Scandinavians book their holidays online. The work culture at TUI Nordic is equally digital. It isn’t just a matter of using the latest gadgets like microchips under the skin or robot assistants. A visit to TUI’s Stockholm office shows what New Work is primarily about: transparency, team work and the joy of innovation.
Alexander Huber stands outside the closed door. There is nobody on reception right now. The TUI Nordic director lifts a hand, the green lamp on the terminal turns green, the door opens. Some unseen force? Huber runs his left index finger over the soft spot between the thumb and index finger of his right hand. There is a slightly perceptible bump – Huber has something under his skin. “A microchip, the size of a grain of rice,” he explains. Thanks to Near Field Communication (NFC) – a technology also used in new smart phones – he can unlock doors, operate machines, pay for lunch in the canteen, seal a locker in the company fitness studio. “Lots of our employees have had a microchip like this fitted,” says Huber. Not because nothing would work otherwise, but because it reflects a philosophy: “At TUI Nordic we are curious about these digital innovations, we are keen to try them out.”
From 2020: 100 per cent online business
The offices of TUI’s Scandinavian subsidiary are in the Stockholm district of Södermalm, formerly working-class, now home to the creative community. In this listed building, until the early 1970s, the Swedish brewery “Münchenbryggeriet” used to make a beer like a Bavarian pale ale; these days it is a hotspot for digital and creative companies. Right next-door to the TUI offices, Mojang is developing the much-loved video game “Minecraft”, and the design agency Doberman dreams up campaigns for the country’s leading corporates. “We feel very much at home in this neighbourhood,” says Alexander Huber. “As a digital and creative company we play in the same league.” The thinking at TUI Nordic reflects the demands of the Scandinavian market: many regions in the north of Europe are sparsely populated, and it is often a long way to the nearest sizeable town. For Scandinavians, therefore, thinking digitally comes naturally. Banking and listening to music, health care and filing tax returns – it’s all done on the Internet. And the same applies to the tourist industry: travel agencies are a great rarity in Scandinavia. TUI Nordic already earns over 85 per cent of its turnover online – a record unmatched anywhere in TUI Group, even if e-commerce accounts for a growing share of the markets elsewhere. By 2020, predict experts, customers in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland will book 100 per cent of their holidays online. “People here think and live digital,” says the director. “So it’s a matter of course that we are translating this digital ‘way of life’ in our style of working.”
Alexander Huber goes straight to the coffee machine. For any company this is a crucial hub, but all the more so in Stockholm: Swedes love their coffee, but it has to be good. “We guarantee that,” says the director, taking his first sip. “It’s even in the employment contract.” The boss could be expected to head for his office at this point, but Huber sits down where coffee tastes best: on the piazza, an open zone with a view across Lake Mälaren, where a dozen or two other employees are already installed. And here he starts work: making phone calls, meeting staff, writing emails, receiving guests, preparing for appointments – the normal daily agenda. But among people and approachable for anyone. “I never understood why a manager would want to lock himself away in an inaccessible office,” says Huber. “Surely my task is to be there for my employees and to keep my ear to the ground. And the best place for me to do that is here.” The atmosphere in the piazza is reminiscent of a comfortably busy coffee house. Some people are sitting at their laptops, others are holding meetings in small groups. If someone wants to talk for longer on the phone, they go into one of the partially shielded lounges. No question: this piazza is a very pleasant place.
Competing for digital brains
But does it deliver as a workplace? “Who says that a pleasant atmosphere and effective work are mutually exclusive?” A good question. The person asking it is Charlotte WWiebe, Human Resources Director at TUI Nordic. She vanishes briefly into one of the lounges with her boss to discuss a detail in an employment contract, then she fetches a coffee and returns to the question she just posed. “We see ourselves as a digital company, so we need the best digital brains. But they are in demand elsewhere too. Our competitors for the most talented people are Google and Spotify.” So TUI Nordic must offer an attractive, digital work culture, “combined with the opportunity to develop personally every day”. Then Charlotte WWiebe mentions a name that one might not immediately associate with digitalisation: Maria Montessori, the most prominent education reformer in the first half of the 20th century, who recognised all those years ago that open spaces and free working lead to more efficient learning and happier people. The HR director looks around the piazza and sees how meetings often happen quite spontaneously, how colleagues engage in conversation without pre-arranged appointments, how hierarchies dissolve, because nobody is hiding away behind a door. “Our employees create their own work stations wherever they feel right and wherever it makes sense.” Digitalisation has made this possible, because equipped with a smart phone and a laptop everyone always has their essential toolkit with them. “No question,” says Charlotte WWiebe. “These days Maria Montessori would have been a staunch champion of this New Work idea.”
