"Challenging times forge us together"

Heike Weishaupt, Vice President HR at BENTELER Automotive, talks about leadership in times of Corona, working from home and the team spirit in a fourth-generation family-owned company.

The most important capital of our company are our employees. How do challenging times, in which we currently find ourselves, affect the corporate culture at BENTELER?

BENTELER is a family-owned company in the fourth generation. In our more than 140 years of company history we have already successfully mastered several challenges. In doing so, we are guided by our corporate values. What we have always kept despite changes is the passion that we put into our work. The courage to try out the new. The ambition to keep improving until we have found the right solution. And the respect to work together at eye level – with each other as well as with our customers and partners.

Does management in times of Corona also require a different style of leadership and motivation?

Leadership in challenging times requires even more reliability, trust and transparency. When it comes to transparency, it is crucial that you say everything you can say. That you pass on information relevant to the employee so that everyone can assess where he or she stands personally – but also where we stand as a company. It is important that managers address the issues that concern employees, take an interest and listen. It is just as important to share successes in order to demonstrate: your commitment is worthwhile.

The communication of the management is currently even more important than usual. Management must be even more tangible for employees and provide orientation. Motivation comes primarily from an inner drive. Participation and openness help to "move" people. For example, it is important to maintain team meetings. We from the HR team meet every day at lunchtime for a joint coffee – by telephone. Another example from our location in Burgos, Spain: When we restarted the plant there, the entire management team was on site at 6 a.m. on the first day of work to welcome the plant employees personally – and to familiarize them with our Corona safety measures.

The Corona pandemic has changed the daily working lives of most of us. Working from home office was one of our security measures. What have been your personal experiences over the past two months?

I took up my position as Vice President HR at BENTELER Automotive on March 17, 2020 – before that I worked for many years in the former Distribution division, where I was responsible for all HR activities, most recently as Managing Director. So I had only worked in my new role at BENTELER Automotive for four days when everything changed, everything became virtual. When you are new and don't know the people yet, direct contact is especially important – but in telephone conferences we don't see facial expressions or gestures for direct feedback and personal orientation.

Working from home is sometimes much more intensive and focused than in the office. We schedule breaks ourselves according to our personal needs. In the office, I would have to plan additional time between appointments – even if it was only from one office to another, from one building to the next. In the home office, one thing follows another. Even for the little breaks in the coffee kitchen, the quick exchanges in the hallway, where you get new ideas, you have to find creative alternatives.

What challenges do managers face when their employees are no longer physically present because they are working from home?

Those who have never managed a virtual team before that doesn't work from one place might find it a little more difficult at first. Every contact must be actively formed. In a virtual environment you don't meet colleagues by chance and you don't immediately feel how your colleagues are doing. So you have to listen very carefully and ask questions in order to get a realistic picture. That is why it is important to give a phone call from time to time, without any factual or operational reason. That is how you maintain the bond. In addition, some managers are perhaps also afraid of losing control - but in my opinion this is unnecessary: Employees who are reliable in the office are also reliable at home. The same applies the other way round, of course. It's all about the attitude to work, about the mindset. Neither is dependent on the place of work.

According to the experience of the past few weeks: will you maintain that more time can be spent in the home office?

An office is a room where people meet to exchange ideas. That makes sense in general. Telephone calls, video conferences, and even content-related work can, however, be efficiently handled from home. It depends on the tasks, the team and the right mix. Personally, I think it makes sense that there are certain days on which people meet physically at fixed times. During short-time working, we have set our availability for all areas as best we can on defined days in the week. The other days were then taboo for meetings, for example. That works well.

Due to Corona, business trips were not possible in the past weeks. Will this have any after-effects?

I lived in Düsseldorf until recently. During the lockdown, I noticed for the first time that there can be really good air there, too. That gave me food for thought. How many business trips are really necessary? They cost time, nerves, money, are exhausting and pollute the environment. Once a relationship has been established, many things can be arranged from the home base. You don't always have to be present on site. This is exactly what we have seen in the past weeks. I am still impressed by how quickly we, as a global company with all stakeholders, have responded to the changes, learned from each other and cooperated worldwide – in many cases without knowing each other personally or being able to work together physically. There was a real sense of team spirit.

Speaking of team spirit – is there a difference in cohesion and values between long-established companies like BENTELER and young start-ups?

I think so. A company with a long history like BENTELER has already experienced a lot: the world wars, the economic miracle, the oil and later financial crisis... The company has overcome all of these. Building on this experience also means reflecting on its strengths. And it gives courage and confidence. There are colleagues who have been with the company for a long time and have already mastered many challenges together. This increases trust in the team and in the management – unlike in a young start-up.

You are also Head of the Corona Task Force at BENTELER, which deals with lock-down and ramp-up measures in the HR and SHE area. What do you think is particularly important now?

The local teams are currently working intensively on restarting our plants worldwide. In many countries, governments have now relaxed Corona security measures. However, the relaxation is not yet a return to normal. That's why I'm a fan of the possibility of continuing to work from home wherever possible. Many workplaces in companies are not designed to maintain the minimum distance of one and a half, preferably two metres. People are not used to the new manners in the office. We protect those who have to be on site by staying in the home office as long as possible and resuming operations in a controlled manner – even if we are missing our colleagues. It is therefore important that we all continue to take care of each other.