Axel Springer CEO Döpfner faces controversy over „Office first“ plans

The CEO of Axel Springer wants to abolish the current rules on working from home and mobile working across the group. The plans to return to the office have met with massive resistance from employees. This became clear at the international town hall meeting.

By Anna Ernst and Marvin Schade

As Medieninsider reported this week, CEO Mathias Döpfner has instructed his managers to develop concepts for returning to the office. What the media manager describes as an “office-first culture” with five days of presence per week as the “new standard” is interpreted by others as a new office obligation. There is a great need for discussion, as the international employee event „Berlin Calling“ showed last Thursday.

In addition to the numerous employees on site, at times more than 1,800 viewers watched the stream from the Ernst Cramer Hall on the 19th floor of the Axel Springer Tower in Berlin. In particular, CEO Mathias Döpfner tried to explain how the work culture that has been propagated in recent years could be reversed. What the CEO had to prepare for was clear beforehand.

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On Wednesday, Corporate Communications updated an invitation to the “Berlin Unusually for posts on Axel Springer’s internal website, employees have already taken to the comments section. The comment “Back to the Middle Ages, lets goooo!” already had more than 70 likes by the afternoon. The comment “Dear employees, because the home office worked so well, it will be abolished again. No punchline“ was also very popular.

Works Council of Springers newspaper Welt: “If we go backwards, we will fall behind”

The move to revoke the previous remote working rules has met with resistance throughout the company. This was also made clear by the works council of Springer’s newspaper Welt on Wednesday with a clear rejection of the plans. In an e-mail to their colleagues, the employee representatives point out not only labor law facts, but also substantive arguments:

“Axel Springer and Welt compete for the best minds. Flexible and mobile working plays an important role here and is part of the standard of a modern employer, which Welt meets with the current company agreement on mobile working. If we go backwards, we will fall behind.“

The letter also states that a “forced return” is not possible because “there are not enough workstations available in the current areas”.

Twelve tables for 45 people – and slow internet

An example of the works council’s argument was provided by an employee from another department at the Berlin site: “My team of 8 people shares 13 desks with a whole section of about 45 people. That’s a theoretical desk-to-person ratio of 0.27. Also the internet is super slow in the office. How do you address these issues of a) not enough office sparce for everyone and b) slow internet onve everyone is there?

Even before Döpfner and other members of the board took the stage, there were plenty of questions. Among them were these:

► “Is the topic of work-life balance and a family-friendly working environment included in the discussion about office first? Many employees/families have moved further away due to rising rents. Long commutes and the pressure to get to the office don’t seem to be beneficial for work-life balance.”

► “When I look at the unrest that has arisen on the subject of ‘office first’, I ask myself why we are once again pursuing a top-down approach. What about the other way around in the first place? What about talking to the people concerned and ask about their opinions, experiences and ideas?”

► “Did you discuss the office first strategy with the youth council? What was their recommendation?”

Döpfner speaks – about “togetherness” and “the company agreement”

Döpfner did not waste much time during his appearance on Thursday afternoon. He touched on the exciting topic of the day in his opening remarks: “We have never had so many people attending at our event. Either we have the most interesting topics or ‚office first‘ seems to work already. In any case: I love it it, thank you for coming.” The reactions: A mixture of murmurs and laughter.

Döpfner was well aware of the contradictions between his statement and those made in the past. He recalled that he had already said 20 years ago: “I don’t care where you work and when you work.” He had always been focused on performance and what was best for the company. Now, however, it was clear that a habit had developed that had “advantages, but also disadvantages”. If people don’t meet and talk in person, how can they create a team spirit, asks the German CEO of a multinational corporation.

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Throughout his speech, he returned to one key word: “togetherness”. The pandemic is “no longer a reason not to come to the office”, said Döpfner. Of course, the company still wants to maintain a certain “flexibility”.

“The goal is not for 100 percent of all people to be in the office for five days. That would be ridiculous,” says the CEO. Remarkably, only four days earlier, Döpfner had made it clear in an e-mail to managers that there had to be a five-day week. There was no mention of the individual concepts he is now dealing with.

Döpfner wants to “lead a trend” with “Office First”

Despite the vagueness of the wording, which became clear during the discussion, he left no doubt: The five-day workweek should become the standard. “We don’t want to continue rules that simply say: three days in the office, two days from home. Or two days in the office and three days at home. Those are rules we don’t understand.“ After all, there would be different professions with different needs. “Flexibility means: there are some jobs for which you should be in the office five days a week because it just makes sense.” And in general, he asks himself: “Why is there a certain day when you don’t want to come together?”

