The New Way of Working at AG - AG Employee Benefits
Chief HR & Sustainability Officer Jan Heyvaert gives us the inside scoop on AG’s New Way of Working starting in September 2021.

Published on 24/08/2021


The New Way of Working: a fresh start for AG

​With the COVID-19 vaccination programme making good headway in Belgium, AG has decided to launch Phase One of the New Way of Working. Starting on 6 September 2021, AG employees will return to the office, working on site at least two days a week. How will this impact AG and our staff? What other steps in this direction will AG be taking in the future? Chief HR & Sustainability Officer Jan Heyvaert gives us the inside scoop.

In a nutshell, what have the past eighteen months been like at AG?

During and after the first lockdown, we were quite pleased with how we managed to ensure business continuity. In fact, we were up and running very quickly, and all of our staff members were able to switch to full work-from-home mode, because we already had everything set up. So, we were very happy about that.

At first it was more about keeping our heads above water, and I must admit that we handled the first wave rather well, since the first lockdown of around two months was shorter and easier than the second one, which dragged on for five months - in the winter and with kids stuck at home. And then, once the first wave was behind us, people realised that summer would soon be here, and that we'd just have to power on and stay the course.

Has COVID-19 changed the way you work at AG?

The pandemic didn't completely transform the way we work at AG, apart from the fact that staff members had to work from home all the time. We were already a digital business before the first lockdown, so when every other company suddenly had to start working remotely, we weren't caught off guard. But lockdown did accelerate and accentuate everything we were already doing such as video conferencing. So, from a pure HR change management perspective, we're five to ten years ahead of schedule. 

Specifically, we launched Connect AG – almost like Facebook, but for AG employees only – a few months before COVID-19, but at the beginning we did actions to increase the use of it. Then, during lockdown, its usage by management and AG employees grew exponentially. We used it to launch a range of initiatives to help everyone stay in touch, including SmallTalk and ShareTheFlag, and the platform has proven to be the ideal place to share and stay connected with colleagues. Without COVID-19, I don't think Connect AG would be as successful as it is today.

What changes do you foresee in how work is organised at AG when staff head back to the office? 

There won't really be any radical changnes, since a lot of things were already in place, albeit on a smaller scale. However, some of our pending discussions will no longer be relevant post-COVID, such as whether our operations can continue normally or not with so many people working remotely, and whether team managers should keep an eye on what everyone is doing when they're working from home. The debate on creating a warm and inviting space conducive to innovation, training and dynamic interaction between colleagues – the AG Campus – has also been settled for good. The pandemic has clearly shown that our staff sometimes need to take a breather from their day-to-day work so they can concentrate on other things. 

But on the flip side, AG management also had to deal with some new issues after coming out of the second lockdown: for example, the number of days staff members should work in the office and at home, how to balance each team's hybrid working arrangements – the right mix of remote and on-site work – every week. What we don't want is for colleagues to lose that connection with each other. But with remote work now becoming the norm, it's inevitable that physical interactions between colleagues will less frequent.

"Lockdown accelerated everything we were already doing such as video conferencing. From an HR change management perspective, we're five to ten years ahead of schedule."

What is your vision of AG’s New Way of Working for the future?

Right now, no one can predict how work will be organised in six months' time. One thing for certain, though, is that for corporate culture and engagement at AG, widespread work from home all week is difficult and creates isolation and disconnection. AG has, of course, embraced the digital revolution, but we're also a friendly and open company where people need to talk to and see each other in person. We need to do everything we can to keep it that way. That means that the New Way of Working needs to be a good match for our corporate culture.

What's your plan to safeguard AG's internal identity?

We have decided that, from early September 2021 onwards, AG staff members will come into the office at least two days a week, one of which will be a kind of Team Day where all members of a team come together in person. We had organised one Team Day every week in between the two waves, and it worked well. Our staff understood the need for interaction in the office, so they organised their own team meetings on that day. Our strategy for the New Way of Working is therefore clearly based on the number of days working in the office and at home. Now that this decision has been made, we can get to work and organise everything else around it, such as deciding which tasks to do from home and which ones to do in the office. With this hybrid approach, employees will have to plan their tasks based on where they’ll be working. 

In terms of the work environment, we'll no doubt have to review how open spaces, meeting rooms and even kitchenettes are set up. If most of our staff will be working from home, do we really need all of our current office capacity? To tempt employees back into the office, even if it's only two days out of five, we’ll have to change the work environment and make them want to come back. The initial feedback I received was that you need the right lighting and acoustics, as well as good air circulation. 

I'm aware that opinions will differ, of course. There is no perfect work environment or single way to structure the work week, but we want every individual to be comfortable and to look forward to coming into the office.

Will each team be free to pick and choose when they want to come in from one week to the next? Or will there be mandatory attendance on certain days of the week?

In our vision of the New Way of Working, managers will essentially have carte blanche to do as they see fit. The needs of each team are different, so other than coming into the office two days a week, the way they organise their work will be specific to each team. So, managers will decide together with their colleagues what day will be their Team Day – to help maintain that all-important connection – and how they plan to split their time between working remotely and working on-site. The other day it might be a second team day or a hybrid team day or an individual day. When working from home, staff will concentrate on more individual tasks, so everyone will have to figure out what works best for them. Some people find it difficult to transition from work to home life, but others switch between the two quite successfully. The boundary between our work and our personal life is also changing. Everyone will have to learn to juggle the different variables and come up with their own “magic formula”. 

I really believe that human connection and face-to-face interaction should remain core components of AG culture, even though it's clear that everyone will have to compromise and adopt a softer line. 

"There is no perfect work environment, but we want every individual to be comfortable and to look forward to coming into the office."

How are AG employees feeling about coming back into the office? Are they enthusiastic about it?

Again, this will vary from person to person. Some people can't wait to get back to the office, others only want to come back if some of their colleagues will be there at the same time, and a small contingent would rather keep working from home all the time. We did an internal survey a few weeks ago, and over 60% of respondents said they wanted to see their colleagues at the office again, 30% are feeling a little apprehensive, and the remaining 10% don't want to come back to the office at all.

Finally, you've just been appointed Chief Sustainability Officer, on top of your duties as Chief HR Officer. What's the link between sustainability and human resources?

I think the main thing HR and sustainability have in common is that they're both about people. The two concepts naturally go hand in hand because these departments are where we build our corporate culture. Most of the ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) criteria that we work with are also heavily people-oriented. 

What we show and communicate outside of AG – sustainability, local impact, brand image and so on – we also find inside our buildings, whether between colleagues (wellbeing at work) or with our partners and customers. Moreover, our vision of the New Way of Working also means that AG employees will convey this sustainable corporate culture to the outside world.