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One year of split working

Three questions for Yvonne Vornhusen, Director of Human Resources at KfW IPEX-Bank

Published: 15.04.2021 Coronavirus has kept the world preoccupied for a good year now. The number of infections around the world has reached previously unimaginable heights, the global economy is in a spin and we are all dealing with the knock-on effects of the mitigation measures. How we work has fundamentally changed along the way and thus the outbreak of the pandemic marked the start of a hugely accelerated process of changing how we organise our work. To mark this anniversary, the bank’s HR department has taken a brief look back over the past months.

Everything started about a year ago, and like everyone else, KfW IPEX-Bank had very little time to figure out how to deal with the coronavirus situation. From an HR perspective, what were the biggest challenges at the start of the crisis?

Yvonne Vornhusen: The bank actually started focusing its attention on coronavirus as far back as February 2020, when the media reporting was starting to build up and the first warnings were being issued internationally. Initially it was about getting an overview of the situation and interpreting what the official rules meant for the bank and our operations. For office working, which was still running as normal at that point, we needed to develop and implement a robust hygiene concept, and the same applied to quarantine regulations and protective measures for our employees travelling abroad. A huge variety of committees, some of which were entirely new, shone a light on various aspects of the pandemic from an employer perspective. The objective was and remains to give employees the highest level of protection against infection while simultaneously providing them with a professional working environment at organisation level – which required a joint effort by a wide variety of units throughout the entire Group.

When nurseries and schools closed in March 2020, the issue of childcare suddenly became a priority. We sought quick and effective ways to support our employees in the short term and made these available at short notice. They included flexibility around working hours and location and an expanded childcare offering. Naturally, the legal basis underpinning this needed to be built in parallel. In order to meet the requirement for flexible structures to be developed as fast as possible, the Management Board, the Works Council and managers all pulled in the same direction. On top of this came additional challenges like new employees starting on our trainee programmes against a background of split working and a catalogue of internal training sessions that could no longer be delivered as face-to-face events. Here, too, we still aimed to carry on delivering professional training while minimising disruption. All our employees got to grips with the situation fast and, above all, with a really committed attitude. Just as the virus hasn’t taken a break, nor did operations at the bank ever cease.

With regard to the world of work, are we currently experiencing the “new normal”? What conclusions would you draw after this first year of coronavirus?

Yvonne Vornhusen: Employees, managers, the Management Board – everyone has had to, and is having to, be really flexible. We shifted how we work to split working and remote work practically overnight. This meant that teams had to figure out new work processes at short notice and get to grips with suddenly only being able to talk to many colleagues virtually. The pandemic and the changes that it necessitated acted as a catalyst for ideas and concepts around new ways of working. All of a sudden we were no longer looking at visions for the future, but at a real need to facilitate efficient working during the pandemic. The bank’s approach was underpinned by a kind of pioneering spirit. We found that employees were willing to take on and accept the additional level of autonomy associated with flexible working and the need for self-management, and they continued to work very productively. That really put some concerns to bed. However, all of the positive aspects must not be allowed to cover up the additional burdens caused by the pandemic that are increasingly impacting on the lives of every single employee, and which we also need to keep a close eye on as an employer. The new normal won’t emerge until the fog around coronavirus has lifted. The IT infrastructure required for new work will be ready in most cases – a lot went on behind the scenes very fast, and these efforts continue at present.

What will you take with you into the “post-pandemic era”?

The steep learning curve and all the experiences of the past few months offer a sound basis for designing a post-coronavirus working world that will certainly be more flexible and more digital. We have all let go of some old habits, sometimes because we had no choice, but that also offers the greatest opportunity: to get rid of outdated practices and rethink how we work! We also gained some important insights into dealing with the crisis from an employee survey that we ran spontaneously in summer 2020, covering working practices and lessons learned about how we organised our work during the coronavirus pandemic. It was intended to capture the mood at a time of change to enable us to derive findings about how we work going forward. The desire to keep working more flexibly in terms of location and time emerged as a key policy area for KfW IPEX-Bank. We promptly took this topic forward and negotiated a company agreement on remote working in the future. However, the survey also showed that things like separating work and private life, greater consolidation of tasks at hand, and communication amongst ourselves but also between employees and managers being more difficult can also lead to negative effects, such as feeling overloaded. For example, informal conversations between colleagues – maybe over lunch –previously impacted positively on employees’ view of the company, acceptance of decisions and sense of belonging. I personally miss this type of communication. The findings and the points that were analysed in the internal survey will now feed into other ongoing projects and new initiatives, and they’re an important source of inspiration as we develop the new ways of working. The areas of work involved are very multi-faceted, ranging from increasing digitalisation, through modern views on the role of management to new, flexible ways of using workspaces. However, our current highest priority is to overcome, at all levels, the pandemic fatigue that is increasingly evident – also at our bank - after so many months, and to get the whole organisation feeling positive about the exciting future of work.