Beyond All Borders

How a new building design can encourage transparency and openness

Creating a sense of togetherness isn't all that hard. There are a lot of shared interests at the company, you just need to know where to find them. While a new building design can encourage transparency and openness, working together is something you can do anywhere.

Brainstorming happens best in a relaxed atmosphere.
Brainstorming happens best in a relaxed atmosphere.

Whenever Bianca Kalkman takes her customers through the building, she can't help but notice how impressed they are. “I wish I worked here!” – that's a sentence Ms. Kalkman, who works in Marketing and Sales Support at the Vision Care business group in the Dutch city of Breda, hears many times over from visitors. She's not surprised people react this way. High windows, walls made of glass, and spacious hallways teeming with plant life ensure ZEISS' new Bond Park site is bright and roomy, reflecting an open corporate culture.

Comfortable seating encourages people to gather together or read without being disturbed. Three of our colleagues have sat down to a meeting in a corner designed to resemble an American diner. Employees can choose where they work in the different areas of the building.

The feeling you get on these new premises is unambiguous: anyone working here should feel at home and have fun, let themselves be inspired, and share their expertise with colleagues. This way, everyone will give it their all. The office has become a productive hangout. This is the new way of working at ZEISS, and it has had a home in Breda since the beginning of 2017. Silicon Valley is the first place people look to when rethinking workplace culture. 

There, doing everything differently from everyone else is a given. And, of course, those responsible for the new design of the ZEISS site at Bond Park have drawn on the experiences of Google, Facebook, and the like.

They have broken down rigid structures to encourage a new culture of communication and teamwork. The plan is for employees and customers to benefit equally from this bold concept.

And they do. All ZEISS business groups are housed here on the 1,000-square-meter premises. At the Experience Center, customers can immediately see the expertise behind the ZEISS brand. No one has an assigned spot, and being separated by business group is now a thing of the past. No matter their position, each employee decides where they want to work and who they'd like to sit with: whether sitting or standing, with music or in silence, as part of a team or independently.

“We would like to encourage a dialogue between the employees and promote trust,” says Neil Morrison, Head of Communications for Benelux. “But there are also enough areas where you can work by yourself for a while.” This is also one of the reasons employees are asked not to eat at the workspaces. “Anyone who's hungry can head to the kitchen,” says Morrison as he walks to his sixth “desk” for the day. “The focus is now on movement and communication.” That also has a positive effect on public perception, because, Managing Director Stefan Claes explains, “The dynamic working environment makes us more attractive for potential employees.” And in the new Experience Center, customers and visitors can experience the ZEISS brand in all its facets. “The number of visitors has exceeded, by far, all our expectations.”

Every employee chooses where and with whom he or she would like to work.
Every employee chooses where and with whom he or she would like to work.

No More Thinking in Silos

The planners' theory has become a reality very quickly. Like many of her colleagues, Jordana Werner, Team Leader for Benelux Sales Administration, has observed how the new setup has brought together the employees from the different business groups. “At lunch I always see more and more people striking up a conversation and getting to know each other. That didn't happen before,” says Werner. For her, there is simply no question that promoting flexibility and communication immediately improves the atmosphere: “Bond Park just puts you in a good mood. I'm bursting with energy as soon as I enter the building.” Morrison is particularly pleased that his colleagues approve of this approach. High fives in the hallways are part of the average working day here. “We've done everything exactly right.” Bianca Kalkman sums it up, “Here you feel like part of one big team.” To be honest, it was not always like this at ZEISS. There was only a limited willingness to work together across the borders separating units and countries. “Ultimately,” says one manager at ZEISS, “every business group was only looking out for itself.”

Anyone who´s hungry can head to the kitchen

For a long time, very few people were thinking about how overarching cooperation could lead to greater profits for ZEISS as a whole. It is this type of thinking in silos, anchored in the organization, that still makes it difficult to work together. Also because it has meanwhile become a part of the culture: ZEISS employees define themselves in terms of their business group. Previously, there were shirts flaunting the unit’s name, and still to this day you will find foosball tables here and there in the hallways sporting the unit’s team name. All too seldom do you see the only team that really matters: Team ZEISS. The Executive Board has recognized that this has to change. One of the aims of the ZEISS Agenda 2020 is therefore to break down the silo mentality, both organizationally and culturally.

Using a break with colleagues to clear their heads.

Simply Do It

Strategic guidelines are difficult to implement if employees don’t support them. But in this case, the latest employee survey shows that leadership and workforce are in agreement: only about half of all employees find that ZEISS works constructively across departmental borders – a rather low number for a globally active company. Yet this assessment stems from the wish to improve. And this wish is more valuable than any directive from the Executive Board, or any work instructions. Herbert Lettenbauer’s group is a prime example of how employees have already been working together.

Lettenbauer is Head of the Global Software Network for the Industrial Metrology business group and has been working closely for years now with his colleagues from the business groups Microscopy (MIC) and Medical Technology (MED), in informal and uncomplicated ways. It started, by chance, around 2012: Lettenbauer and Falk Hartwig, Site Head for MED in Munich, got to know each other at a management meeting; they liked each other right away and met for dinner. “And of course, when you meet like this, you ask each other: ‘Hey, how does your team do this or that?’” Lettenbauer recalls. They decided to schedule a regular meeting for every two months or so. Corné van Sommeren, Head of Technology Center Software & Digital Solutions for MIC, joined the group in 2016.

At first, they mostly exchanged knowledge. “Every single person knows a little about something, but together we simply know more,” he says. “Or a colleague tells about a solution they discovered and you know right away: that would work just as well for us.”

For sure, this works particularly well for software: code is interchangeable, and technical problems are the same everywhere. Other areas closer to products have a harder time finding common topics. Sun glasses and semiconductors have less touch points. But even when they aren’t obvious you can still look for them. Opportunities to work together are everywhere. Meanwhile, the three software heads discuss much more than IT: management topics, processes – “an exchange that extends through all levels,” says Lettenbauer.

All the way to strategic matters. Because when the areas know each other better, they can support one another in a more targeted manner. For instance, when IMT became interested in software development in India, Lettenbauer didn’t have to start from scratch – “I could share my experiences with him right away,” says Hartwig, “that went without saying. We can always call each other and find someone ready to listen, especially if things get stressful.” Mergers and acquisitions are another example. Even when each business group looks for opportunities to expand, according to Hartwig, they inform each other about interesting candidates in an informal and uncomplicated way.

Effective of January 2019, the current Head of Communications in the Benelux Neil Morrison became Regional Marketing Manager of Research Microscopy Solutions (RMS) at the SSC Southeast Asia, based in Singapore. Bianca Kalkman, formery Marketing Specialist at Vision Care, succeeded Neil Morrison as Head of Communication in the Benelux.

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