Nicole Gerhardt: “We have abolished the requirement to be present at Telefónica”

Telefónica Germany

Nicole Gerhardt has been a member of the Management Board at Telefónica Deutschland Holding AG since August 2017. As Chief Human Resources Officer, she is responsible for the company’s human resources department. The Corona crisis also hit this large company with 8,590 employees in Germany, which includes O2 and E-Plus – and led to a rethinking of when and where employees work best.

In an interview with, the board member explains how the company dealt with the corona crisis and how the everyday work of employees will change in the future. Ms. Gerhardt, are you currently in the home office?

Yes I am. I’ve been in the home office almost the entire time since mid-March and have been to the office a dozen times at most. I enjoy it very much because I work concentrated at home and don’t have to commute to the office in the morning. Working from home works great for me. But I also notice that I lack social interaction with my colleagues.

That’s why I’ve now decided to be in the office once a week in the future – for personal conversations and meetings. But I will try to spend most of the time in the home office. I just work very efficiently here and am flexible at the same time.

BI: How did Telefónica / O2 deal with the beginning of the Corona crisis and the changes that came with it?

Like all companies, we had to change our work at short notice. We sent most of our 8,500 employees home to work from home very early on. That made it possible for us – albeit forced by circumstances – to try new things. Of course, we first had to clarify how things are going to go on now. For example, we immediately gave the parents of our employees two and a half weeks to organize themselves. Like many others, we were forced to switch more consistently and across the entire company to a digital way of working.

After introducing the immediate measures, we dealt directly with what works well and what doesn’t. We also constantly obtained feedback from our employees and asked them how they rate the measures. Among other things, we carried out an extensive survey for this – with a very positive response. More than 90 percent of our employees have told us that they found our handling of the crisis outstanding. A second survey in autumn confirmed this again. That was, of course, an incentive for us to keep looking ahead and take the momentum into the future.

Work when and where you want – digital is the new standard

BI: You have announced that you will be taking a step into the digital working world of tomorrow at Telefónica Deutschland / O2. What does it mean exactly?

We carefully analyzed and evaluated the concepts and working methods that were tried and tested during the crisis and decided to launch five key initiatives for our future cooperation: “Working anytime“Enables our employees to essentially decide freely when they want to work between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. For example, they can help with homeschooling their children or take them to school or daycare and pick them up from there. They can then work flexibly for an hour in the evening. The working hours in which meetings, telephone calls and conferences take place are ideally concentrated between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. in order to enable optimal coordination in the team.

In addition, the crisis has shown that work results do not depend on the presence of employees. That is why we want the second point to continue in the future “Working anywhere” enable. Everyone can work differently in different places. We leave it largely up to our employees to decide for themselves where they can work most effectively from – this can be in the office, the home office or any other location.

BI: That has to be well coordinated, right?

Yes. In order to successfully establish these two concepts, we have identified two essential aspects that are important in the implementation. In the future, the managers in the company will plan more transparently and communicate when they expect which work results and of course check afterwards whether they have been achieved. We count on it “Outcome-based leadership”, so a result-oriented leadership. There will be training courses for our managers from September onwards. Because cooperation will change a lot and become much more digital.

Which brings us to the fourth point: “Digital by default”. At Telefónica it is now a standard that we work together digitally. Personal get-togethers should only take place in exceptional cases, for example in creative workshops or team building measures. Another example of this is the onboarding of new employees: We know that it is important that a new team member does not only get to know their colleagues virtually.

In view of the Corona crisis, the company has had an extensive travel stop since spring. Flying for business trips between the nationwide company locations has been very important to us up to now. However, this is neither ecologically nor economically desirable. And we have shown in recent months that it also works largely digitally. Therefore, as a fifth point, we take a 70 percent reduction in business trips “70% less travel” in front. The elimination of thousands upon thousands of such trips each year improves our climate balance considerably and thus relieves the environment.

BI: Twitter, Google, Facebook – these companies have all announced that their employees will now work remotely. Trivago boss Axel Hefer, for example, spoke out against it: Although remote work works well in most situations, meetings in which important decisions have to be made would still work best live. Where are they standing?

