How should companies act in the current crisis? An interview with Marc Wagner
At present, agile corporate structures and the flexible handling of work organizations are absolutely essential. New Work measures are not only indispensable in the present crisis, but are also making vital contributions to maintaining orderly business operations. We discussed this topic with Marc Wagner. Marc is an acknowledged expert on all aspects of New Work & Company ReBuilding, and he was voted Top HR Influencer in 2018 (“Personalmagazin) and ranked among the Top 10 New Work Pioneers (Pathfinder Award 2019 Workpath) in 2019.
For more than 20 years, Marc Wagner has been accompanying companies in their design of Digital Transformation – whether from a financial or cultural perspective – and in the process, he has been constantly drawing fresh inspiration from his own projects and the exchange with his outstanding network of international top experts and leaders.
Hello Marc, how do you currently see the situation for companies?
As hard-hearted as this may sound, but this crisis will separate the wheat from the chaff in the corporate world. On the one hand, there are players that have already positioned themselves well with an appropriate infrastructure and are readily capable of virtual collaboration without any problems. These companies will survive the crisis well. On the other hand, there are those companies that have already recognized the potential of digitization, but have put it off until now. They will react now and implement the planned concepts. While this will cause some pain, these companies will also weather the crisis. And there are finally companies that I call the rejecters. Organizations that still follow the classic, rigid principles and have missed the boat in terms of leadership and digitization. These companies will have a hard time and will probably fail in the long run.
Can that be stated in such general terms?
You have to put things into perspective. Naturally, it always depends on the industry and sector. In the case of some companies, it is simply not possible to send employees off to work from home – people have to be in contact face to face. But even in such instances, and especially now, new ideas for business models are needed. This is precisely where the field of tension lies – ensuring short-term viability while at the same time making the company and business model robust in the long term.
As hard-hearted as this may sound, but this crisis will separate the wheat from the chaff.
In times of crisis, how do you generally assess the issue of work from home?
Remote Work or work from home is currently popping up wherever you happen to look. What I often observe, however, is that the long-term, sustainable view is partially lost. It's not just a matter of putting isolated measures into practice, but of addressing process optimization, for example, or leadership issues in the long term. New Work must be put into action now, as paradoxical as that may sound during such a crisis. But when, if not now, is exactly the right time to take a holistic view of business models. After all, this is primarily about sustainability and future viability.
Why are the rejecters you have referred to likely to disappear?
People, employees, talents are the critical success factor in every company. That is undeniable. And if companies are not able to attract or retain these people, then they will no longer be able to hold up to competitive pressure. The current crisis is a world-changing event – it has to be stated that clearly. And it will not suffice to just react. Instead, we should act proactively, with a long-term view into the future. A crisis like this is not a one-off event, it will happen again. Companies must therefore seize the opportunity now to emerge stronger from this situation. As tough as it may sound, it is a little bit about the old adage of the "survival of the fittest" – even if I don't really like this phrasing. I have to adjust to the new situation as best I can, right now and immediately. Then I will become stronger. Nassim Taleb refers to anti-fragility here, while Gerhard Wohland cites the concept of dynamicrobustness – these are the issues that are now at stake.
So New Work is an opportunity for you right now in this crisis?
A crisis is always an innovator for new topics and concurs closely with the ideas of New Work. The current topics are clear: How do I ensure good cooperation over and beyond physical collaboration. This is no longer just a “Nice To Have”, but absolutely existential for companies. New Work is concerned with the question of what impact digitization will be having on the design and organization of cooperation. And now it's a matter of leveraging these issues and putting things into practice. On the one hand, the necessary technology will help, while on the other hand, there is also an ongoing revolution in terms of the definition and concept of leadership.
You are talking about antifragile. Could you tell us a bit more about this term?
Being antifragile means that a crisis, an external shock, makes the system stronger. It's very theoretical. But that's exactly the point. We have many small companies, for example fitness studios, that are now putting their offering online and reacting quickly to the crisis. They are developing new business models. And right now, that is the ideal solution.
But isn't this countered by the frequent attitude of refusal here in Germany?
Perhaps in part. We are a country of doubters and naysayers to some extent. German “Angst” is referred to in English-speaking countries. A general statement, however, can be made here. Especially when it comes to dealing with the corona crisis, I think we are currently cutting a good profile by international comparison. Our politicians are evidencing sensitive and level-headed crisis management. And in my view, this is also prevailing in many companies. As already mentioned, I believe it is crucial to deal with the crisis proactively and beyond individual measures. A large corporation will deal with the situation differently than smaller companies will. A lot depends on the strength of the management and a pronounced ability to implement measures. Elon Musk and Tesla are good examples here. Musk has weathered so many crises and has always emerged stronger, and that is exactly what needs to happen now.
Especially when it comes to dealing with the corona crisis, I think we are currently cutting a good profile by international comparison.
Do you see especially great opportunities here for SMEs, Germany’s Mittelstand?
I am firmly convinced of this. SMEs hold enormous potential and if these companies understand and implement New Work correctly, then smaller companies in particular can emerge from this situation incredibly much stronger. This is due to the fact that the decision-making paths are much shorter and, in my opinion, the creative potential of medium-sized businesses is much greater. This is a great opportunity for SMEs, Germany’s unique Mittelstand, to show what it is capable of. And they are already right in the midst of accomplishing this, while also behaving in a socially responsible manner. This is particularly the case with many small and medium-sized companies that are not burying their heads in the sand, but instead have changed their business models overnight and are acting in a socially sustainable manner – the company Trigema is an excellent example here. Large companies, however, are also showing that they are assuming responsibility beyond efficiency and shareholder value issues, such as SAP or Telekom with their free offering or by providing infrastructure that is currently essential for survival. I find all of this very heartening and encouraging, and it also makes me proud of the strength of our country.
Dear Marc, thank you very much for the interview.