Thomas Sattelberger: The choice of work-regimes—liberating or chaining employees?

Thomas Sattelberger is a German executive who previously served as Deutsche Telekom AG’s Chief Human Resources Officer and member of the management board. Before Deutsche Telekom AG, Thomas was a member of Continental AG’s executive board and Head of Human Resources.  Previous to Continental AG, Thomas was Executive Vice President of Product & Service at Lufthansa AG and a member of the airline’s executive board.

He recently published his autobiography and is actively engaged in issues related to the future of work including social, political and economic implications. His Twitter handle is: @th_sattelberger. Thomas was interviewed by Johann Huber (@mangohammock) who is co-founder and CEO at Soma Analytics. Soma Analytics is also the company behind the Getuberyou email subscription service and webshop.

Johann: Thomas, you just released your autobiography. How did it feel to reflect on working in top management positions in some of Germany’s biggest companies for more than 30 years?

Thomas: It was a nice look back. I have had a great job, after all. The work I did in the last 40 years was meaningful and rewarding. One could say I was having one great “flow experience”. I worked incredibly hard, but I learned a lot as well and I was always curious. I succeeded most of the time to be curious and I shaped new realities.

Approaching the question in terms of health, I have gained some fascinating insights over the years. It’s interesting to think about how you believe that you’re still in full control over your physical and mental abilities when in your 40s or even 50s; you think that you’re omnipotent. Then, however, this pattern of work never stops because in a management position, you’re in demand twenty-four-seven. You realize that you’re not in control and work starts affecting your health. Essentially, our contemporary patterns of work are extreme self-exploitation processes. This personal insight has increased my awareness and interest in employee health issues in individual- as well as organisational terms.

When I was working as Chief of Operations at Lufthansa, we had to deal with the avian flu, which caused enormous health problems for our service staff and led to a massive decrease in demand. The crucial question in this case was how we could protect not only our customers but also our cabin crew.

Later, during my time at Telekom, the series of suicides at France Telekom and its implications were a great challenge for us. I remember the words of my CEO, Rene Obermann, as if it were yesterday: “Thomas, you better make sure this doesn’t happen here.”

Change of the “work-regime”

Johann: Do you think that the series of suicides at France Telecom is one of the triggers that indicate that the current “work-regime” needs to change?

Thomas: In general, that change is related to the transformation of large bureaucratic corporations and the transformation of economies and societies in the digital era. The work regime changes accordingly. However, I don’t see that this system of work is going into a single direction, but I believe that the competition between different designs and ideologies of corporations will increase. People don’t just have the choice between different employers, but also—more importantly—the choice between different ideas and ideologies of work. With an increasing scarcity of talent, this competition of corporate ideas and ideologies will turn into a crucial challenge for HR down the road.

New designs are going to join the existing work-regimes and they are going to be substantially more progressive than anything we have today. The old structures of major corporations—or as I like to call them, the dinosaurs—are going to continue to exist with considerably shortened life cycles. If they don’t slim down and decentralise, their deaths will come even quicker. Media agencies, investment banks, and multinational consulting firms, all of which are almost structured as “mercenary organizations” are going to continue to exist. Small and medium-sized enterprises under the reign of family patriarchs without innovative abilities are going to face transformation problems as well.

On top of that, there’s a sector I like to call the “fresh mittelstand”. It consists of companies between 5 and 500 employees, 5 to 15 years old and a revenue of 1-50 million Euros. They offer more and more debates about democracy and sovereignty at the workplace, strategy participation and further involvement in the company. And, the huge internet giants often offer a hybrid mix of “autocratic reign” at the top and democracy in the “big belly” of the organization. In this respect, I don’t believe that the world of employment is going to change fundamentally, but there is going to be a competition of systems and structures with new components in the mix. It’s going to be more colourful.

If you take a closer look at these designs, you notice their positive effects on employee health as well. In work environments like those of the “mercenary organizations”, where twenty-four-seven duties are the norm, people are exhausted and so burnt out that they plan their exit when they turn 40. By then, they can’t really enjoy the money they made up to that point anymore. That’s one model. Major blue chip corporations don’t allow the liberty of having too much variety and keep sticking to old patterns. Those “efficiency engines” treat employees as a production factor instead of human beings. Because of that the issue of health keeps getting addressed rather selectively and major corporations are very reluctant when it comes to change. Therefore, new policies are necessary, especially regarding health issues. This can be seen in Belgium, where a new law was created to help combat burnout. The law requires employers to measure and prevent stress in the workplace.

Currently, employees seen as a production factor have to adapt to the company and its line of work. The big question for the future will be how we can manage to turn this around so that companies adapt elegantly to the needs of employees seen as ressourceful humans . Regarding the SMEs, for example, I can see some kind of negotiation-based model, where the employee and the employer negotiates the details of employment relationship based on a two-way flexibility approach.

Resource and demands model of work and HR analytics

Johann: One way of improving the connection of humans as a resource to their work is the new trend called “people analytics”, the quantification of HR. How do you think this is going to continue to develop in the future?

The established resource/demands model stems from the Anglo-American tradition of behavioural science, which, in turn, is based on behaviouristic psychology. This branch of science is trying to find an answer to the question: “How can I equip the individual with the right resources to be prepared for the demands of the work?” Traditional German and French discourses of “human engineering”, by contrast, are more systems-based. They are trying to answer the question: “How do processes and structures need to be changed for the work to fit for the individual?

This focus towards the employer’s responsibility is—and that is my assumption—driven by the continental European view of employee protection coupled with strong union influence. It follows the very Marxist hypothesis that the systems, not the individuals, need to change. Anglo-American countries are going to experience a rapid adaptation of “people analytics”, indeed. US internet giants like Google are already showcasing its use which is beginning to diffuse into the other parts of the economy. Regions such as Scandinavia and Benelux will increasingly adjust to Anglo-American models, but with their own “third-way-philosophy” of sustainable and responsible business.

France and Germany, however, are going to remain structure-oriented. On top of that, Germany’s data protection and security obsessions need to be taken into account because it decelerates these inherently good developments significantly. Thus, at least in Germany, it’s going to take a lot more time and might even lead to a real drawback in that field. If you take a look at the objective proportions, you’ll see that Germany already has a lot of catching up to do in the area of “liberating people at work”. There’s a big European study examining the innovation capacity of work-regimes, according to which German employees face substantially more complex structures and need to improvise a lot more while having less leeway in decision-making at the same time. But we’re used to that from other areas of today’s digital economy which Germany completely missed out on.

Final remark

Johann: If I had just chosen a position in Human Resources, what piece of advice would you give me?

Thomas: Don’t let your dreams get crushed in the first 20 days. There are a lot of people out there who have nothing on their minds but crushing other people’s dreams. Don’t engage with them. Fresh faces are needed to turn the old systems upside down. The future of work crucially depends on fresh people, fresh minds, and talented people managers!

One thought on “Thomas Sattelberger: The choice of work-regimes—liberating or chaining employees?

  1. Very interesting interview; I agree completely with Thomas about the centricity of the human wellbeing in the organization. Now companies are centres of knowledge and the human factors is the engine of the company; the leading factor is not more the “process of control” but the “process to generate new competitive ideas” and turn them in concrete product/services…in the right time.

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