“Things that become a burden are delegated. Often, unfortunately, to the wrong person”
Interview with Lasse Rheingans, Managing Director of the Rheingans Digital Enable agency
European Business: Mr. Rheingans, you ended your ‘five-hour-day’ experiment in February. Was the project a success, and what lessons have you learnt from it?
Lasse Rheingans: The project was certainly a success – so much so that we are not only going to extend it, but we want to have it scientifically monitored and evaluated. We have been able to learn a lot of lessons from it so far, among them some trivial things such as the fact that we use less electricity and we need fewer drinks deliveries.
Of course, we have also learnt some important lessons. Under the ‘mini-crisis’ conditions of a five-hour day, issues surface that are not visible in an eight-hour day. Some employees were unable to deal with their workload within five hours. However, in my view, and in the opinion of my project managers, that had less to do with the employees themselves and more to do with the fact that their workload was already too heavy. In the worst case, it would have resulted in dissatisfaction in the medium term, and perhaps the departure of the overburdened employee. Within the team, we discussed how we could accelerate processes and improve them, or even distribute certain work better.
As a boss, I benefit from more relaxed colleagues, who are happy to finally have time for new technologies or for personal development. Lasse Rheingans
Another point that we recognized, was that many employees have turned their hobby into a job, about which they are extremely enthusiastic. Now, they suddenly have a lot of time that they actually want to use for personal training. I didn’t expect that, but as a boss, I benefit from more relaxed employees who are happy to finally have time for new technologies or for personal development - things that are often expected of employees on an eight-hour day, but for which they have neither the energy or desire, when they come home after eight or nine hours at work.
European Business: How did the introduction of the five-hour day affect your own way of working?
Lasse Rheingans: At first, I had much longer working days than before, because due to the experiment, there was no one to whom I could delegate some of the tasks which accumulated. During discussions, it became clear to me what normally happens in such a situation: things that become a burden are delegated. Often, unfortunately, to people who have neither fun with, nor bring great expertise to, the subject. Through the five-hour experiment, I quickly became aware of the skills that are missing within the team.
Things, that become a burden are delegated. Often, unfortunately, to people who have neither fun with, nor bring great expertise to, the subject. Lasse Rheingans
European Business: You wanted to achieve shorter working hours by improving the structure and organization without sacrificing productivity, and by eliminating processes that take up an unnecessary amount of time. What were the biggest time-wasters that you have been able to purge?
Lasse Rheingans: Examples are the obvious things like the chat at the coffee machine, distractions from mobile phones and e-mail alerts, excessive chatting, use of social media, eating together, and waiting for feedback from colleagues. It became noticeable that some meetings went on for too long without a clear agenda. Poor communication, nonsensical processes, and workstations that were simply not optimally equipped also became apparent.
Let’s create an environment where it is possible to really concentrate on the work, with a common goal that everyone has finished their work by 1 pm. Lasse Rheingans
Basically however, I believe that our model is not about a difference between five and eight hours, but rather five and six or six and a half hours. What does an eight-hour day look like? You arrive in the morning, get coffee, have a chat with colleagues, then focus intensively on work for a while. Then you have a little break with colleagues. Then comes lunch, followed by a big dip in performance; it takes some time to refocus on work. Then another chat with colleagues at the coffee machine. Then, shortly before the end of the working day, you check the latest news or the football tables, or have a quick chat with colleagues about your evening plans. In between all that, one or two private issues often have to be dealt with. And so it goes on.
I am convinced that all these breaks are genuinely necessary in a normal, eight-hour working day. No one can concentrate on work for eight hours straight. This is also evident from the many studies on performance curves, and the effectiveness of part time workers. But my suggestion to my colleagues is this: Let’s create an environment where it is possible to really concentrate on the work, with a common goal that everyone has finished their work by 1 pm.
European Business: In an agency like Rheingans Digital Enabler, a five-hour day seems more feasible than in many industrial occupations, which have been organized in eight-hour shifts for decades. Can the working time model that you experimented with be applied to all industries? What role do company size and culture play?
Lasse Rheingans: This model per se is certainly not transferrable to all sectors; in this respect, production and the health care industry are often quoted. At the same time, I think that even these sectors do not necessarily have to be exempted. In production, more and more processes are being carried out faster, error-free and more safely by machines and robots. People are responsible for other areas. It is similar in retail, for example in supermarkets, with self-service checkouts, and information and touch terminals at the point of sale. These are all areas where human creativity is not required. But once that creativity is needed, the five-hour day can make sense.
Corporate culture definitely plays a very important role, not only when switching from an eight-hour to a five-hour day, but for all new working time models. If there were no honest, face-to-face discussions in our agency, we would not be able to reflect on where things are not going so well, and how they could be improved.
We are in the age of digital transformation. This digital transformation is the biggest change since the industrial revolution. Lasse Rheingans
European Business: The world of work is changing. In the Netherlands, employees have the right to work from home; Sweden has experimented with a six-hour day, and digitalization is bound to change of view of work. To what extent is Germany flexible enough for this change?
Lasse Rheingans: We are in the age of digital transformation. This digital transformation is the biggest change since the industrial revolution. I believe that companies in Germany that do not have sufficient flexibility will have huge problems in the not-too-distant future because they have not adapted or adjusted to the changing conditions. At the latest, this will happen when these companies are confronted by the employees of tomorrow, who do not want to work by the clock or in sophisticated hierarchies, in a job with which they cannot identify. But I certainly don’t think this lack of flexibility is true of the whole of Germany.
The fact is, we have the vision to save middle-sized German companies. While this is, like every vision, utopia, we try to save every one of our customers, just a little bit, every day, from the consequences of missing digital transformation. Lasse Rheingans
European Business: The name of your company – Digital Enabler – could also be the leitmotif for the digital transformation of entire industries, or for someone who can shape this change in a competent and visionary way. What does it take to be a digital enabler?
Lasse Rheingans: Of course, our name did not happen just by chance. I studied media science, and have been involved in technical innovation and the digitization of processes since the late 1990s. Over the years, other key areas of digitization have been added that were not initially connected to the theme: changes in sales, communication and culture. For me, the name was therefore a logical result of the things that have been driving me for almost 20 years, because we want to ‘enable’ our customers not to go under in this change, but to actively shape their future.
A digital enabler needs a lot of passion, a light in their eyes and the drive to give their customers the knowledge, tools and the edge to be present and active in the future. The fact is, we have the vision to save middle-sized German companies. While this is, like every vision, utopia, we try to save every one of our customers, just a little bit, every day, from the consequences of missing digital transformation.