Crafting the Future of Work: Andreas Hoffbauer, Atelier Kultur

Andreas Hoffbauer, Ph.D., is the Founder and Director of Atelier Kultur and a Doctor of Organizational Innovation & Creativity.

He supports organizations in harnessing the principles of organizational sociology to enhance network structures and connections, both within and around their entities. In this interview, he delves into the latest challenges that organizations are encountering around internal social networks and relationships, unveiling insightful tips and strategies to assist leaders and managers in addressing these issues.

Can you tell us your title and describe your role in a few sentences? 

I'm the founder of Atelier Kultur, which is a people advisory. I help organizations align their people with their desired business outcomes. Typically, we do that through understanding what an organization's really after, what they define as their desired outcomes and then intentionally connect people using data to foster the kinds of relationships that enable those desired outcomes.

What do you think about when I say “workplace engagement”? How does it resonate with your daily work? 

When I think about workplace engagement, I really think about how people interact and engage with one another and the flow of knowledge, support, advice, mentorship, friendship, etc. that is exchanged between people.
Most organizations have to think about a distributed workforce: people who aren't in the same office, because they are either spread across different floors, across regions or capacities. How do you connect those people? How do you make sure that they're having the interactions that enable them to pass the culture or the strategy that keeps a company aligned and on target?

Many companies are transitioning to new work models in the post-COVID era. What aspects of these new working methods pose the most challenges? What are the common requests or concerns raised by your customers in this context?

At a high level, the most common question is around connectivity. Everyone's talking about intentional connections and relationships.
Most people are starting to get into that conversation of, "we need to connect our people," when they're across the world or across the city, which then comes down to "what drives these kinds of connections?"

Understanding how moments when people come together lead to different types of relationships is what I see as one of the biggest challenges, and then, “What do businesses want to get out of those interactions and connections?” It's really defining that in order to understand what kinds of moments will enable the connections and relationship structures that will lead to the business outcomes that the organization is after.

The fundamentals of what builds relationships haven't changed, but the context and opportunities that people have to form those relationships to interact to get together - that's changed dramatically. People are struggling in that sense, trying to understand what they should do now: How do we create those contacts again? How do we create those moments that matter? How do we create those opportunities to connect people, from across an organization, to connect and build those relationships?

Not only the strong relationships that work really well for collaboration and really complex coordination of tasks, but also those weaker ties across an organization: to people in different parts that build cohesiveness and gives people the insight to see further within the organization.

You mentioned weak ties. Do you have any tips or tricks to encourage those connections in large organizations? 

From a people side, there are multiple types of connections. But the two fundamental types of connections are strong and weak ties. They both have their advantages.

  • From an individual perspective, building strong ties within your team, with the strategic teams that you should be working with, or just with the people that you want a more substantive relationship with. It's connecting on things that you both can drive value in, or that you are passionate about. It's where you're connecting on an interpersonal level, not just trying to connect for the sake of "this person might give me an opportunity for a stretch assignment," which feels very transactional.

    It’s really about getting to know the other individual and share things that we're passionate about: it's about finding those commonalities. And once you find those connections, you have something to really engage in and have more substantive conversations around. It brings people together.

  • Then, try to look outside your groups. People often think that they have really expansive networks, but when you start to map those networks, they're often a lot smaller than people anticipate. And those weak ties are our connections to different parts of the organization, to people we're not talking to day in and day out. By building those connections, we get access to new knowledge, perspectives, and resources, but it requires us to find those opportunities by joining an ERG or an informal club or association within the organization.
    Participating in moments that connect you to different parts of the organization is incredibly effective for people trying to find new positions, roles or ways of thinking with an organization.

  • Orchestrating connections at scale requires an organization to create more of those opportunities for people to connect. We find oftentimes that teams are really well-connected, but between teams there are fewer opportunities and that's why hosting big events, having team agreements, and daily rituals and routines help people connect with colleagues in different parts of the organization.
    It falls more on leadership as they need to initiate those moments. It's in their best interest to help people form relationships because that's what builds effective communications, breaks down silos, and helps people feel more engaged and connected with your organization. It also helps to alleviate burnout.

  • Once you create those connections, whether it's explicitly by creating new teams that merge individuals together, or finding extracurricular moments where people can build those connections, the organization needs to provide a lot of different opportunities. It can't just be work related. It can't just be something that's outside of work. We need to find multiple different ways to connect people.

What metrics or indicators do you use to measure the performance of a work model? 

One of the primary methodologies is looking at people's relationship structures within the organization, both formal and informal connections.
We typically don’t look at individuals directly asking: "how's Tom doing?" I'm looking at Tom's team structure, how it's connected to the other teams that we know they need to be connected to, or how is that, at scale, leveling up with the desired outcomes the business is after. We look at what's changed in the composition of those groups and ask: are we building the kind of connections between teams that we know facilitate effective communication and good decision-making? Or are they the kinds of relationships that prop up silos and limit peoples’ ability to  assess the value of information or how to use it?

