Managing without walls

At DHL Consulting, managers have given up their offices to make a big, positive cultural change and help build a culture of trust that has energized the workforce.

Published: Last updated:

Culture & Career, Future of Work

Close-up of lettering "DHL Consulting" on wooden wall in office

Until recently, the managers at DHL Consulting in Bonn either had their own office, or shared an office. So far, so unsurprisingly traditional. Companies around the world operate in exactly the same way. The higher you climb the corporate ladder, the better your chances of being given a room with your name on the door. It’s a status symbol which appeals to the human instinct.

Of course, DHL Consulting’s managers liked having their own space, because it came with practical benefits, too. “In the morning I would head to my own office,” remembers Partner, Matthias Vollmert. “I knew it would be free and that I could plug in and start working immediately. Plus, I could keep my own items there: simple things like an umbrella or a change of shirt, and memories from home of people and things I love.”

But — and there is a but coming, notes Matthias — there was dramatic downside to this old-style layout. Separating workspaces along traditional lines reinforced a culture of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the office. It also hammered home the idea that the more senior you become, the less you need to go to people because… well… the people will come to you. And that’s not an entirely healthy attitude, he believes.

All in It Together

Sabine Mueller, CEO of DHL Consulting, thought the same way as Matthias and, in 2018, asked managers if they would give up their own rooms as part of a larger office redesign. Now the new DHL Consulting office is made up of zones designed to suit different activities such as phone booths for private calls, meeting rooms for stand-ups, quiet zones for focused work, plus areas where colleagues can get together to collaborate creatively, host learning sessions, and catch-up.

There are around 90 people in the Bonn office, and not all of them sit at desks in one big open-plan space. Instead, there are separate working areas of different sizes: for example, larger ones for 20 to 25 people and smaller ones for eight to 10 people. But it does mean that every manager, and that includes Sabine, is now hot-desking alongside other staff. The result? Putting everyone on the same level has boosted collaboration and encouraged flexibility.

“My working life has changed,” says Matthias. “Obviously what’s similar is that I still have a screen, a keyboard and a mouse, and all I need to do is connect my laptop with a cable, and away I go. But what’s different is that I now have to find a space every morning where I can sit — and I’ll be sitting next to someone different each time. That might be another Partner, a Consultant who is working for me… or my boss.”

This has made a big, positive difference to the office culture. “It used to feel as though the senior team were hiding in their rooms,” says Matthias. “But now hierarchical barriers have been removed between Consultants and Partners which has brought everyone together.”

Has this changed his management style? “Hopefully no, because I’d like to think I’ve always had an inclusive, no barrier-type approach. But I’ve had great feedback from junior colleagues about the changes that have been implemented. Because we all share the same spaces, Partners now seem more approachable and accessible and Consultants feel they can ask them questions without constraints.”`

Now that we all share the same spaces, Partners are more accessible and approachable. This means Consultants feel they can ask questions without constraint.

Matthias – Partner, DHL Consulting

Better Communication

The redesign has also vastly improved communication among DHL Consulting’s management team. “In the old office structure, senior staff realised that our interactions with each other were becoming shorter and more frequent,” says Matthias. “So sitting in an open space near other Partners is very productive because it’s easy to have regular short chats about work, whereas in the past we would have scheduled an official meeting to discuss such things.”

What’s more, splitting the DHL Consulting office into zones has made much better use of the available floorspace. “If I think back, my office would have been empty 75 percent of the time because I’d be traveling, or I’d be at customer meetings or in meeting rooms here with bigger teams,” admits Matthias. “It wasn’t possible for other people to occupy it when I wasn’t there, either, because I had my own keycard to open and close the door.” It was often a wasted space, in other words. However, the new restructured layout features meeting rooms that everyone can use via a booking system.

Cultural Change – A Matter of Trust

This isn’t to say that getting used to shared spaces was a quick and easy process for either managers or junior staff. Speaking personally, Matthias says that finding a new space every morning — and accepting that the chair he was sitting in yesterday is now occupied by someone else — took a bit of getting used to. Also, the open-plan nature of the work zones means that it’s sometimes necessary to find a secluded area to take important phone calls from customers.

