Article | FVB | 14-03-2023

Collaborative and digital working

What will the office of the future look like? What does it have to do with digital transformation? And why should science administration, of all things, take the lead on this issue?

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Our goal at the FVB Joint Administration is to provide a high-quality administrative service that is both research-friendly and legally compliant. In other words, a service that is designed to facilitate excellence in science. To achieve this, routine operations must be standardized – and, where possible, automated. Studies show that a lack of standardization inhibits the digital transformation. We have responded to this challenge by stepping up our focus on process management. This development frees up time to allow us to devise creative and innovative solutions for the growing number of special cases.

Administration is facing ever-increasing demands. On the one hand, there are growing legal requirements and, as a result, ever-decreasing discretionary powers; on the other hand, the demands for greater autonomy continue to rise. This is evident in the example of mobile working abroad. Researchers quite rightly expect to be able to use their laptops to work anywhere in the world. From a legal perspective, however, this is akin to squaring the circle.

My predecessor Dr. Manuela Urban went to great lengths to implement digitalization in the administration, particularly by launching the “Administration 4.0” modernization program in 2014. Although the process was initially interrupted by the upheaval to the Joint Administration caused by the departure of the Ferdinand-Braun-Institut, we were able in 2022 to continue where we had left off, resulting in the introduction of electronic time recording, for instance.

Over the coming years, we will focus primarily on increasing the use of digital tools for collaborative working. For example, we have been using Only Office in the FVB cloud since 2022, enabling us to work together on documents; and our virtual Kanban board “Wekan” facilitates agile project management. Moreover, starting in 2023, we will increasingly work on – and with – the wiki software Confluence for knowledge management and collaboration. This program will enable us to progressively increase the transparency and up-to-dateness of all our processes and related administrative documents.

New Work – or rather: a new world of work

Digitalization, then, makes collaborative working easier – an important factor in resolving the increasingly complex issues and challenges facing the administration. With this in mind, we need qualified professionals who can contribute their particular expertise. Finding, recruiting and retaining such professionals – and high-potential career changers – is already one of the greatest challenges facing administrative bodies in the public sector. In the coming years, when the baby boomer generation retires, the recruitment of professionals will be crucial to achieving our objectives.

Meanwhile, new generations are making fresh demands on the world of work. The experience of recent years shows that potential earnings are not the only factor that makes a job attractive to young people. They value flexible working arrangements (flexitime and flexiplace), personal development, and fulfilling, meaningful work in a supportive environment with participative leadership.

If we want to compete for the best minds, we must be perceived as an attractive employer. For this to happen, we need to create a work culture that meets the demands of the younger generation. In particular, the issue of new leadership will play an important role. Traditional leadership is increasingly perceived as inhibiting. We need leaders with a new mindset who are keen to set the framework, provide guidance, and engage in participative leadership. Team responsibility is needed rather than instruction-giving. The younger generation expects regular feedback, participation and transparency in decision-making, openness to new ideas, and appreciation. Leaders must respond to this change and shift their own role from instructor and controller to coach and facilitator.

Office of the future

New Work and digitalization require a new way of thinking about space. While it is technically feasible for staff to work mainly remotely, and increasingly demanded by them, there is a need for office environments that primarily meet the need for convention. What is more, our work is increasingly characterized by project work in differently composed teams. A spatial concept for the future should take this into account. Not to worry, we do not (necessarily) mean the notorious ball pits, foosball tables and hammocks featured in the “offices” of tech startups. But the demands on space are likewise undergoing a noticeable change in the office environment of administrative bodies.

Modern knowledge work requires cooperation, but at the same time, work by no means takes place solely in the office environment - but also mobile and in the home office. How, then, can we create office space that is welcoming to staff as a place for collaborative work? Admittedly, we still need some quiet individual workspaces for work requiring concentration, but not as many as in the past. What will become increasingly important are collaborative workspaces, spaces for hybrid meetings, workshops and agile projects – plus we need welcoming spaces like lounge areas for informal socializing and much more besides.

Research into how the work environment affects productivity is still in its infancy. Yet initial studies have shown that it is also possible to work productively from home long-term, despite the lack of personal and, above all, informal contact with colleagues. So we still need offices. But rather than using them to store filing cabinets, we need them for social interaction within the organization.

Within the Leibniz Association, we have established a working group of fourteen representatives from Leibniz institutes, and obtained funding from the Strategy Fund for the “New Workspaces” pilot project. Together, we seek to devise solutions for the innovative spatial design of research and infrastructure facilities in the context of New Work, in an effort to reflect the changing demands of collaboration.

The challenge of change

The world of work is changing rapidly. Digitalization is bringing about major changes – and yet the radical change within the workforce is at least as great.

The greatest challenge at present is mediation: new demands from outside and changing expectations of work come up against traditional ways of working that have been practiced for decades. The challenges of everyday work are growing as the workforce becomes more diverse, with different ways of thinking, behavioral patterns, and attitudes. It is now up to all of us to embrace our diversity as an asset.

Text: Dr. Nicole Münnich

Dr. Nicole Münnich has been Managing Director of the Forschungsverbund Berlin e.V. since December 2021.

The article was published in Verbundjournal 119 | 2022 with the focus on "30 years of FVB."