“Continuity is the maxim”
Managing science well – that was what Susanne Fröschl’s work was all about during her time on the Oeko-Institut’s executive board. She now leaves the institute after a stint of eight years. In conversation with her successor André Nelius, she talks about novel modes of operation since the coronavirus pandemic, successful transformations in the day-to-day workings of science, and the challenges to come.
Dear Susanne, you were the Oeko-Institut’s executive director from the 1st of March 2015 to the 28th of February 2023. Now, after precisely eight years, you are moving on. Looking back, what would you say were the big issues you addressed in the management of science?
Susanne: I joined the Oeko-Institut at a time when its administrative units responsible for overall coordination and central services were highly committed but relatively small. It worked – but at the same time some administrative tasks were performed within the scientific divisions. This was a relict of exigencies during the founding years, when there was simply no money and scarcely capacity to assign to general administrative work. In those times, the scientists regularly handled such tasks themselves.
In the course of the institute’s massive growth, and compounded by mounting external demands, for instance upon contract management, that approach met its limits and had to be upgraded and brought up to date. This presented a number of major issues which we tackled in recent years to streamline the institute’s management processes and put them on a robust footing.
For all of us, the last three years were a period in which old routines has to be abandoned. The coronavirus pandemic imposed many restrictions and prompted novel ways of working. What would say were the greatest challenges and how did the Oeko-Institut respond to them?
S.: Here at the institute, as everywhere else, the coronavirus pandemic changed everything from one day to another. We shifted almost entirely to working from home. Looking back, I’d say we were unusually well prepared for this. For we had created the necessary technical structures directly beforehand, in late 2019 and early 2020. Office 365, including MS Teams, had already been installed on all our colleagues’ computers. All were in a position to access the institute’s servers via VPN, and almost all staff were equipped with laptop computers.
Such IT standards facilitated the transition greatly. Moreover, many of us, particularly our scientists, were already accustomed to working in mobile and flexible settings. Working in the train or hotel during official travel, taking part in team meetings at a different location – that was not new to us. What the new IT tools did deliver, however, is that we can now do all this much more simply and have many more options.
The key question for us in the spring of 2020 was: Can we continue to perform as well as before? Happily, thanks to the groundwork laid beforehand, the answer was a resounding YES!
What did you learn during this period, all hardships aside?
S.: Well, the situation was new to all of us and our main worry was: Will everyone at the institute stay in good health? Those months were marked by massive uncertainties. We asked ourselves first and foremost what we could do to help colleagues who were under particular pressure. I’m thinking here, for instance, of the periods of intensive childcare at home … it was great to see how all colleagues ensured – despite being under great pressure and having personal and family worries – that projects could always continue, and to see how they stood in for each other.
As did the rest of the nation, we got a handle on Teams and all the other tools, and became routined users of diverse technical solutions. At the same time, we took care from the outset that we didn’t lose sight of social aspects. We stayed in contract, refreshing our exchanges over and over. The various teams found highly creative solutions and names for their virtual meetings, such as the “Monday morning devotions” 😉…
… so would you say the good rapport we have here at the institute plays a key role?
André: Yes indeed. I’d say we were able to continue to work so successfully because our technical capabilities kept us in operation during the lockdown and, secondly, because we kept in contact despite major pressures. Not everyone in the institute’s central services, in particular, was yet accustomed to working at a distance and many processes remain here that still need paper. That was something of a challenge, but we handled it well through re-organisation.
S.: Of course some staff had to work on site on occasions. It helped that most of the Freiburg head office staff come to work by bike in any case and are not dependent upon other modes of transport. We quickly re-organised the allocations of office space etc. in order to reduce infection risks. We promptly appointed a crisis management team and drew up emergency plans in order to be well prepared for particularly drastic scenarios – which fortunately didn’t emerge.
A.: And: We were keen to maintain our operability, but were also concerned that our clients and project partners remained healthy and that we could continue to press ahead jointly with our projects to the benefit of climate action and environmental quality.
What kinds of ambivalence arose in this period and how did you handle them?
S.: Sustainable IT and digitalisation is a long-standing focus of our work at the Oeko-Institut – we produced a new podcast on this just last week. We have always recommended that computers and other digital devices be used as long as possible. Laptop computers have a larger ecological footprint than desktop systems. But during the corona-related periods of working from home, laptop computers became key to our operational capacity.
We only had to procure a small number of additional laptop computers, taking care, as always, that their service lives are as long as possible. We use them first ourselves for five years, then they remain in service for a while as backup for our auxiliary staff. Finally, when the support term has expired, we hand them over at no charge to our staff for their private use.
