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„The human factor drives us on“

In conversation with Dr.-Ing. Stefan Rief

Everything was better in the old days. Or was it just different? What role do we play in today’s working world Dr.-Ing. Stefan Rief from the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (IAO) explains how human needs can dovetail most effectively with technology and organization.

What factors are relevant for work and organization in the modern business world and what significance do people have?

People continue to be at the heart of everything. They drive every undertaking forwards with their curiosity, creativity and ability to shape developments and it is they who come up with innovations and bring them to fruition. It is therefore important to allow them to work under optimum conditions and provide them with the best possible support in terms of productivity, motivation and well-being. They are naturally influenced by the technology around them and the way their working environment is organized. Nothing has fundamentally occurred in recent times to change this interacting triad of people, technology and organization. By contrast, people’s needs and the available technology have undergone profound changes. As a result, the right organization is needed in order to ensure the effective interaction of humans and technology – in particular because technologies such as AI are strongly influencing the way people interact. It is important that people remain curious and creative.

Ideally, how should these three dimensions – people, technology and organization – be structured in a company?

For everyone, it is vital to feel secure and supported in your job and to work in an environment of trust and cooperation. However, people’s needs have become much more individual, and this makes collaboration more difficult. For example, the pandemic greatly increased the amount of work done remotely in the home office and the effort involved in balancing the time demands of individual members of teams or organizations has grown accordingly. Managers are not able to organize all this. Instead, this task should be handed back to the team, which can then develop the model that suits it best. Managers must then check whether this model works and regularly reorient it as required. This is because we are being permanently confronted by new challenges such as supply chain problems or compliance with new environmental standards. The model must be equally regularly checked to make sure that it works internally for the team members. In this context, it will be exciting to use the new collaboration systems. For example, if you take a look at the number of videoconferences held within a team, potential communication shortfalls between certain members quickly become clear. This is real data that objectively reflects such situations as they arise. It is therefore important to accept this type of new technology, understand it and use it profitably to keep people responsive, motivated and curious in this new, permanently changing working world.

How do you assess the future development of the working world?

The working world has changed considerably due to the pandemic. We all feel that we have understood the new way of working. However, I don’t believe that. After all, we have been doing this for only one-and-a-half years after first spending decades doing things very differently. We must therefore watch very closely to see what effect this new form of working has on us. Despite this, we must also be prepared to adapt to it. It is also very important for a company to meet the needs of its own workforce wherever this is possible. However, I also think that companies need a strong and coherent culture and identity. Desirable forms of behavior have to be actively embraced and exemplified and, at the same time, it is necessary to create an environment that is conducive to this.

Dr.-Ing. Stefan Rief has been head of the Organizational Development and Work Design research unit at the Stuttgart-based Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (IAO) since 2018. The research unit’s key topics include flexible and self-organized forms of work and organizational models, virtual cooperation, the digital transformation and cognitive working and living environments.


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