Zalando meets Technology Foundation Berlin at Techsperts

Some healthy discussion about expectations of the future workplace and agile.

Posted on Dec 16, 2016

We’re at the end of the Zalando Techspert Series for 2016, where we’ve decided to have an up close and personal event with Nicolas Zimmer, the CEO of the Technology Foundation of Berlin, and Marc Lamik, Zalando’s Head of Innovation and Partnerships. “Culture: Beyond Agile” was the hot topic of the evening, with healthy discussion taking place about expectations of the future workplace and the evolution of agile methodologies.

While it was an intimate affair, we know that not everyone interested was able to make it. We caught Nicolas and Marc after the panel to ask them some key questions related to the night’s energetic debate.

Zalando: How relevant will agile be in future tech companies? Is agile already needing a revamp?

Nicolas Zimmer: Agile is generally mainstream at the moment. So the question really is, what comes after agile? People have been discussing DevOps as the next step in achieving better collaboration, meaning agile is most definitely considered to be the baseline in terms of tech culture.

One of the major challenges we’ll have is with companies that are so distributed around the globe that they’ll need to find mechanisms to keep everything together. How much face time will they get? How will they communicate and really work together as a team on one product?

Marc Lamik: I think agile is a difficult word in general. Some teams who use Scrum, for example, consider themselves to be working under an agile mindset, however the rest of the company is still structured in an old-school, top-down hierarchical model. Of course, agile is somewhat of a baseline, but in most companies it’s only a very small portion of people actually operating in an agile manner. If you want to evolve your work culture, you need to think much deeper than just agile – considering not only how your engineers work, but also how the entire company will work together.

Zalando: What trends have you noticed in culture that have worked, and which ones haven't?

Marc Lamik: Flat hierarchies have shifted from being a trend to a generally accepted framework by a lot of companies, which works quite well in organizations of varying sizes. I think there are also some questionable trends to evaluate, such as shared desks. This was pretty hyped some years ago and a lot of the research about shared desks concluded that there was very little improvement. Employees missed their personal space, regardless of the size.

Nicolas Zimmer: I can chime in on the shared desks example here, as it’s something I’ve noticed a lot of German companies adopting who are not in the technology sector. I suspect it doesn’t make that much sense.

Another trend to consider is the growing popularity of working from home. We can see a big number of people returning to home offices which works to some degree, but what you still miss is the cultural and communicative flow that being present in the office can give. I think we’ll definitely see less hierarchies and more self-organizing teams in the future, but I don’t believe there will be anything coming along that totally dissolves organizations as we know it – some feel that the organizational model is something that needs to be overcome, however it’s a cost efficient strategy that steers employees towards a common goal, which is still needed regardless of what you’re trying to achieve.

Zalando: How much do you think technology, like AR and VR, will dominate the future workplace?

Nicolas Zimmer: There are a lot of promises and expectations with AR and VR. When it comes to hardware engineering, the adoption of these makes a lot of sense, as well as when we talk about employees on the shop floor, so to speak. Training via AR or VR to cope with certain challenges or tasks is a great use case and will certainly be a hot topic for industries producing goods.

Marc Lamik: I think there are definitely some areas where VR can make a difference if you think about cooperating between different offices, for example. We at Zalando do a lot with Google Hangouts which works well, but it’s clearly different from sitting in the same room and scratching on the same board during meetings and workshops.

If you could replicate this experience via VR, I believe meetings could become even more efficient. However, I’m also rather confident that VR experiences won’t completely replace face-to-face meetings.

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