The importance of a flexible and agile corporate culture

In recent years, the work environment has changed rapidly. Technological advancements mean more and more tasks can be automated and the internet has enabled global networking. At the same time, the expectations and needs of employees have also changed. Large companies must respond to these changes - and develop new concepts for their human resource management.

Christiane Giesen on a call with co-worker Vesna Žigić

Without a suitable human resources strategy and a contemporary corporate culture it is impossible to attract qualified specialists and workers and retain them long-term. METRO has recognised these changes. Following the rebrand of the HR department from ‘Human Resources’ to ‘People & Culture’, Christiane Giesen, now Chief People & Culture Officer (CPCO) of METRO AG, and Vesna Žigić, Key Account Manager HoReCa, METRO Croatia, talk about the agile and modern aspects of the new work environment – and in true form, they do it via MS Teams Call.

Vesna Žigić: I have been with the company for 20 years. First I worked as an ISCP (In-Store Customer Person), then as a CM (Customer Manager) and since last year as a KAM. When I look back at my early days at METRO, I am amazed at how much has changed in the work environment. The application process alone. I used to submit my applications by post!

Christiane Giesen: Oh yeah, I can still remember those early days very well. I even sent my first application by registered mail. I wanted to make sure it really arrived (laughs). Today, the way HR departments work has changed substantially. Applications can be submitted electronically and processed automatically. The use of social media platforms to find and network with potential candidates has also become an integral part of recruiting.

Vesna: And even interviews are being conducted digitally – my daughter had an interview on Teams the other day.

Christiane: Yep, like our conversation now. Increasing digitalisation has greatly changed employee communication – both between managers and employees and among coworkers themselves. Emails, messaging apps and online platforms are now the preferred communication channels in many companies. Exchanges often take place online. Virtual meetings and video conferences make it possible to collaborate across different sites and they have become an important part of our everyday work routines.

Vesna: I think that’s good and absolutely appropriate. When I started in the sales department in 2003, many of our customers didn’t have email, forcing us to rely on faxing. Concepts like hybrid working, flexible work locations, home office days or different work models like job sharing were still unthinkable at that time. Of course, this is not equally feasible in all professional fields.

Christiane: That’s correct. But even in areas where home office and flexible work concepts are not feasible or are difficult to implement, workplaces must adapt to the times. Transparent communication and flexibility on the part of the employer are crucial to enable positive changes in the work environment. One example is more flexible working hours, where employees can adjust their work schedule within certain parameters to better accommodate personal commitments or preferences. Digitalisation also simplifies processes and thus creates space for other tasks.

Vesna: I agree! In our team, we take full advantage of modern technology. We are a large, diverse team. Everyone is happy to share their knowledge. We exchange ideas in teams with colleagues from other branches every day and share our ‘best practices’. But the most important thing is to improve our work processes. We used to get handwritten fax orders. They were barely legible! Today, customers order via the webshop. It’s always 100% accurate. Both sides are satisfied and the work gets done faster.

It is just as important to show interest in every employee as a person and in their work as it is to know what contribution each individual employee makes.

Christiane Giesen, CPCO METRO AG

Christiane: The pandemic has clearly shown us that new work methods can work and be successful. We have realised that it is not crucial to go to the office every day. But it’s the mix that makes the difference. Flex office concepts have proven to be a good alternative to just working from home. Employees can choose their workspace in the office and at other locations inside or outside the company. Flex office concepts offer a variety of workspaces and environments to meet the different needs of employees. For example, they include individual workstations, team rooms, meeting rooms, quiet zones or even communal areas. We are currently implementing this concept at the headquarters in Düsseldorf with the ONE METRO Campus, our Home of Working.

Vesna: That sounds exciting. I’ll definitely take a closer look at the project. What makes flex office concepts attractive in my eyes is the clear separation between work and personal life. In a home office, these boundaries are often blurred because the workplace is in one’s own home. Moreover, flex office concepts stimulate personal interaction and exchange among employees, which promotes collaboration and strengthens the team spirit.

Christiane: Indeed, physical presence in the office is essential. It’s not for nothing that we call our ONE METRO Campus our ‘Home of Working’. Working together on site encourages spontaneous conversations, brainstorming sessions and informal discussions that often lead to new ideas and innovations. This gives us as employees more flexibility and freedom to shape our day. Conversely, this also means that we as employers need to encourage and support our employees in a more targeted way. After all, it has become more difficult to assess employee well-being, cohesion and identity. In this context, appreciation is not just a concept, but of utmost importance. And by appreciation I don’t just mean greeting colleagues or saying thank you for the work they did. It is just as important to show interest in every employee as a person and in their work as it is to know what contribution each individual employee makes.

