Shining collectively. Welcome to the workplace of the future

Contribution to the book: 'Die Lean-Back-Perspektive – Wie Frauen das digitale Zeitalter gestalten können, Strategien und Erfolgsfaktoren'
Earlier this year, our CEO Nancy Birkhölzer was invited to contribute a personal essay to a book dedicated to offering a new perspective on the careers of women in leadership positions. It explores the notion to "lean back", as an extension of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s famous "lean in" movement. Read our take on how by leaning back, we allow for more reflection, for things to move and change, and for us to (collectively) better shape the future of work into what we want it to be.
The context

With "lean in" Sandberg brought issues surrounding women and leadership to the mainstream. Since her first explosive talk six years ago, her tools and advice for professional women were made into a bestselling book and sparked an international movement of professional women seeking help to achieve their career goals, and men looking to contribute to a more equitable society. In her book she tells women that they need to "lean in" at work and assert themselves more, saying they should "believe in yourself", "sit at the table", and "don’t leave before you leave" (to have a family) or you’ll miss out on opportunities. Her basic message being: "More female leadership will lead to fairer treatment for all women."  

The Lean Back Perspective – how women in the digital age can create strategies and success factors’, aims to expand this notion and broaden the discussion with more diverse experiences. It’s part of a larger ‘Lean Back Stories’ initiative by the red lab, who describe "lean back" and "lean in" as being like the Ying and Yang of leadership and success. One cannot exist without the other, and only together will the momentum that is needed to achieve sustainable success be developed. 

When Nancy was asked to contribute to the book, a group of us came together to ponder the notion and articulate what "lean back" means to us in both our work and personal lives. And so in the spirit of collaboration, the essay ended up being a joint effort between NancyVerena Augustin and Storyteller Annika Burgess. Read our full contribution here, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle – we recommend that you check out the other 41 insightful and inspiring contributions that make up this unique book.  You can purchase a copy at the Springer Heidelberg website

Full Essay

Shining collectively. Welcome to the workplace of the future  

I have always been driven by understanding individuals and the barriers that stop them from fulfilling their needs and reaching their full potential. This is why I was drawn to the world of service design, where work revolves around creating experiences that enhance people’s personal journeys. And one thing in particular that I’ve witnessed over the years is that our basic intentions in life are very different to what they once were. People have started taking more control over their lives and therefore expect empowerment from the services they consume.

This insight plays a huge role in shaping the work that I’m most passionate about today. Whereas at the beginning of my career – working for traditionally organized hierarchical companies like Vodafone and Yahoo – my main focus was on building user-centered products and services, more recently designing organizations has been at the forefront of my work. I put my heart and soul into designing workplaces that don’t rely on one kind of person or a "typical" style of leadership. Because what drives me when designing products and services is what drives me even more when designing organizations and workplaces. I strive to create environments where everyone can peruse their personal journey.

My time working in those more "corporate" environments both in leadership and non-leadership positions taught me a lot, and has influenced how I approach work and shape organizations today. At design consultancy Fjord (now globally renowned as part of Accenture), I was responsible for building and leading the German team, which we grew to over 50 members over five years. Leadership during that time was an experiment with lots of trial and error and an extremely valuable learning journey.

One of the major issues (that taught me the most) was based on the incentives of the individuals. Everyone was driven by their own personal gains, regardless of whether or not their actions fit the company vision or core purpose. It was a ruthless race to the top, with pressure to work long hours and team members, salespeople in particular, competing with each other. They would hide information rather than collaborate and draw upon each other’s strengths to reach company goals. There was selling for the sake of selling to the detriment of those who had to deliver on unreasonable sales promises. Teams were pushed to work on large-scale, boring projects, over long periods of time. There was no thought whatsoever about how this may affect individuals’ ambitions and work satisfaction.

This deeply engrained culture in which everyone is measured by their own success meant people would do whatever was possible to look good (individually), never admitting mistakes or evaluating why something went wrong. 

I saw similar behavior and problems across entire offices. With offices based in various locations, they too were competing against each other and only striving for success amongst their individual teams, rather than looking at the broader company aims.

This deeply engrained culture in which everyone is measured by their own success meant people would do whatever was possible to look good (individually), never admitting mistakes or evaluating why something went wrong. The whole organization was built around the principle that everyone needs to "shine" at all times, therefore issues would bubble under the surface until the whole thing collapsed.

Joining a small team at service design studio IXDS in 2012 gave me the opportunity to to reflect on that experience, refocus on my purpose and beliefs and re-evaluate corporate cultures. Most importantly from this came the will to do more purposeful work and build a more purposeful organization. An organization that reflects the ambitions of the team members at any time and trusts that success is not simply driven by sales but by passionate individuals, collaboration, a unique culture and strong values. Driven by this ambition, IXDS grew to 70 team members in two locations (Berlin and Munich) during the past four years, without ever having a "growth goal" or a single "sales manager".

