The experience of Fresenius Medical Care's Global Research & Development (GRD) during COVID-19 illustrates some of the challenges that colleagues have faced, and overcome, to keep working closely together despite lockdowns and travel restrictions. It also shows the potential for closer digital collaboration and communication going forward into the "new normal" way we will be working, post-pandemic. Brigitte Baas from Fresenius Corporate Communications talked with Irene Quaranta, Senior Vice President Human Resources, GRD at Fresenius Medical Care,and Sarah Babendererde, Senior Project Manager Strategic HR Initiatives, HR, GRD at Fresenius Medical Care.
How was GRD able to continue functioning during the coronavirus crisis?
Irene Quaranta: Between 80 and 90 percent of GRD employees – both full-time and part-time – switched to home office during the pandemic. This adjustment came from one day to the next. We were pleasantly surprised how well they all mastered it. And we are very proud of the creative solutions that our employees came up with to keep working and to promote exchanges – particularly during the first weeks and months, when the infrastructure was still limited. Our employees as a whole were very responsible, and maintained a high degree of performance and collegiality.
That sounds good. Did everything run smoothly from the start?
Irene Quaranta: In the beginning, for us all to be working at home and still meeting in digital form was a little bit strange, even though as a globally active division we have always done a lot of work together in a virtual setting. Naturally, there were some things that didn’t work. But we always came up with good solutions, and accepted some things with the necessary amount of humor.
"Naturally, there were some things that didn’t work. But we always came up with good solutions, and accepted some things with the necessary amount of humor."
Does working for months in a virtual environment affect cohesion in the teams?
Irene Quaranta: Collaborating in a virtual setting, using the usual set of digital tools, we even began to have new, positive experiences. Interestingly, we actually grew even closer together at a global level; many collegial relationships have deepened during the coronavirus period.
This was especially true for colleagues assigned to ‘outposts,’ which at GRD is defined as a location where they are the sole employee. They felt they had become better integrated into their teams. Many colleagues said the regular meetings held on collaboration helped them achieve much closer team integration. There is, of course, another side: The distance to everyone else, with whom one doesn’t share any common tasks, became substantially larger.
And how did relations between supervisors and team members change?
Sarah Babendererde: Various supervisory personnel told me they actually spend more time with their teams than before, and have held more one-on-one talks. For the simple reason that they are not traveling as much. And it’s much quicker and less complicated to set up a short video conference, also for team members in another country.
Many say the crisis has led to greater digitalization. Is this the case at GRD?
Irene Quaranta: Yes, especially with regards to tools used to foster cooperation. At GRD we have always been very open to new technologies and have made regular use of them. But since the crisis, our competence and routines using the digital collaboration tools have undergone another considerable improvement.
Sarah Babendererde: Collaborating on a purely virtual level has the effect of putting all meeting participants on an equal footing. All colleagues use the same technology, all present in the same way and can contribute at eye level.
How will we proceed when things begin to return to normal? As an example, should there be a return to holding large live events?
Irene Quaranta: In the past months, all our events have been held in digital form, from team meetings with small attendance on to large-scale events. And we are enthused about the many possibilities of digital collaboration and communication. We have learned, for example, that even large-scale virtual events with up to 80 people work every well on an interactive level. That’s why we fully expect that we will work and cooperate more on a digital level in the future. At the same time, we have recognized the importance of team cohesion and a close exchange of views. The only reason we came through the pandemic as well as we did was that we made an investment before the coronavirus in building up GRD as a global team, and this served us very well. To achieve this, personal contact is also essential.
“We will weigh very carefully when and to which events we travel. In general, we want to spend less time traveling, particularly when it concerns subject matter that works very well on a digital level."
Turning to the topic of business travel, how will you handle this in the future?
Sarah Babendererde: We will weigh very carefully when and to which events we travel. In general, we want to spend less time traveling, particularly when it concerns subject matter that works very well on a digital level. However, GRD has no intention of going fully over to the digital workplace. We continue to place great value on personal contact. As with everything else having to do with the ‘new normal,’ it will be a question of finding the right balance.
Thank you for talking with us!
Interview: Brigitte Baas, Corporate Communications