Vesna: That is so true. Here in the sales force, every single colleague is crucial for customer retention. They represent METRO in the market environment – you could say we are METRO’s figurehead (laughs). We have to know our market environment well, show entrepreneurial flair and have strong social skills, because every customer is different, has special needs and wants to be seen and heard. And this only works well if we can identify with METRO, the corporate goals and the corporate culture. And with my 20 years of professional experience, I know what I’m talking about (laughs).

Christiane: That’s really impressive, you don’t see that kind of employee tenure very often these days. It used to be the norm in companies, but nowadays most people change employers more often. I think long service shows loyalty and that as an employee you stand firmly behind the company you work for.

Vesna: (laughs) That’s true. My colleague Jadranka Jerčinović has been in the sales department seven days longer than I have! And the best part is that we have become best friends over the last 20 years. It’s nice when colleagues become friends. People with whom we also get on well in private give us a chance to talk about the weekend or the next holiday on long work days, perhaps even about very personal problems or thoughts.

Christiane: That’s so nice to hear! Strong friendship between colleagues enriches the company enormously. People who connect with others at work on a personal level are happier and more motivated.

I often felt that I was not appreciated as a person and for my work – and it can’t just come from occasional staff events, pleasantries between colleagues or a simple thank you for work done. 

Vesna Žigić Key Account Manager HoReCa, METRO Croatia

Vesna: But I don’t want to hide the fact that there were ups and downs in the 20 years when I struggled with METRO and sometimes didn’t feel understood. I often felt that I was not appreciated as a person and for my work – and it can’t just come from occasional staff events, pleasantries between colleagues or a simple thank you for work done.

Christiane: This is an extremely important point. Appreciation involves cherishing the values of the other person. It is about a generally positive attitude towards each other. Showing interest in every employee as a person and in their work is just as important as knowing about their individual performance. Good employees are of great importance and as employers we need to recognise the value of good employees, offer perspectives and understand their needs. The change in the work environment has also expanded the role of HR departments. We have taken on an important role by promoting a positive corporate culture and boosting employee loyalty. To do this, we rely on a range of measures, such as employee feedback tools, training and development programmes and flexible work time models.

Vesna: It is truly fascinating to see how so many opportunities for personal development are offered nowadays. That was not a given for a long time. In the past, you came to work, did your job and went home. It was not common practice for a supervisor to say, ‘Hey, do you want to further your career?’ Today there are many external and internal offers and programmes. I have personally participated in training seminars about presentation skills, addressing clients, psychology of clients and team management. I also work a lot on myself and my personal soft skills. I regularly attend hospitality fairs, supplier presentations and cooking shows. I am supported by my boss because I learn quickly and like to pass on knowledge. (*laughs)

Christiane: That’s nice to hear! We put a lot of heart and soul into our own programmes and are also open to external training. It’s our way of showing that we care about the development of every single employee.

Vesna: You said earlier that HR plays an important role in promoting a positive corporate culture. But what does a successful corporate culture mean to you?

Christiane: A successful corporate culture defines how employees interact with each other and how they approach their work. In the new work environment, corporate culture needs to be flexible and agile to meet the challenges. It is important that companies create a culture where employees can take responsibility and get involved to realise their full potential.

Vesna: Is this also the reason for renaming the ‘Human Resources’ division ‘People & Culture’?

Christiane: Exactly, we operate in an absolute people business and know that our role involves much more than managing people as an operational resource. Now is the right time to demonstrate this understanding also internally and externally by renaming the Human Resources department 'People & Culture'. Nevertheless, the change of name can only be an accompanying step. Our initiative is aimed at further expanding our People & Culture organisation and actively contributing our share to the implementation of sCore. The People & Culture department ensures that the strengths and skills of METRO's diverse teams are unleashed and that their performance and growth are supported.

Vesna: In my opinion, you are already well on your way: When we celebrated the global ONE METRO Day on 12 May 2023 in Düsseldorf, there was a challenge where five METRO candidates competed against the five members of the METRO AG Management Board. I was one of the candidates and can confirm: Five unknown people with completely different backgrounds but with the same goals can work miracles in two days and become friends for life!

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