At the same time, Consultants had to get to used to the fact that suddenly their manager might be sitting next to them or behind them and perhaps even able to see what they are doing on their screens. There’s a temptation to think staff would find this intimidating: a bit ‘Big Brother’ — that the boss is always present, and watching everyone like a hawk. Interestingly, however, Matthias believes that, actually, the reverse is true and that the redesign has engendered a strong culture of trust in the office.

“I think people fully understand that I’m not watching them or taking notes about what they’re doing,” he says. “They know I’m not evaluating them every single second. For example, I don’t care if I see they’ve opened a newspaper webpage on their screen and are reading an article, or having a joke with a colleague. That’s because managers here don’t judge people by how they work. We judge them on deliverables. And trust has developed between us because, without walls to divide us, we talk with each other much more than before. Don’t get me wrong: I always had trust in my team. But sitting next to them has increased that trust. That’s a big positive.”

Modern and Open

Ultimately, Matthias believes that ‘managers without offices’ is the future of the workplace. It’s certainly impressed potential new hires when they’re shown around the building. “They’ve said: ‘I didn’t expect a company like DHL to have such a modern and open workspace. I thought that was only for the Googles of this world.’ So the changes we’ve made have been good in another way because we’re able to give candidates a positive surprise about DHL.”

Still, making cultural change on a large scale can go wrong; so Matthias advises care, caution and lots of preparation before embarking on a project of this nature. “That’s what we did,” he says. “I’m very happy that we went through what was sometimes a painful process and that we invested money to make it happen properly. That wasn’t simply about making cosmetic changes to the environment, but giving our people modern equipment so that they can efficiently work in this type of flexible setting.”

Matthias’ Tips for Managing Positive Cultural Change

  • Take the Lead

    “It’s super-important that members of the leadership team are seen to be taking the first steps towards cultural change. I think our redesign project would have failed completely if the Partners had stayed in their offices, but told the Consultants to get rid of their project rooms and move into an open-plan space together.

    Instead, management showed that they would lead the changes by giving up their offices and working in the new shared spaces with everyone else.

  • Go All In

    “If you’re going to make a cultural change to your office, you have to commit to it 100 percent. For example, you can’t ask your people to flexibly change their workspace location every day, but not provide the technology to allow them to do so easily.

    So invest in technology that works and that supports the changes you want to see. Get strong wi-fi connections, good keyboards and mouse devices, and hire cleaning staff so that the next morning people aren’t faced with dirty or untidy workspaces.”

  • Incentivize Change

    “Giving up my office was made easier because the screens we have now are much better than the one I had before. And the environment looks so much nicer! If I’d moved out of my old office into a space which looked exactly like the one I worked in previously, it would have been much more difficult.

    So take the opportunity to invest money into the design to make the surroundings more pleasant and modern. In short, create an atmosphere that’s a pleasure to work in.”

  • Create Spaces That Encourage Conversation

    “Our kitchen is like the market square of a town, because it’s where people congregate.

    Physically it’s located in the centre of the office so there’s a feeling that this is where everything happens! It’s comfortable, too. There’s a long table where people can sit, eat and chat, and there’s an area that’s more like a living room. It’s a place that encourages conversation.”

  • Manage Expectations

    “When we started the redesign, we asked everyone for their opinions. Of course, the problem is that you can’t put everyone’s opinion into practice, and that can lead to frustration. People say: ‘You asked for my opinion, I gave it to you and you ignored it. So why ask for it in the first place?’

    Well, the truth is we didn’t ignore it; but your opinion might not have been taken on board for numerous reasons. So while involving people in change is important, it’s also crucial to manage their expectations. You do that by keeping up a constant line of communication so that people know what’s going on, why changes are being made — or why they are not being made.”

Text by Tony Greenway

This site is registered on as a development site. Switch to a production site key to remove this banner.