Mob programming: the six-eyes principle
But what defines New Work when people are not getting together in the piazza? Charlotte WWiebe begins a guided tour through the working worlds of TUI Nordic. On the lowest of the three floors, apart from the piazza, there are several meeting rooms, all of them fully glazed, but that does not bother the participants. Quite the reverse, says Charlotte WWiebe: “Meetings behind opaque walls ferment the fear that something is happening behind closed doors that I am not supposed to see. Openness, on the other hand, stands for creativity and innovation.” A spiral stairway leads to the next floor, and here the scene is dominated by dozens of screens where staff are designing new travel products, fine-tuning searches on the website, communicating with customers and business partners. Three people have assembled at a super-dimensioned monitor in the middle of the space: one is keying in Internet object code, two are watching and commenting, suggesting alterations. After fifteen minutes the screen suddenly turns grey and a notice appears in black letters: “Break, then change.” The three take a short breather, chat briefly about the unusually hot summer and the latest football results, then off they go again. This time another of the trio types the code, and the one who was keying before becomes an observer and commentator for the next quarter of an hour. The method is known as mob programming, and it was developed by software companies where specialists write code at top speed – but not in isolation, always in a team according to the six-eyes principle. “We adopted the method a few months ago,” says one of the programmers. He was sceptical at first: three people around one screen – isn’t that a waste of time? “But the interesting thing is that as a trio we don’t just write better code, but at the end of the day we are actually quicker,” he says. Six eyes see more than two, which means that the programmers avoid time-consuming mistakes. Besides, switching roles every 15 minutes keeps mind and body refreshed. “We aren’t programming in a bubble any more, but in a team.” Which just goes to show that new digital ways of working always involve cooperation.
Excitement grows with every click
Many of the ideas implemented by the programmers originate with Martin Bystedt, Head of User Experience & Digital. Bystedt is in his late thirties and he has had an interesting career. He began his vocational life as a chef before becoming a creative director with acclaimed advertising agencies. Since early 2015 he has been one of the leading digital brains at TUI Nordic. “Our approach is always to ask what customers expect from us,” he says. And what do they expect? Bystedt answers with another question: “Let’s assume you want to visit a new country. How would you go about it?” Find some basic information on the Web using a search engine. “Most people do it that way – until they get frustrated by all the options. So we aim to combine the advantages of Google with personalised suggestions.” Bystedt opens his notebook. “Let’s just run through the process: you want to take your school-age children to the Mediterranean.” He enters some key data and already the algorithm is showing a selection of destinations that really do fit the bill – not least because my previous holidays and evaluations are taken into account. “Our aim is to keep getting smarter so that when customers are searching and booking they never feel any frustration. Instead, their excitement about the trip increases with every click,” he says. To ensure that, the processes underlying the search template are always on the move. “A website used to be like an oil tanker,” is Bystedt’s comparison. “It chugged away more or less reliably, but if you wanted to change course it took forever. Nowadays our online architecture is like a huge fleet of small and nimble boats.” Updates take place continually − a hundred a day on average. The workflow needs to be correspondingly agile.
When your colleague is a robot
The job of working out how digital factors like big data and artificial intelligence can help falls to Christopher Riddersäter, who heads up Automation & Machine Learning at TUI Nordic. He opens the conversation with a surprising prediction: “I think that up to 50 per cent of the things currently still done by people can be automated in the near future.” That forecast prompts an obvious question: What will be left for people to do? “The jobs won’t be lost,” says Riddersäter. “They will take a different form. They will be more creative, more stimulating.” While the machines whir away in the background, the people in the open offices will be developing ideas – “always with the core philosophy of centring on customer needs”. One big issue will be voice recognition, for example. Instead of keying and clicking, customers will simply tell the TUI app what they want. The app will listen carefully and draw the right conclusions. Then Riddersäter points to the robot in his office, which has so far been following the conversation keenly but in silence. “This is Pepper, our robot assistant. He has been with us since August. He has an employment contract and a detailed job description.” – “Hello, Pepper,” says his boss. “Hello, how can I help?” Pepper replies. The robot is asked to look up the telephone number of a Danish colleague and does so in seconds. “It’s useful, but Pepper is above all a symbol, like the microchip under the skin,” says Riddersäter. “He is showing us today how we will be working with machines tomorrow – and proving that we at TUI Nordic are really looking forward to that future.”