working is routine for everyone, and we have learned many things that have made it more efficient. Previously, when someone was working from home, their co-workers often hesitated to contact them, thinking it might be a disturbance. Now it’s just business as usual, regardless of where the team members happen to be located.How did it all begin?When we started to more actively promote remote working about seven or eight years ago, we not only set up the technical infrastructure – with cloud management solutions, universal distribution of laptops, etc. – but also embedded a culture of trust, giving our employees a high degree of flexibility and personal responsibility. That turned out to be a successful strategy, and remote working functions very well. However, certain aspects of our company culture are of course absent from the home office.What aspects in particular?Our team members miss the interdisciplinary communication that happens spontaneously on the company premises. The actual office setting has a canteen, a gym, a climbing hall and other places where people can get together informally. Of course we are trying to offer such meeting opportunities in digital formats, but it’s not the same. For example, we introduced the Vaude Campfire, a virtual video blog that we have used during the crisis to regularly inform all of our colleagues about the latest developments. This helps us to strengthen our sense of community and create a feeling of belonging.
What do you think is going to happen moving forward?We are currently working on a concept for the post-Covid future. One thing we are looking at is the layout of our offices, and how we can better fulfil the desire for these kinds of interdisciplinary encounters. At the moment, our desks are arranged according to workflow. I can imagine that we will work with mobile desks in the future, so people can choose where they want to sit on a given day. This will encourage interactions between different teams.You have been working remotely for several years now at Vaude. Do you have any tips on how to achieve a smooth transition?Trust is one of the most important issues. You need to be able to trust your co-workers and employees to do their job. And this trust also has to be credibly modelled by the company and its managers. It’s not always easy to do that when you can’t see each other, but once you reach that level, it can work very well.How do you ensure this?The framework is key. You have to develop a clear set of expectations and guidelines that work for both the managers and team members. It must be clearly communicated to everyone that the company’s needs take precedence, and that remote working hours have to be coordinated with the team and all relevant contacts. The manager functions as a sort of orchestrator, who creates the working conditions in which the team can thrive. Within that framework, everyone can have all the freedom they need to do their job in the best possible manner.What is the manager’s role in this process, as you see it?The managers play a central role. Firstly, by practising a culture of trust and supervising their team members in a similar way to a coach. Secondly, they need to be digitally competent and enjoy learning about and employing new tools. By taking the lead, they can introduce their team to innovative technical tools that provide new benefits and advantages.So you agree that managers play an important role. Have you also applied this yourself?Something I have always tried to communicate is that performance is not measured by long working hours. For many years now, there has been a general rule at Vaude that meetings are not to be scheduled after 5pm, and we emphasise that all employees should go home at a decent hour – including the management team. Because it was always important to me to spend enough time with my family, I set a good example in this regard. Even small changes like that can have a big impact. It helps us to create a culture where targets and results count, and not the amount of time people spend behind their desk.Did you look more carefully at the design of the Vaude offices when you started with distributed work?I believe the architectural concept and look of an office is even more important than before. If you can essentially do everything just as well from home, you have to create a reason why employees would want to come to the office. A welcoming, lively environment is key.
So you think the existence of the office is still justified?Our office is a really great place. Our employees love being here, and they’re missing that right now, during this period when they can’t come to the office. We have to keep on reminding our people that only one person per team cluster can be present! In digital times it’s even more important that the office is like a second home. If people are distributed everywhere, it’s important for them to want to come back here.