2020: Best practice – remote working at Zeppelin

Can a traditional company learn from experience and adapt to new conditions? Zeppelin has proved it can! Based on its predominantly positive experience with remote working during the COVID-19 lockdown in the middle of 2020, Zeppelin decided to adapt the Group Works Agreement on the subject of remote working. This means that from October 1 onwards, every Zeppelin employee in Germany can decide for themselves – depending on their job profile and approval of their manager – where and how they want to work remotely. And do so without any time limit!

The Zeppelin Group is thus setting a milestone in its 70-year history and at the same time sending a clear message that tradition can also be innovative. But how has this change been received in the Group? And how flexible has remote working at Zeppelin been so far? We went to find out!

Interview with longtime Zeppelin employee Benjamin Höck

Benjamin Höck, who joined the Zeppelin Group back in 2011, has been closely following developments related to remote working at the company. In an interview, he tells us what he thinks of the change within the Group, what motivates him as a manager, and what he would like to see at the company in the future

Mr. Höck, let’s start with the most important question: Why have you been at Zeppelin for so long? What sets Zeppelin apart from the competition as an employer?

“The first things that come to mind are standard answers such as the diversity of my duties and how great my colleagues are. But when I really think about it, it’s also because of the opportunities for development I had and still have at Zeppelin. Then there is the exciting market environment, the amount of freedom that I enjoy on a daily basis, opportunities in operations that haven’t yet been completely explored, and the Group’s openness to new things. Short decision-making paths, a strong sense of community in the company, and Zeppelin’s foundation spirit round it all off. I can also say that the employer promise “Growing with Zeppelin” truly applies to me. I started as a project manager and now I am Head of Digital Business & Partnering at Zeppelin Rental. Incidentally, this position has only existed at the company since the beginning of 2020, certainly not back when I started with the company.”

What experiences have you had with remote working over the course of your professional life? What have you learned from it? Have you experienced any resistance?

After completing my degree, I started working at a management consultancy firm but moved to Zeppelin after five years. At the time it was already common practice for consultancy work to be performed remotely. However, this wasn’t the case at Zeppelin in 2011. There was still a well-established culture of being present in the office, but fortunately – at least in Zeppelin Rental, where I was – this quickly changed. I worked as a site and traffic guidance manager for four years and was responsible for more than 15 sites and their development. It was clear that coordination meetings could not always be held in person and with the entire team because, by the end, the team included more than 400 people. At that time, telephone conferences, digital meetings, many e-mails, and short coordination channels were unavoidable and commonplace. Sales has also always been remote and on the move. In my role as a manager, I’m more interested in the work result than physical presence in the office. For me, therefore, the change to the GWA is a culmination of many years spent moving in a direction that I think makes sense and is geared towards the future. I didn’t feel any resistance during this process, but rather experienced a change and positive development in the right direction.

Zeppelin has drastically relaxed its guidelines on remote working in Germany. What do you think of this development?

As I already mentioned, I view this development as a logical consequence and, at the same time, a culmination of events. Companies are always competing for qualified employees, and Zeppelin needs to attract young talent. At the same time, people who already work at the Group must be retained by maintaining a certain level of employer attractiveness. Measures such as the expansion of the GWA contribute to this. As a father of three, work/life balance is another key issue for me. I also want to pass on this flexibility to my employees and give them the freedom to organize their own working hours. Changing the guidelines is therefore a good idea and important in every respect. It also sends an important signal that we trust our workforce. And together we can achieve our goals. I am proud of Zeppelin for taking this step so quickly and resolutely. But of course, a change to the GWA ultimately also entails a change in the way you manage. When you are not physically together all the time, different tools and methods are needed to ensure that you do not lose touch with your employees. How do you manage teams that are “out of reach”? Having a good relationship with the team is key. If you make time for them, listen to them, and agree targets together, remote working can also form a successful component of a modern working culture.

What are the benefits of remote working for employees? What are the benefits from the company’s perspective?

For employees, it definitely improves the work/life balance: more flexible working hours, less commuting (both in terms of time and kilometers), and fewer business trips! But the company can also save money: Is that business trip – to Düsseldorf, for example – really necessary? Or would it be sufficient to have a virtual meeting via Microsoft Teams? The way I see it, this optimizes the company’s carbon footprint, and we make a further (small) contribution to reducing our environmental impact. We also increase the company’s attractiveness as an employer: Not every Zeppelin site in Germany is easily accessible by public transport. The option of remote working not only opens up new perspectives, but also increases the radius for potential new employees: Commuting from Nuremberg or Memmingen to Munich on a regular basis? It’s easier with remote working.

To what extent do you need a different management style now? And what role does the global COVID-19 pandemic play in this?

Good management is always based on trust and confidence in your employees. I think that social intelligence and a certain degree of empathy for the concerns of the workforce are also an important part of working together successfully. On top of that, digital leadership requires generating a sense of accessibility or proximity to your colleagues, even though you are spatially separated. I see this as the biggest challenge. My management style has always been cooperative or situational. Everyone is different; some colleagues need more or less support from the manager. It all comes down to how these needs are addressed in the team and also how they are handled together as a team. Whether this is done digitally or in person is ultimately irrelevant. The COVID-19 pandemic added another element to management responsibilities: Conveying a sense of security and stability. When the world around you goes a little crazy and everything gets out of joint, good leadership can help secure at least some of the important pillars of your life and provide some level of confidence. As a company, Zeppelin set a very good example here and has always been very open and clear in its communication, especially during the intense crisis months in the middle of 2020.

What are the characteristics of an attractive employer today? And what skills do employees now need to be successful? 

As a company, the best way to retain talented employees is to make them feel valued and give them opportunities to develop. Everyone wants recognition for what they have accomplished as well as the feeling that they are part of a bigger picture and contribute to business success. Managers have a particular responsibility when it comes to this point and make a clear contribution to employer attractiveness. The employer promise “Growing with Zeppelin” summarizes this quite well and also reflects the reality. I always had the opportunity to develop myself further and attend training sessions. And I also pass this opportunity on. From an employee’s perspective, flexibility plays a major role. Not only in terms of how you think, but also in terms of a willingness to try new things, approaches, and ideas. For example, I think that job rotation is an effective way to continuously put yourself in another person’s shoes and see things from their perspective. How can we rethink challenges and overcome them in new ways? And how can we work as a team? Team cooperation is more important than ever, especially in such challenging times.

What developments of #newwork and the Working World 2.0 of the future would you already like implemented today?

Above all, I would like fewer buzzwords and cool terms to be used in the world of work, and a more lived working culture. If we are opening up our GWA to remote working, we should really let go of the reins, trust people more, and let them take responsibility. Across all companies and countries! Like any other company, Zeppelin must find its own path. We need to work out what suits the workforce, what challenges we face, and how we can overcome them as a company. I think that we are on a very good path and, as a traditional company with German roots, can also compete internationally. Our corporate values are unique and make us special – as does our day-to-day work for and with our customers. If I had one wish, I would like all employees to have trust-based working hours. And I am certain that this would not decrease productivity, but instead increase it!

Having a good relationship with the team is key. If you make time for them, listen to them, and agree targets together, remote working can also form a successful component of a modern working culture.

Benjamin Höck

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