Cologne local Timon Vielhaber wanted to do things differently. In 2015, he had had enough of corporation life and, together with a colleague, established World of VR, a start-up that develops virtual reality applications for corporate training and product experiences. The two founders were constantly on the lookout for better ways to integrate their employees and keep them in the company. “The way in which companies are being managed is changing”, says Vielhaber. This is something he has also seen reflected in the latest business literature. Vielhaber claims that the focus in the past was on “management by numbers” and “efficiency”, while today it’s all about having fun at work and organisations with a purpose. In 2019, after reading “Reinventing Organisations” by Frederic Laloux, he and his co-founder decided to reorganise their small Cologne company along holacratic lines. Over the next six months, the two founders introduced a new operating system, with roles and circles instead of traditional hierarchies.
“These are all intelligent people,” explains Vielhaber, when asked how a company can function without a conventional management structure. “You have to explain the company’s purpose. And then programmers will understand that they have to program to keep the company going.”
But holacratic doesn’t mean that there aren’t any rules – quite the opposite in fact. For example, a role can only be changed in the monthly governance meeting. In the first few months, the entire team was still literally “doing it by the book”, adhering strictly to the instructions from the manual, but eventually adapted the rules to incorporate their own experiences. The tactical meetings that used to be held every week now only take place when necessary.
Vielhaber and his VR company are just one example of a new generation of start-ups that are not interested in becoming a billion-dollar “unicorn” and more about running a company that people enjoy working at. In this, Daniel Bartel, an expert in agile working and sustainability, sees a global trend that actually fits with the typical Rhineland approach to capitalism. While the scene has become more professional – in a strictly turbocapitalist sense – in start-up hubs like Munich, he believes that the Rhineland region’s start-up scene has retained much of its openness and laid-back attitude. This might initially sound more like partying than efficiency, but the healthy figures suggest otherwise. According to a study by the city’s business development agency, the value of Cologne’s start-up ecosystem has increased by 2.4 billion euros in the past five years – which means that it can easily keep up with other cities.
And a look around Cologne’s start-up sector shows more and more companies that are “purpose-driven”. Nomoo is an ice cream start-up that wants to do more than just appeal to the taste buds. Its dairy-free ice cream is purely plant-based and its packaging contains no plastic whatsoever. As their slogan puts it: “Vegan ice cream for the ice caps”. Established in 2018, the start-up, which employs a team of 25 people, sells its products in over 1,500 supermarkets. Through its involvement in Girls’ Day, Eyeo – a digital company and Cologne start-up veteran with over 300 employees – is committed to increasing the number of women in technical vocational training professions. It has introduced a mandatory quota of women for its top management, which means that a female CTPO has now joined the previously all-male team.
All of these are examples of a work culture that is known today as “New Work”. But what would Frithjof Bergmann himself think about this very broad definition? Originally from Saxony, he fled from the Nazis to Austria with his family when he was a child, before emigrating to the USA. It was there, in the 1970s, that he developed his New Work philosophy, which is all about people doing work that they “really, really” want to do. For Bergmann, it all came down to a new understanding of work: he believed that, rather than being seen as a means to an end, work should be something that makes free people feel fulfilled. So if they were able to arrange their work flexibly, if they could produce lactose-free, environmentally friendly ice cream and if a company’s top management also reflected the gender composition of its workforce, then Bergmann might well be on board.
But he definitely would have agreed with employees taking the initiative. Such as Hendrik Gernert, Lead Information Architect at Cologne digital agency Nexum. In his opinion, the problem was that his clients don’t explicitly ask for their websites to be accessible and barrier-free, even though this actually affects the inherent quality of them. So off his own bat, Gernert decided to do something about it. At the Nexum Academy, he offered courses to train his employees and brought a blind lecturer on board. It’s important for companies to be prepared when their clients start demanding accessibility. And it might even make it into a pitch one day.
Alexandra Reichart, User Experience Designer at Brainworx Audio, had a similar experience. Having played a central role in her previous job, accessibility had become a matter very close to her heart. “It’s not the person who is disabled; you are the one who is creating a disability in a particular situation,” says Reichart. When she moved to Brainworx and the customer support team assigned her a ticket from a blind user who was unable to use a product, she decided to take the initiative. A quick fix wasn’t possible for the product, but as it was going to be completely redeveloped anyway, she sat down with the product team and spoke to them about accessibility. When the product is relaunched at the end of the year, it will be possible to operate it via keyboard. And compatibility with screen readers will be added at a later date. For UX designer Reichart, the initiative was a resounding success: the Brainworx team is now discussing whether to make accessibility standard to a certain degree.
Looking back, Timon Vielhaber is also glad that he decided to make his World of VR company holacratic: “It’s a massive change that takes up a lot of time. You have to ask yourself if it’s really worth your while.” And how does he decide if it is? While staff turnover at start-ups is famously high, World of VR can safely claim that job satisfaction among its team is soaring.
(by Thomas Riedel)