Crisis and cultural change

Let’s speak frankly

30. September 2017
Protocols: Anette Frisch
Photos: Ériver Hijano

The Volkswagen Group, according to currently common assumptions, is a typical company of the German automotive industry – hierarchical, authoritarian, dominated by men. But does that still hold true? What are the changes occurring through the technological revolution, the generational shift, and the cultural transformation taking place in response to the diesel crisis? We ask our employees.

Thaddäus Kustra

More listening and fewer monologues

Thaddäus Kustra, 64, head of automation and testing technology, Volkswagen employee since 1985

When I started at VW 32 years ago, we had a corporate culture. And it has evolved since then. It has gotten neither better nor worse. Because it can be only as good or as bad as the people shaping it. In my opinion, social competence and culture are inseparable. What good is it if someone talks about respect but then gets personal during discussions? A good corporate culture has to do with listening. That’s what I expect from managers – they should listen and not just hold monologues. There are still too many decisions made that get stuck up at higher management levels and never reach the people in production. It’s not enough that they can go and read up on it online. They need explanations in order to make sense of these decisions. All in all, I think communication needs to be more transparent and open. And we can do without the buzzwords. We hear enough of those as it is.

Anke Tesch

With women, there’s a different atmosphere

Anke Tesch, 46, department head at Technical Development, has been with Volkswagen for 29 years

When it comes to women’s issues, Volkswagen still has a long way to go. In Wolfsburg, there are 10,000 people working in technical development. Only 1,500 of them are women. In upper management, there are currently just seven of us women, compared to 156 men. And in vehicle development, so far, I’m still the only female executive. From the moment a woman takes part in a meeting, there’s a whole different atmosphere. The tension goes down within the group. The tone becomes friendlier, and discussions get calmer. Volkswagen is living out the ideals of diversity more and more and doing away with conservative reservations. The fathers on my team take parental leave, stay at home when their kid is sick, or leave early for their daughter’s birthday party. Family is no longer just a women’s issue. Executives have a big impact on corporate culture. They’re role models. But there are still some managers to whom power is extremely important. That’s why I think that executives should have their skills evaluated and examined on a regular basis, especially their social skills. HR needs to look more carefully at how each person deals with their coworkers, makes decisions, acts, and gives feedback on eye level. Call it supervision for managers, I suppose.

Astrid Bremer

I’d like to have clarity

Astrid Bremer, 47, assembly worker in components, Volkswagen employee since 2011

To me, integrity means acting in accordance with my own convictions and openly addressing the things that go against my conscience. That’s really important to me, which is why I’ve been an integrity ambassador since 2016. I hope to raise awareness on this subject among my coworkers. And it’s no easy task. Some people aren’t interested or don’t understand it. They say: “Simply explain to me what you really mean.” I think the issue should be publicized more in the company. In any case, the production staff should be brought up to speed, too. Sure, there’s always information and discussions on integrity online on Group Connect. But most of the staff who work in assembly, for example, don’t have internet access. They can’t even use Group Connect. Maybe we could use more printouts to reach everyone. Ever since Dieselgate, I’ve noticed that the atmosphere at work is more tense. Some of my coworkers feel like they’re in limbo, because they don’t know what’s coming and what’s going to happen. They fear for their jobs. From all the talk about the future of diesel and electromobility, it’s clear that there will be some changes around here. Whatever happens, I hope that Volkswagen shows compassion. And that, instead of secrecy, we have clarity.

Dr. Stefan Wolf

We need to change the way we communicate

Dr. Stefan Wolf, 54, Product Strategy, VW Commercial Vehicles, Volkswagen employee since 2002

You can’t turn a corporate culture around in the span of two or three years. If management thinks there are tools that you can use to influence corporate culture directly, they’re mistaken.

Corporate culture depends on the way we deal with certain things and the way we talk about mistakes. We need the courage to be critical of ourselves and more freedom to be able to strike out on new paths.

There are two areas where our corporate culture could potentially open up and improve. Firstly, we should have a real dialog with our stakeholders instead of trying to claim the right to decide who to talk to and who not. And second, we should be more tolerant of mistakes and allow more time and space for new things to develop. That’s something we’re still only doing halfway in our innovation process, to the effect that we’re much too fast with the product and much too late with the user. I’m disappointed at how we deal with crises. It has to be clear that a company should communicate openly about issues of public interest, instead of only shining the spotlight on the things that are going well. This type of sustainability communication we can do without. In the long term, we’re only as good as our word.