We have completed large projects in the past few months – exclusively digital. For example, we organized our Annual General Meeting virtually or managed the temporary reduction in VAT – an extremely complex project – in just four weeks using digital technology. We also organized the largest sales transaction in the company’s history with a value of 1.5 billion euros completely digitally. However, there are still situations in which face-to-face meetings are essential – for example in some employee appraisals. Everyone has different needs and, by the way, everyone also has a different way of life. That is why we give our employees and teams a lot of freedom to decide when they prefer personal presence – provided the current Corona situation allows it.

In my team, for example, we do it so that we meet in person every two months for two to three days and work together on topics that go beyond the daily routine. In the current Corona situation, this is of course not possible. Otherwise we work largely virtually with each other. But of course this is not possible in every function. In our shops, for example, personal contact with our customers is of course still important.

“We will continue to invest in the development of our employees”

BI: Is the decision also economically viable? For example, because less office space is needed?

This is not our priority, but of course we are watching it closely. We want to invest at least part of the money that we save on travel expenses, for example, in our employees and their development.

BI: How was the reaction from the employees?

The great interest was shown, among other things, in a virtual employee event in which around 2,600 employees took part. Overall, we received a lot of positive feedback from the workforce. From our annual running event, at which we climb the 36 floors of our Munich O2 office tower together, we have made a virtual team event this year: We converted the individual running kilometers of our colleagues into monetary donations. In 2019, 250 tower runners turned into 1,500 participants this year. Overall, we received a lot of positive feedback from the workforce.

But of course there were also many questions from the employees and managers: Are there certain face-to-face appointments that you have to be there? Can you work from another country? There are aspects that we cannot answer yet and that are partly subject to corporate co-determination. And we will definitely adapt individual concepts in the future based on initial experience and further feedback.

BI: What concerns did you have and do you still have?

A major challenge will be that employees and managers plan their work together over time. Which results are expected in which period? Are these results also delivered? The cooperation has to be organized quite differently. There are also important decisions to be made for our employees. Some of them may change their model of life: They can move from the city to the countryside, mothers can return to their jobs full-time and not part-time, and childcare can be organized differently. We want to support employees and offer training and coaching. It will take some time to find out together what works and what doesn’t.

Last but not least, we think about how we can maintain the common Telefónica spirit with increased remote work. As humans, we need immediate social interaction. That is absolutely important and also the reason why we are not going into pure home office solutions, but are pursuing a hybrid model.

Be more aware of working hours to get results

BI: “Working anytime” – isn’t there a risk that employees will work too much?

Even before the crisis, there was the phenomenon that some employees worked too much. As a company, we have clearly positioned ourselves: Of course, no employee has to answer in the evening or on the weekend. Everyone has the right to switch off their cell phone and laptop. Employees have fixed weekly working hours which they should not go beyond.

BI: On the other hand, you give your employees a lot of freedom. How do you ensure that it is not exploited?

Trust in our employees plays a major role here. On the other hand, just because you’re in the office doesn’t mean you’re productive every minute. We have given this point a lot of thought. It is primarily up to the executives to plan well and create transparency about what is specifically expected by when. If this cannot be achieved, other ways must be found in the joint organization of the work.

BI: What do you think the working world at Telefónica could look like in two years?

I hope that the employees will continue to work so enthusiastically – despite the crisis, we had a largely stable business development, which differentiates us from most industries in this country. We will have learned to deal with the new situation and we can actually appreciate it. I also rely on the autonomy and flexibility that I have gained. We will be more aware of working hours, work more focused on results and thus increase productivity. The successes and awards of the past months and the positive feedback from our customers confirm this.

And last but not least, I hope that we will make a positive contribution to sustainability and the climate. Commuting is now part of everyday life for millions of employees, and the length of the commute is also increasing on average. The result is a lot of traffic jams, psychological stress and increased environmental pollution. I hope that more companies will decide to follow a path similar to ours, so that the world of work will change for the benefit of all and for the climate. If we could make a contribution to this with our initiatives, that would make me very proud. Accordingly, we have set ourselves a very ambitious goal: We want to be completely climate-neutral by 2025 at the latest.


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