What exactly the CEO’s ideas mean for employees in individual areas remains unclear for the time being. Döpfner explains that he has delegated this. Managers of the individual companies and teams at Axel Springer are to decide “within the next few weeks” how to deal with his “Office First” announcement. This will, of course, be based on existing agreements.

For Döpfner, one thing is clear: “We will lead the trend.” He is betting that in the next three years, most companies will not stick to the previous home office standards. Döpfner also puts the new trend in fluffy, warm words: “We miss you. What a wonderful picture to see you here and the room full of people.”

Wild gestures, serious expressions: Mathias Döpfner and his Management Board at the international town hall meeting

Döpfner appealed to the emotions, he did not provide any substantive arguments that afternoon – no figures, data or facts, no studies on the negative effects of too much home office or mobile working. It was also astonishing that the CEO spoke about us, the Management Board, defending the initiative mainly on his own. His colleagues from the management board were on stage, but kept a low profile in the discussion on the “office first” approach. When Döpfner spoke, culture board member Niddal Salah-Eldin, CFO Julian Deutz and Deputy CEO Jan Bayer looked on with serious expressions.

50 minutes until the question and answer session – but the criticism continues

The employees had to be patient before they could express their displeasure. First, there were other points on the agenda: A manager from the USA spoke about reader feedback at Business Insider (“They love us!”), AI and more.

Then, after a good 50 minutes, moderator Nele Würzbach introduced the Q&A session. She summarized the concerns of the employees that were brought to the bosses in Berlin via the digital question tool. The employees wanted to know: What about changing living realities, people who have moved away from city centers due to rising rents? What about the aspect of homecare? And how do you deal with a lack of space in the office?

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Döpfner replied evasively: “The process will not start tomorrow and not in one go.” The group has made certain agreements [again referring to the works agreements, editor’s note], “which we respect and which must be phased out gradually”. Accordingly, Döpfner expects a gradual increase in the utilization of jobs. For the time being, he believes the Group is well positioned: “We currently have almost too much space.” And: where the job allows, there will no longer be fixed workstations, but “shared desks”.

“We won’t be able to meet every request here”

Five days of attendance – with exceptions that have to be negotiated again? That’s a model of the past, criticized one employee in the room.

So many groups have benefited from modern hybrid solutions at Springer since 2016 – not just mothers with young children or people with disabilities. She was concerned about the future and the diversity of the Springer workforce.

Döpfner promises individual answers for care work: If there was a case where someone needs to care for a relative, Springer will find a solution, “as we always have,” he said. On the other hand, he made clear, there won’t be a compromise everywhere.

Anyone who has now moved to the countryside due to high rents or is unable to commute to the office more frequently for other reasons will have to look for a new job in case of doubt. Döpfner makes it clear:
„If it is just because somebody said I’m working remote and we [at Axel Springer; editor’s note] have some people who have contracts that they have to show up one day per month in the office and if that is based on the situation where you live, 3 hours from Berlin, then most likely that’s going to be an issue and we have to find a solution. So either the person moves or over time is looking for new opportunities. I think, that is part of the truth. We will not, we will not satisfy every request here.”

“We empower free decisions”

Another concern expressed by employees was that if line managers were to make individual decisions about attendance and absence, this could lead to personal preference or disadvantage. Döpfner replied in general terms: a manager who acts in this way is a bad manager. “Anyone who behaves like this should perhaps not be part of Axel Springer as a manager.”

Meanwhile, managers don’t have it easy – they have to present concepts to their CEO by July. They are the ones who have to do justice to two sides:
Their employees, for whom home and remote regulations could become decisive for their remaining in the company. And their CEO, whose speech on Thursday made it clear how much he enjoys the presence of his employees – and who also preaches: “We empower free decisions.”

The article was first published in German on June 6, 2024.

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  1. „If people don’t meet and talk in person, how can they create a team spirit, asks the German CEO of a multinational corporation.“ – As a stepstone employee I can confirm that I have no interest in going back to an office. I can talk to anyone in the company via teams. Also I work in an international team made up of people from multiple uk and Europe offices. It would be impossible for me to be in any Stepstone Office with my team. This attitude to RTO is misguided and follows an industry trend of miss-reading the room.


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