“It is exciting to think about how we will be able to integrate future developments in mobility, energy and resources management into our projects.”
Herbert Hetzel discusses fluid company structures and the challenges and opportunities of technological progress in the property development sector.
You are the proprietor of BauConsult RealEstate – what do you see as the greatest changes ahead of us far as the future of work is concerned?
As I see it, there are two fundamental issues. Firstly, traditional company structures have become increasingly redundant. Company hierarchies will continue to evolve into something more like natural authority structures, which will lead to changes in companies’ social fabric, and that will in turn affect work spaces and forms of work. The group leader, project manager etc. – often external to the organisation – will sit in the middle of the office with everyone else and look no different from them. Organisational mechanisms will then function organically, moving fluidly from project to project. An employee may be project manager today, and next week he or she will be simply a team member on a new project.
Secondly, work itself will change. Partly regarding the kinds of work people will choose in future, and partly – under the influence of rapidly developing communication technology – in the way they work together. From both perspectives, what is increasingly important is the social cohesion within a team or a project, or within a firm, and how to keep this cohesion alive so that everyone holds the same values and follows the same rules of play.
The Zukunftsinstitut (Institute of the Future) first anticipated this kind of fluid organisational structure back in 2010. It is partly about dissolving boundaries within a company and partly about building networks.
It’s one thing to throw around the buzzword “fluid organisation” and another to actually dissolve the traditional ways of thinking in linear, branch or matrix organisational structures, and to make the necessary adaptations to processes, to find a way out of and beyond the established ways of working. It also requires a readiness to accept the idea of a constantly changing organisation, a different kind of person or an alternative training model. How do you explain to someone who has worked for the company for 20 years, that you are removing the title of manager from their business card without them feeling you have taken something away? Then there are also the legal, personal and compliance issues to be dealt with.
So how do you think management style needs to change in this kind of fluid environment? It starts with the hiring process. Instead of looking for employees to fill specific roles, it is preferable to find generalists who can also step into other functions and activities. And in terms of people’s careers, the idea of “development” over time – for instance rising from assistant to project manager – will no longer follow the old rules. It will be less a matter of loyalty to a company, and more about skills and expertise. The corporate organism, in the classic sense, will change and it will no longer be relevant whether someone is a company employee, sitting in the company offices from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., or whether they perhaps work as an external contractor and do their work in a different location altogether.
So if it doesn’t matter where I work, what is the point of offices at all in the future? In future there will be a whole range of activities that can just be done away from the rest of the team and away from the office. As I see it, the big exception is where creative processes are involved. So I think the office space of the future will have to offer exceptional attractions and amenities, such that people will want to drop in. Then it is a matter of harnessing this “drop-in” time to promote the essential social contacts, both in teams and in the company as a whole. I would set up our office of the future as a kind of creative location, which is fun, comfortable and relaxing, but also demanding at the same time. In creative processes, it is important that people know and trust each other. Their output then becomes significantly bolder and they think more unconventionally. When people know each other well, more sparks can fly, because they have more confidence to put ideas forward.
How will collaborative work between employees evolve in the light of new technologies? Some of our employees have already integrated various social media channels into their everyday work and communicate via WhatsApp groups about work issues. I think this strong group bonding is fantastic, but of course organisational structures need to respond to it. To ensure that all members of the team feel included, for instance, even if they are not in the WhatsApp group. So guidelines for communication and documentation need to be adapted accordingly.
Digitalisation doesn’t just affect collaboration, it actually changes the whole way processes are structured. How does this work in your company? Information exchange and process implementation between individual companies in the BauConsult group, where there are 170 employees, are of course largely digital and depend on an integrated database, amongst other things. It is exciting for us to think about how we can integrate future developments in the areas of mobility, energy and resource management into our projects. There is a major challenge in getting the timing right, and in how we deal with these developments over time. In the context of dwindling raw materials, it will be important to keep ahead. So today we need to build houses that can be dismantled easily in 30 to 50 years – with a large proportion of high quality recyclable material that can be reused. Five years ago this was not an issue we considered at all. So how should I plan and build my tower blocks so that when they are complete in three to five years’ time they are still appropriate for the expectations of that time? That is how fast the world is changing – you only have to think about the topic of mobility and self-driving cars.
What developments does your industry need to think about there?
In five to ten years, 10 to 20 per cent of all cars will be self-driving and “on demand” – they won’t belong to any specific resident or office user, but will still need to be kept somewhere. In summer there will need to be large cars for family holidays and in the winter people will want small, practical city cars. So how do we provide for the constantly changing needs for car parking and garaging? Looking even further ahead into the future: in Vienna today there are 800,000 cars. If all cars in future actually are self-driving, there will only be 200,000 cars in Vienna. These vehicles will then function like a hybrid of “on demand” and public transport, and will manage our entire traffic and travel systems through a kind of swarm technology.
So if the total number of cars falls by around 600,000, then there will suddenly be a lot of empty garage spaces in the city. Exactly! And that’s not all: the garages will be different too. Self-driving cars will also be self-parking. That means that the garages themselves would be structured to use the space more economically. People wouldn’t be seen at all in the garages any longer. Security requirements and fire protection would be different and so on. So today we already need to think about new technologies and the design of the garages of the future, as well as the subsequent use of empty spaces. Because it will be here sooner than we think. This will happen in my lifetime!
What other changes do you anticipate in this context?
There will no longer be any aboveground petrol stations as we know them, with a café and shop – because there won’t be any people taking their cars to fill up. A self-driving car just goes to a petrol station anywhere, fills up and drives on. There will be no more car dealerships with big showrooms any more, and car repair workshops won’t be the way we know them. These new cars, assembled by robots and driving automatically, won’t need mechanics any more either. They will just drive into a box, be disassembled and put back together by a robot and then drive off again: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
So what will happen to the mechanic? Will there be new jobs for the people you have just made redundant? Of course. When the weaving loom was invented everyone thought it was the end of the world. And what happened? More and more jobs were created! Today I have a fantasy vision of digitalisation and robotics serving the human race and resulting in a new kind of value creation, so that humans will have more time for philosophy, music, literature and all these wonderful humanist things. And that will also result in a change in what we value. It won’t be the person with the biggest car or motorboat who is respected. Rather, we will value those who can play the piano or sing, or those who understand the great philosophies of the world and can perhaps even contribute something to them. I would be incredibly happy if this vision could work in reality. It is perhaps a rather fairy-tale, a romantic notion, but I would be delighted if it happens.
Herbert Hetzel is a civil engineer and the proprietor of BauConsult RealEstate, which currently has 170 employees and is part of the BauConsult group of companies. He has been in the real estate business for 40 years now, both in development and in technical project implementation, and has managed a wide range of projects both in Austria and abroad. His particular interests are in qualified project management, the application of renewable energies and in systemic product development.