We look at shifts because we know where a company started when we do an organizational network analysis. hen we can track it over time to see how those structures have changed as a result of the interventions that we have implemented and if they're moving towards our aspirational state of a very highly capable network. That's something we do with our implementations and that I advocate all the time for organizations to really think about making that a KPI.
As organizations think about all their other key performance indicators, oftentimes human connectivity is less developed and not systematically measured. But that's something that you can incorporate into your surveys just to get a good pulse on: “Are people connected? Are they having the right relationships?" Because if they're not, it's going to cause lags in an organization, cost inefficiencies or lead people to drop projects and tasks. That's going to cause them not to have the right pickup of innovation, creativity and collaboration with their strategic partners.

Having that top of mind helps channel people leaders where they can help and maintain what's working really well. 

How do social interactions influence your customer’s strategy, as opposed to merely facilitating meetings within teams? 

When we think about the divide in organizations right now, probably one of the most prevalent themes is junctures between executives and leadership to frontline managers, and individual contributors.
There's a disconnect between different parts of the organization, where executives are not forming informal relationships with people in middle management, and middle management isn't forming informal relationships with frontline managers and independent contributors. Nominally, they're connected through the org chart and through reporting structures, but not in ways where they have at least an opportunity to connect with them and chat about something different: maybe they like watching football or could go play soccer together after work.
When we have those informal moments I can learn what you're thinking, how you're thinking about the vision of the organization and what change is on the horizon. That is critical for building strategic alignment and adoption within an organization.

There's the formal side of interactions that help drive work, but it's also those informal relationships that you build in these different moments where you get together that help convey all the texture and nuances to getting work done, like why a decision was made. We need to make sure that we're providing those other opportunities outside of formal meetings for people to connect and interact and get to know about each other, build those relationships.

How do you perceive companies incorporating culture, both within and beyond their physical premises? How do they strike the right balance? 

We hear a lot about organizations that have poor culture or where the culture isn't transmitting, because they just went through a lot of turnover over the past three years, and they're continuing to grow. There's a ton of new people coming in and there are individuals who were there before the pandemic, who really know the culture that defined an organization at one point - but are struggling to diffuse it out. Oftentimes it's because they don't have these moments where multiple people can get together and create relationships, where they can understand why the company is doing what they're doing. And that takes more than just one person.

We're finding oftentimes that people are just connected one-on-one and don't have those structures to get the social proof they require from different people within the organization. That is why the moments that we come together, whether virtual or in person, need to be structured to foster relationship building.

You mentioned the crucial role managers play in connecting with teammates. What should be the initial step a manager takes to foster this connectivity, especially within a distributed team? 

One of the simplest things that we find so effective is taking the time to get to know each other.
We find it really effective with teams that have a lot of new people - or when a new team is formed and people didn't have the opportunity to meet before that, to have a daily standup: 15, 20, or 30 minutes. If there's no pressing business or there's no fire alarm that you're dealing with, you can take that time to just shoot the breeze and ask people to share a bit about what they're interested in or working on. And then people discover those shared similarities, learn what they are passionate about, what the commitments, concerns and realities of their teammates areThen people will start to understand how they can relate to one another and form strong relationships where they can learn how to empathize, how to communicate with each other and what drives them.

Ultimately, once you start to share common passions and interests, it just connects you at a different level, which helps teams connect internally. It's such a small lift where, in 15-20 minutes, if you do that consistently over time, you'll find that the connectivity within your team really builds.

How do you assess the importance of in-person interaction as compared to fully virtual interaction? 

There's something about the energy when people are around. For the most part, I don't think that organizations need to be fully in person, but there are those moments when people come together where you really build momentum and energy.

There's also aspects of work that are far faster to do in person, like really complex coordination and collaboration, and oftentimes that's really accelerated when you're in person.
But there's also driving towards building the momentum, to move a team forward. If you're connected, if you're around each other, there is a collective energy. And when you are able to channel that towards driving business and relationships, it can become really effective. 

When people come together, what really fails is when you have different individuals from a team coming in and spending 90% of their time on Zoom calls, tucked away in a phone booth.
They don't actually have those moments where they're coming together. We like to make sure that if you're coming together with your team, if you're hybrid, distributed by design or whatever that structure is, that you're using that time to really connect. It's using those interactions that you can't have in a virtual space to really focus on what we get out of being in person and using that to drive our work and our relationships forward.

And then obviously leveraging the not in-person time for the head's down and other tasks that are easier to communicate and document asynchronously. It's really understanding that balance to benefit from the in-person time.

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