‘The pandemic has shown us that digital collaboration makes many things possible.’

Labour Relations Director Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel explains how the impacts of the pandemic are changing work processes at GIZ and accelerating the trend towards new ways of working.

Remote work, strict hygiene rules, regular crisis team meetings and psychological counselling services: one year ago, on 19 March 2020, the first lockdown began in Germany. Labour Relations Director Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel explains how the impacts of the pandemic are changing work processes at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and accelerating the trend towards new ways of working.

Mr Schäfer-Gümbel, GIZ has operations in 120 countries and employs more than 22,000 people worldwide. How has the coronavirus pandemic affected their work?
As early as February 2020, we set up a crisis team that has since met regularly – sometimes three times a week – to discuss the latest developments and make decisions. These included giving seconded staff the option to leave their countries of assignment temporarily, when our risk assessments indicated this was necessary. Our work has continued and is continuing throughout the pandemic. At its peak, we had just under 60 per cent of our over 2,500 seconded staff on the ground in their assignment locations. This has now risen to 88 per cent, which is almost back to normal once leave and business trips are taken into account. On top of this, more than 15,000 national staff work permanently at local level, so we have been able to continue working in our partner countries despite the pandemic – albeit sometimes in challenging conditions, for example under curfew. We have a considerable number of locations where our teams have not been able to go into the office for 300 days or more in some cases.

How did that work in practice?
Some of these situations were, and still are, quite stressful, of course. Having employees who are really motivated is absolutely crucial – what GIZ staff are achieving on the ground is truly impressive! At the same time, our company is offering them a range of support services and seeking dialogue with them at many different levels. For example, we have an in-house psychosocial counselling unit, and there are security advisors in our assignment countries and in Germany. Staff can get help or advice in open counselling sessions or, in really urgent cases, via a crisis hotline. And my colleagues and I on the Management Board regularly use digital formats to keep in touch worldwide. The response has been very positive.

The key word here is ‘digital’. How are GIZ’s employees working during the pandemic?
Even before the pandemic began, we had an employer/staff council agreement that allowed staff to work remotely at least two days per week. The technical set-up was already in place in most areas and we extended it quickly where necessary. The fact that we were all already used to communicating online made things easier. But of course you do come up against your limits at some point. We’ve noticed that maintaining and developing our existing contacts works well. However, establishing new contacts – with local implementation partners in the various countries, for example – and building trust is much more difficult in digital form.

Is the pandemic changing working methods permanently?
I’m convinced that is the case. As Labour Relations Director, I have launched a debate within GIZ on the digital working world of the future. Employees associate remote working with great opportunities, such as combining work and family more easily. We won’t return to the pre-pandemic situation, but neither will things be the same as in the pandemic. I don’t see GIZ becoming a company based exclusively on remote working. But I do think working remotely will become more widespread. Commuting and business trips have ceased due to the pandemic, and this has had an effect on GIZ’s carbon footprint. This aspect will be even more important in future – when is a journey really necessary, and when can we use a digital option?

So the pandemic has accelerated a process of redefining ways of working that was already under way at GIZ?
The pandemic has been yet another eye-opener on how important digitalisation is. The new momentum has affected us too. In this context it’s vital to stop rifts emerging, for instance where working conditions in the field structures in our partner countries differ from those in Germany. We need to ensure we involve all our colleagues, for example by providing technical equipment or training. The pandemic has shown us that working together digitally makes things possible that would sometimes be more difficult using traditional channels – exchanging information between departments and projects and across borders is less complicated when it’s virtual. Overall, the pandemic has intensified a shift in our corporate culture – not only at technical level but also in how we interact.

Remote working is becoming more important. How does this fit in with GIZ’s plans for a new campus at its Eschborn site?
That is not a contradiction in itself but instead demonstrates GIZ’s flexible approach to the new world of work. One of the features of the new building will be a mobile partition system that allows room layouts to be adapted to new working conditions – co-working needs more, and more flexible, space. With a total area of 80,500 square metres, this is a state-of-the-art campus for the roughly 3,000 employees currently working in Eschborn that will meet the standards expected of a contemporary workplace.

What lessons have you learnt personally?
That the best ideas have grown out of teamwork and in widely differing conditions. I am impressed by how creative and supportive our colleagues have been and still are being, despite the difficult circumstances. This is not just about the project work – for example, teaching field cultivation methods to farmers in Timor-Leste via a video chat – but also about coming up with ideas like online fitness courses, digital meet-ups over tea and coffee, and after-work quiz sessions to keep each other motivated and boost team spirit.

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