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At the Future of Work Summit, a Transform event, Scott F. Brighton, CEO of Aurea Software was joined by Gereon Hammel, vice president for business development at Deutsche Telekom, to chat about how companies with hybrid work environments can create the all-important culture and connection necessary for a business’s success.

While the pandemic demonstrated that employees can work from almost anywhere at any time without a major decrease in effectiveness, retaining organizational connection has been a challenge for many companies, Brighton said.

“People are more individually productive,” he said, “but this notion of connections, people building their relationship networks, is much easier to do when folks are physically together because of the spontaneous interactions you have, which you’re deprived of when you’re remote.”

Deutsche Telekom has encountered this challenge in their customer sales and service unit, which is comprised of 30,000 people, with 90% located in Germany, Hammel said. From centralized units for mobile telephony, fixed lines, the help desk, and so forth, they started reorganizing into 14 cross-functional regional cells.

Cross-functional teams can solve customer issues much faster, especially if they’re more complex, but the challenge is that people who are now working together as one aren’t sitting physically together – and that’s not do to pandemic physical distancing but people being separated by geography.

“You lose connection when you lose proximity,” he said. “The level of trust, engagement, and efficiency among the workforce has a risk of decreasing.”

To combat that, they’ve taken the opportunity to set up a virtual office that makes team members feel like they’re working together, despite the distance. They’ve created a web-based application which represents a combination of all the distributed offices. Agents log on in the morning and take their seat in the virtual office. Everyone who’s logged on can see other employees who are logged on, and easily start collaborating through the app’s tools and features.

There’s business value in creating these connections, sharing knowledge, and building relationships. The number-one metric for Deutsche Telekom is being able to solve customer issues faster and more efficiently. The second essential metric is employee satisfaction.

“We strongly believe that when we have agents who love doing their job, who have been enabled to do their job, that shows a higher employee satisfaction, which ultimately leads to customer satisfaction,” Hammel said.

Once they developed a vision of a virtual office as a way to catalyze the new normal into a better normal, they looked at a broad array of technologies and tools — from collaboration platforms sourced from startups to established tools like Microsoft Teams. But none had the sense of presence and proximity they were looking at. In the end they looked into 3D tools, which are great for event use cases, and 2D tools like Sococo, which enables the use cases they need in customer service. The tool has the maturity they needed, to eliminate the need for further development, and met Germany’s strict data regulation obligations to boot.

“The beauty of it is this sense of proximity, the sense of being there,” he said.

They implemented four functionalities, including the ability to see other employees’ availability. They also use a chat functionality with prioritization and routing within teams. If an employee has a question for a colleague, it will be routed through the chat to the next available agent. One-to-one video or text chats are also available for simple coaching requests and team meetings. Finally, they brought back the spontaneous interactions in virtual form.

“Like in a real office, we believe in the power of coffee-kitchen discussions,” Hammel said. “We implemented a coffee roulette to let people interact and learn, get to know each other, and socially interact.”

While at the moment it’s a 2D virtual office, their vision is that it could become a virtual campus, with seats for all employees in the company no matter which building, which city, which home office, or which country they’re in.

“We need something like 3D elements to create a better feeling or joyfulness around the solution, and implement additional collaboration tools,” he added. “You can think of something like a flip chart when you enter a room, something that’s immediately available for the team to work on.”

While the virtual space might be a cost savings in the long run, the company didn’t go into the project looking for places to slash the budget, but for ways to make their customers and their people happier, which is part of why it works so well.

Hammel’s biggest pieces of advice for companies looking at virtual ways to forge connections:

“Focus on what people need, the use cases they need, which may be quite obvious, but it’s relevant,” he said. “And last but not least, do fast prototyping. Use something which is existing and just test it.”

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