Axel Springer wants employees back in the office

TitelfotoAxel Springer

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the media and publishing industry into the age of modern working models. However, Axel Springer no longer seems to think much of remote working and mobile office concepts. CEO Mathias Döpfner is now ordering a global rollback.

In Germany, Axel Springer is considered a pioneer in the media industry. Now the media company is venturing into an area where it is debatable whether it will also it is at the beginning of a trend.

About a year after the official end of the COVID-19 pandemic in Germany, it is about freedoms that have ironically emerged from times of social restrictions. If it is up to Springer’s CEO Mathias Döpfner, his employees will no longer be able to decide for themselves when and whether they come to the office.

CEO Döpfner orders new work concepts

This week, CEO Mathias Döpfner personally ordered the role backwards. His slogan: ‘Office first’, presence in the office five days a week is to become the new standard. The decision is to apply internationally to all divisions of the group, i.e. the publishing business (Bild, Welt, Business Insider, Politico) as well as to the technology and classifieds holdings such as Stepstone, Idealo, Bonial and the Aviv Group. In an email, the CEO instructed his managers to present concepts by July at the latest on how the return to the office could work both legally and operationally.

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Döpfner has now explained his change of mind by emphasizing the strength of personal interactions. This was particularly evident at the leadership meeting of the Springer Group about three weeks ago. The company had flown in its managers from around the world to Warsaw, Poland, to discuss the challenges and goals of the group. The return to the office was already a topic there. It is now said that working together physically strengthens the „togetherness“.

„Office-first Culture“

When asked by Medieninsider, the company confirmed the plan. „At this year’s Leadership Summit in Warsaw, Mathias Döpfner described the board’s decision that the Axel Springer Group will return to an office-first culture,“ said a spokesperson. And further:

„During and after the pandemic, Axel Springer’s employees demonstrated that they could switch to remote work from one day to the next and remain agile, productive, and economically successful. However, the board is also convinced that in the long run, more physical proximity and personal interaction are essential for creativity, motivation, a sense of belonging, team spirit, and alignment on a common mission, which are crucial for the company’s success, especially in the media industry. Not to mention the societal benefits.“

Noteworthy: In addition to the short notice for concepts, Döpfner made it clear in the e-mail that the return should happen ‚as soon as possible‘. Executives should also set an example by increasing their presence in the office. Also notable: Although Döpfner mentioned a board decision in his e-mail, it was signed only by him. A draft version of the e-mail reportedly included the names of other board members Jan Bayer (vice-CEO and US head), Niddal Salah-Eldin (talent and culture) and Julian Deutz (finance and classifieds). A spokesperson pointed out that the e-mail to the Springer managers was sent from the „shared mailbox“ of the board.

Why Döpfner — and the board — see the need to return to five full attendance days instead of, for example, requiring concentrated office days, remained unclear in both the spokesperson’s statements and the e-mail.

Meanwhile, the directive to managers also seems to be a result of employees not sufficiently following previous hints. In internal events, Döpfner had repeatedly emphasized the benefits of physical collaboration and his desire for more office presence. Apparently, nothing significant had changed.

Döpfner is not alone in his demand. Other industries are also discussing ways to return to the office, and some companies are even making it mandatory. Besides social factors, economic aspects also play a role. Companies hope that office gatherings will lead to more exchange and higher utilization of office and production spaces. This is particularly important for Axel Springer. During the pandemic, the company opened a new building next to it’s headquarter in Berlin, Germany, for more than whose occupancy is now a priority. The project cost more than 300 million euros. Just recently, Springer’s tabloid Bild moved from the well-known Springer high-rise in Berlin to the new building across the street—simultaneously, the company aims to rent out old, vacant office spaces in a challenging market environment.

What Döpfner said in the past on the future of work: „We will work smarter“

Nevertheless, Döpfner’s decision contradicts the trend of recent years as well as his own statements from the past. The Covid 19 pandemic at the latest brought the media and publishing industry into the age of modern working methods with decentralized structures and ‚mobile office‘ or ‚remote work‘. Axel Springer also acted quickly at the time. Döpfner himself reported during the pandemic how productivity had increased despite an absence rate of 80 percent. He told the OMR podcast in 2020: “We will never work like we did before. We will work smarter.” 

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The CEO’s new initiative also contrasts with the company’s motto, „We empower free decisions,“ which is promoted externally in the context of press and information freedom, but is also used internally as a symbol for greater individual responsibility. The general attitude within the company is to reorient the company more as a holding company and to allow its subsidiaries to make more independent decisions. Such a directive from the corporate CEO does not quite fit this picture.

It remains to be seen how Döpfner’s wishes will be implemented in the company’s various divisions and markets. Even the CEO cannot make completely free decisions. In recent years, for example, company agreements have been concluded with the works councils in large parts of the company to guarantee flexible working models. In some areas of Axel Springer, only two to three days of office work are required, and some employment contracts contain clauses that allow for completely remote work. Such contracts are usually binding.

The article was first published in German on June 4, 2024.

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