There’s a system where all team members collaborate and make space for everyone’s qualities to complement each other, not compete against each other. 

When I was asked to contribute to this book, and started thinking about the concept of “leaning back”, I realized that the organizations that I believe are successful today, which have more balanced leadership roles, flexible structures and gender parity, are the ones that are doing just that: leaning back. Instead of everyone leaning in and trying to climb the corporate ladder, even if it may not necessarily be what they want or what’s right for the organization, team members are staying true to their qualities. The ladder is obsolete.

Instead there’s a system where all team members collaborate and make space for everyone’s qualities to complement each other, not compete against each other. Therefore, each person feels as though they are making a valuable contribution and their personal needs can be met. 

Personally, being part of this kind of organization has changed my work and personal life completely. I have the chance to take timeout and reflect on how to improve my work and approach to leadership, I’ve been able to naturally find my place within the team and make time for family and personal wellbeing.

From counting working hours to tracking quality

Despite being a CEO, I spend quality time with my two-year-old son and pursue one of my passions: studying Ayurvedic medicine. This is because my company operates on a 32-hour work week – and it always has.

The 80% week gives people breathing space, allowing them to lean back and take advantage of professional and personal opportunities. For some team members this means work is spread across five days, giving them the flexibility to start work later or finish earlier if they have family responsibilities. For instance, I can get all my tasks done and leave in time to collect my son from Kita. For others, they work just four days and have the fifth weekday completely free for personal projects or just life in general. 

Pursuing a leadership position shouldn’t equal more hours at work, because it’s not only about the time you invest, but the quality you create.

Alexandra Pretschner

The main point is that everyone takes control of their own work-life schedule. This independence eliminates any sense of needing to “keep up” – there’s more equal ground, allowing people to find a balance that suits their life. The workplace is more mindful, people become conscious of each other’s time and of following one’s own passions both in work and life.

Alexandra Pretschner, who heads up the IXDS Munich studio, recently told me: “I always get surprised looks when people realize that I’m leading a team despite having two kids and no permanent nanny. But I’m in a position where I can contribute my experience, skills and passion to the company on a part-time basis. Pursuing a leadership position shouldn’t equal more hours at work, because it’s not only about the time you invest, but the quality you create.”

I’ve seen all types of talent come knocking at the door; people who are specifically looking for this kind of flexibility – and not just individuals with families. Many freelancers, for example, have joined on a more permanent basis because they can still follow the passions that kept them from ever taking on a full-time job before.

I believe that the more organizations adopt this approach, the more benefits we’ll see. The handful of companies, especially in countries like Sweden, Switzerland and France, have reported increases in productivity, creativity and job satisfaction amongst team members, but benefits can also filter into society in general. If there are more opportunities for partners to work 80% then gender roles can become more balanced for both women and men, releasing more time to care for family.

From filling positions to juggling roles

Fixed job titles are becoming a thing of the past. In a world that’s becoming more and more complex, roles within organizations are constantly changing. And as individuals look for ways to take more control over their lives, team members are using the opportunity to experiment with different roles in order to satisfy their changing needs and circumstances. It’s exactly this kind of experimentation and juggling of roles that landed me where I am today.

A few years ago, IXDS’ founder Reto Wettach decided to step down from his position to have more time to work academically and be with his family. He recognized that shifting roles was the right thing for him in his current life situation, and that inspiring individuals and being creative were his real passions and where he could make the most difference. He wasn’t so interested in the tasks that came along with building and leading an organization, and realized someone else was needed to take the company to the next level – his skills and time wouldn’t have allowed him to do that.

This move provided an opportunity for other team members looking to take on more responsibility. It was also a step that made him become a role model within our company, encouraging people to follow their passion and not do what society or others might expect of them. Now we’re in a position where my skills balance well with his chaotic, emphatic, inspiring mind, and we can both complement each other’s unique qualities. 

Everyone takes personal responsibility to "grab" a role that suits their current development goal, ambition or strength. 

I decided to take on the challenge to further develop IXDS, but luckily I could still adjust my commitment levels based on my current life situation or work aims: whether this is working more vs. working less, or more responsibility vs. less responsibility. The framework is there that lets me to do this.

This also has a lot to do with the people around me. They understand that each individual contributes to the organization in their own way. Everyone takes personal responsibility to "grab" a role that suits their current development goal, ambition or strength. And if they are shifting roles, one day leading a project and the next week being led, then there’s an understanding of both positions and everyone can learn from each other. Within this environment the team can achieve personal growth and success without needing to move up, but instead by taking on different roles and embracing new experiences.

From ticking off tasks to leading with empathy

As someone in a leadership position I can say that role juggling and flexibility requires a lot of trust and mindfulness. You need to be able to follow your intuition and sense the ambitions and needs of your team. It’s this kind of mindfulness that I believe is shaping future workplaces. Organizations are becoming more human, mindful and successful because they are increasingly driven by our collective consciousness.