Nils John

I’d like to be given confidence

Nils John, 29, working in Digital & New Business since September, Volkswagen employee since January 2016

During my training, I was able to work with digital technology in different departments. I noticed that people were really eager to experiment. There’s this drive, like: “Come on, let’s try it!” I really liked that. As a trainee, I got to work in a different department every three months. I got to know a lot of coworkers that way both in Germany and abroad, and I was able to build up a big network. I think that personal contact is the key to good collaboration. In a company that’s caught up in a crisis and going through major changes, a lot of opportunities open up. As a newcomer, I would want Volkswagen to have confidence in me. I’d want them to give me a chance, as a young man, to really do something. And I mean now, and not ten years from now when I’ve been with the company long enough.

Bita Daryan

We’re developing new relationship models

Bita Daryan, 31, a futurist, has been at Volkswagen since 2012

What I like about the Group and the reason I moved from Berlin to Wolfsburg is the fact that the staff here is very diverse. Despite the size of the company, they have a modesty which is authentic and has a positive effect on work.

Having said that, I think the gender issue is acting as a barrier to cultural change. The workforce’s mentality is still dominated by traditional role models. The new affirmative action initiatives to improve opportunities for women can only work if the HR managers also take a post-gender approach – in other words, if gender differences become irrelevant. However, as long as they continue to hire staff who fit the traditional stereotypes, there is still a long way to go.

Another issue is the uncertainty within the workforce which has arisen due to the past two years, because the external reporting and image differ from the internal reality. We are told: “The Volkswagen Group did this or that …” but Volkswagen is a huge international corporation. Real people work here. And they take recent developments very seriously because they take their jobs very seriously.

Dieselgate rocked the relationship between the employees and the Group, I think. It’s not about a ‘War of the Roses.’ In a way, it’s about getting to know one another again by changing how we listen and talk to one another or – in other words – developing new relationship models that are fit for the future. All with a shared goal which is about the world and effective solutions. Perhaps that’s how it differs from the past: the corporate culture should strengthen a sense of responsibility towards society, the future, and employees’ futures in equal measure.

Iain Fraser

Cultural change isn’t a one-off

Iain Fraser, 34, a doctoral student in the Group procurement team since February 2017, focusing on sustainability in Volkswagen’s relationships with suppliers.

I come from New Zealand, which is said to be a very anti-hierarchical country. Looking at Volkswagen from this perspective, I consider the Group as a whole to be very traditional and hierarchical. That is not true of my department though, where there is a strong sense of partnership, and I take responsibility myself.

Cultural change cannot be a one-off response to a crisis. Cultural change is an ongoing process. I think that all large corporations are constantly in the position of identifying how society is evolving and which new requirements are emerging as a result. I also believe that the larger a company is, the more hierarchical and rigid it is, the more it struggles to make changes.

Personally, I can only advocate things I am certain about – issues I believe in and where I feel that I can make a difference. For that reason, integrity is extremely important to me in my day-to-day work. So is humor. It helps to make interpersonal relationships more relaxed and keep things in perspective.

Christoph Köhler

Simply do it!

Christoph Köhler, 27, a trainee in New Business Models & Connectivity, has been at Volkswagen Truck & Bus since November 2016

There are big differences in the cultures at Volkswagen. Both Scania in Sweden and MOIA in Berlin have a very open, transparent culture and flat hierarchies. Old ways of thinking are often ingrained at the Group, but a lot of things are changing at the moment to speed up the cultural shift, and that is a good thing. I also think that this kind of change takes time and depends on who is driving it.

There are processes at the Group which are no longer up to date and go against autonomy. I appreciate that it is impossible to change that overnight, but the more responsibility staff are given for small things, the more entrepreneurially they will think.

The diesel scandal was an unpleasant situation, of course, but it has sped up the period of upheaval. Despite it, lots of new colleagues from industry, competitors, or start-ups have come to the Group who generate incredible value added. After all, when it comes to mobility, Volkswagen is still one of the most exciting companies in the world. I belong to a generation that wants to be involved in projects that offer truly sustainable solutions.

Openness, transparency, and appreciation are extremely important when it comes to motivating employees. The same is true of trust. I think Volkswagen should do more to encourage staff who have the courage for new, high-risk issues. I think that will help us discover ideas that are important for the Group’s future viability, and that will only make it onto the road if someone has taken the principle “Just do it!” to heart.

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