Corona, new work & diversity – How to cope with “The New Normal”

L-R: Birte Sewing, COO finleap, and Martin Seiler, Member of the Management Board for Human Resources and Legal Affairs Deutsche Bahn

Martin Seiler and Dr. Birte Sewing recently met at the annual conference of Initiative Chefsache, a network of leaders from industry, science, the public sector, and media committed to making gender balance a top management priority, under the sponsorship of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Both participated to discuss the impact of the Corona pandemic on how we work and its consequences for equal opportunities and diversity. Following this virtual event, we wanted to get their opinions and were curious to learn how two companies from completely different industries have approached the topics of new work and diversity in the past months.

Martin, how has Corona changed the way you work at Deutsche Bahn?

Martin Seiler: Deutsche Bahn plays a critical role in the transition to more sustainable mobility and we will be expanding our services continuously over the next years. To achieve that, we will need to hire 100,000 new colleagues. That’s why we launched our new “Starke Schiene” strategy last year, which is about transforming our company and includes new work and diversity as key elements. Now, the Corona pandemic has led to the worst economic crisis in decades, but it has also accelerated change. Naturally, our colleagues on our trains and on the ground can’t work from home, but we can and have digitalized lots of our processes – at a faster rate than before. We have, for example, with the remarkable support of our IT department, fully digitalized our entire HR recruiting and onboarding process. We have established new virtual training formats, and we have introduced digital shift planning. So, despite all the challenges caused by the pandemic, we also see opportunities in this “New Normal”, while doing our best to leave the crisis behind us as soon as possible.

Birte, what is your view on that topic for finleap?

Dr. Birte Sewing:  For us, flexible constellations form part of the core of our DNA. Our processes are, especially in comparison to such big companies like Deutsche Bahn, designed to be leaner and, at the same time, more digital. For a fintech company like ours, the transition to working virtually during the lockdown was therefore very much manageable. Still, for one, I am very happy to be able to come back into the office a couple of days a week. What I missed the most is the personal human interaction. In addition, Corona has proven again how important leadership is, especially in times of insecurity. On the one hand, it is crucial to set a clear path forward and to communicate a lot and directly with employees. On the other hand, it’s important to make it transparent to the team that there can always be changes along the way. It is perhaps even more important than before that a company has an aspiration, an idea of where it wants to be in two or three years.

Processes have been accelerated, speeding things up. But has this caused topics like diversity, gender balance, and equal pay to take a back seat?

Martin Seiler: Not at Deutsche Bahn. I am convinced: The more diverse a company is, the more successful it is. In May, during lockdown, we set ourselves the goal of increasing the number of female managers in leadership positions to 30% by 2024. But we also want to provide every single employee with equal opportunities, supporting them in their continuous development – whatever that may look like. And, of course, the issue of diversity is particularly important in times like these, when many of us are working from home. After all, parents face additional challenges while working from home, juggling work and parenting – and here, again, mainly women take on the latter. The crisis has reinforced the importance of equal opportunities and gender diversity, and we will make further progress in enabling women and accelerating diversity and equality at Deutsche Bahn. That’s why we have launched our “Einziganders” diversity initiative, along with a broad range of actions.

What do you think about these subjects, Birte?

Dr. Birte Sewing: Diversity has long been anchored in our corporate culture. It is one of our six core values. Having said this, we are fully aware that Corona has been imposing an enormous burden on families. At finleap, we have a female/male ratio of roughly 50%. That’s why we have been approaching all parents very candidly and have offered them opportunities to ease their workload. We see both women and men who are rather responsible for their children or others in need of care – and not just during this pandemic. Yet, the field of diversity is very broad and goes well beyond the gender topic. We act in a technology-driven, very international environment: our employees come from more than 80 nations, different backgrounds and cultures come together. We also take this into account when it comes to the question of the impact of Corona: We have to look after colleagues who have recently moved to Berlin from far away, who have so far only had social contacts through their work, and who may come from countries where the pandemic has hit the hardest.

What are the other key learnings from the past months? And what does the future look like, Martin?

Martin Seiler: The key learning for us is that many obstacles to change were based on perception, but they were not real. Corona has shown us that much more is possible than you would think. We will obviously keep the benefits of our new processes and work structures wherever possible. I truly see this as an opportunity because old thought patterns have been challenged and broken down. We can see a mindset shift among managers to more openness for innovation, in part because we recognize that sticking to “the old ways” will not get us anywhere in this unusual situation. Together, this will all also help us to drive diversity. And diversity, as I said before, is a key prerequisite for future success.

Birte, what do you feel optimistic about?

Dr. Birte Sewing: I think that the crisis has taught us a few things. Certainly, flexible working  conditions have gained much more acceptance. We need to keep the benefit of these changes and drive it further. For instance, we are discussing additional new work approaches and looking at what suits us best. Moreover, I am optimistic about the new sense of community that emerged in the crisis to jointly mitigate the effects and to stand closely together. Also, in the fintech space, there are many cooperations that have come out of it, such as the way start-ups have worked together to advance the Corona Tracing app. As an antidote to the egocentricity we are unfortunately seeing in the world, in particular driven out of certain parts of the world, we in Europe see a stronger urge towards moving together, a stronger collaboration, which I find very positive and pleasant. And a focus on the essentials: How strong you can be when you work together.

Martin, Birte, thank you very much for this conversation.

The interview was conducted by Ina Froehner, Director Communications & Marketing at finleap.