And while some people may be better placed to demonstrate an empathetic and mindful approach to leadership, what I’ve learned, personally and from my teams, is that to be able to really listen to your intuition and your teams’ needs you need to have a peaceful, balanced mind. And you won’t achieve this if you feel you don’t make enough time for life, because what drives us outside workplace also influences our attitude towards work.

The therapy and massage techniques I learn about in my Ayurvedic medicine studies provides a good example. It’s about sensing the thoughts and feelings of others and responding in an appropriate way; it’s about finding blockages and releasing them. Until some years ago I didn’t see any direct relation between this private interest and my profession, but this has changed over the years. By now they are inseparable, as it has changed who I am as a person and who I still aspire to become.

You can’t give a massage that touches someone’s soul unless you’re in a certain head- and emotional space – you need a clear mind to focus, engage and be empathic. The same goes for making decisions at work: being able to sense situations is essential. I have realized that compared to five years ago I am now more capable of reflection. And this has hugely affected the decisions I make, for the better. If everyone in a leadership position focused on this as opposed to just carrying out daily tasks, then we would all be happier, we would be doing our work better, building stronger teams and generating more valuable and sustainable ideas.

From designing workplaces to creating collaborative platforms

As a designer, collaboration is everything. There are so many people who inspire you and who you would love to work with, but unfortunately we can’t all work for the same company. So I instead made it my mission to create spaces that enable different forms of collaboration. Platforms where innovators from everywhere come to solve challenges – for collaboration not competition.

The opportunity to do so arose when I was looking for spaces throughout Berlin to fit our expanding team. Naturally I was looking at 3rd and 4th level offices, because I had always worked in places where people needed to buzz the door and be let up, only to be greeted by a formal reception desk. It was just by chance – and meant to be an in-between solution – that I instead opted for a ground floor space and have since seen what a huge difference it makes. 

The environment has become so welcoming that people walk in asking for coffee, thinking we’re a café.

With its big glass doors you can always see what’s happening inside the studio, and can come on in without needing to ring a bell. In summer the doors are always open and people work at outside on tables. The environment has become so welcoming that people walk in asking for coffee, thinking we’re a café. This may have something to do with the big kitchen table that can be seen as soon as you walk through the door, rather than a traditional reception desk. This set up has had such a positive effect on the organization that I recently turned down a bigger space on the 3rd floor, and made sure we took the same ground floor approach when looking for an office space in Munich. 

The physical space has had a huge impact on the work culture and dynamic of the environment. It’s more creative, there’s room to host events and let in all those people you want to share ideas with. Clients, external experts, end users, team members, competitors, you name it, have walked through the doors to work together. For me, this this has meant work has become more than just work. I feel like I’m part of an ever-growing community. 

From defining a vision to crowdsourcing the team purpose

One of the biggest shifts in how I lead is that I’m now in a position where I can follow the ambitions and interests of the team. Everything changed when I could take a step back, listen to individuals, identify their potential and work on developing it.

There's no handbook for future leadership which outlines how this should be done. But as organizations are increasingly required to stay agile, I’ve learned that turning to employees to influence change and become the problem solving experts results in new work opportunities and ongoing innovation.

For instance, one of my designers had a particular interest and expertise in healthcare, and was always eager to pursue projects in this field. I trusted her abilities and now this is one of the company’s core areas of focus; it has brought in numerous valuable clients and projects. This had a knock-on effect. As an organization, we have since let the teams' potentials and interests drive the focus of the company, trusting them to spot interesting challenges and opportunities. This has led to a complete restructure of our areas of expertise.

For me, this trust has stemmed from knowing people are in the right roles. I’ve seen what an organization that’s driven by personal gain and competition looks like, and by knowing people are where they want to be, I can now comfortably take a step back and allow the team to drive the organization into a successful place. 

From leaning in to collectively leaning back

These are just some of the key organizational changes that have allowed me, and I believe others, to improve wellbeing, work satisfaction and reach personal goals. Without ever considering whether or not I’m "leaning in", by staying true to my qualities and challenging the notion that success relies on more hours at work, I’ve been able to follow my passions and spend time with my family. Experiences that hugely shape my attitude towards work and the mindfulness I bring to leadership positions.

Although there’s so much more than can be done, I believe that by building organizations that take these kinds of "lean back" approaches, and allow for people’s potentials and ambitions to be nurtured, work can become an empowering experience for more people, not just those who choose to "sit at the table".

What I thrive for is future organizations where gender will no longer be the underlying issue, climbing the ladder won’t be necessary, and by re-designing the workplace more balance will be achieved amongst families. Workplaces where there won’t be a need to lean in, because we’ll all be able to lean our own different ways.