A.: As concerns business travel, we saw a significant drop during the pandemic. This is associated with major potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The amount of travel has returned partly to normal levels, but travel to brief meetings has remained substantially reduced. Such brief meetings – both internal and external – are moved into the virtual space nowadays. This is certainly helpful, as our scientific studies on the climate benefit of working from home show.
S.: Another question we asked ourselves for quite a while was how much greenhouse gas emissions we were effectively generating by our videoconferencing in relation to the savings delivered by less travel. Today we travel on business if the occasion is important and going there in person is essential – otherwise, depending on the specific situation, we utilise the wonderful opportunities of the virtual space. And to be quite honest, travelling a lot can be plain exhausting …
In my view, how we tackle the “work of the future” really is a big issue: how to achieve a balanced approach to all these work-related questions. This includes the question of how much office floor space and what kind of work environments there will be in future – less would clearly be better in environmental terms. I think there’ll be much debate on this throughout society in future. Here at the institute there’s still room for improvement.
And what will the repercussions be at the Oeko-Institut in your view, especially with regard to the social component of personal encounter?
A.: I think the office will gain importance as a place of encounter and will no longer be primarily a place of work. So we will have the challenge of facilitating such meetings and shaping them in such a way that they are valuable for our staff.
S.: Another thing to note is that meetings in person – be it at the annual scientific conference, internal staff assemblies, team meetings or Christmas parties – are always joyful. Even more so than in the past. Many have only really come to value this now.
On the other hand, we have also employed many new colleagues over the past three years and have expanded mobile working in general. This means, for instance, that we have also employed people who don’t live at one of our three office locations – Freiburg, Darmstadt and Berlin – and therefore mainly work from home. In close cooperation with them, we’ve developed new routines …
A.: … which we’ve now also enshrined as new terms in our formal mobile working agreement. This involuntary experiment has thus led us to discover new perspectives upon good and flexible working conditions at the institute for the future.
S.: Last but not least, many people’s outlook on work and life as a whole has shifted during the pandemic. Many more wish to work part-time. This is something we have always promoted – we were definitely a pioneer in this regard, too.
Let’s move to a different level for a moment – what would you say is essential for scientific work to be done well?
S.: In the early years it was common practice at the Oeko-Institut for scientists to negotiate research contracts themselves, to invent a database tool or write the press release on the findings of their study. In the meantime, however, 140 scientists perform a total of more than 300 projects every year. So they naturally need much more support and such tasks have to be taken off their shoulders. This is the realm of the experts employed in our central services.
A.: We have attained a high level of professionalisation in the performance of such tasks in recent years. We have assembled much specialist knowledge and have developed ways to relay the external requirements and regulations, which have burgeoned over the last few years.
Be it cybersecurity in IT, labour law in relation to human resources management, stipulations governing grants and contracts, or the contractual intricacies of complex EU-funded research projects – we have to understand all this and ensure smooth processes internally in tandem with scientific excellence externally.
S.: The relaying that André mentions also relates to communicating our scientific findings. This is a key element of the mission of the Oeko-Institut association as enshrined in its statutes. It thus relates to all the activities of our central services.
Where is the Oeko-Institut well positioned and where will we need to continue to improve our structures and processes?
A.: As said, we are very well placed in all key activities that fall under the heading of “administration” – IT, human resources management, contract negotiation and financial management. When it comes to digitalisation of our work processes, however, scope for further development remains. Many comparable organisations are in a similar position in this regard. Yet here, too, we are actually already quite well placed. For instance, we recently won the Baden-Württemberg award for digitally excellent and family-friendly companies (familyNET-Prädikat „Familienbewusstes Unternehmen + ausgezeichnet digital“). Nonetheless, our cooperation with public-sector clients will present new challenges, for instance when public authorities and ministries introduce fully electronic file management and contracts can at last be signed throughout in digital, legally secure form. When that comes about, we will once again need to appraise whether our own, already digital processes tie in.
S.: IT security is another field in which we need to upgrade continuously in order to be well prepared for new risks. We have always engaged in circumspect and wide-ranging IT management in that regard. This naturally imposes restrictions upon our staff. For instance, not everyone can install every new digital tool on their computer. Developments are so rapid in this field that we must constantly keep step in order not to be paralysed by hacker attacks or other events someday.
André, you’ll be assuming Susanne’s post as of 1 March. Up to now you’ve headed the Finance & Accounting Department – which of Susanne’s priorities will you retain?
A: Beside the digitalisation processes we’ve talked about, naturally all the developments will continue that have to do with interfaces between scientific work and legal, financial, human-resource and other organisational matters. We will continue these processes of science management. In strategic matters, too, continuity is our maxim.
Susanne Fröschl will return in the spring of 2023 to Austria, her country of origin which she left in 2015 for the Oeko-Institut, to address new private interests and professional challenges.
André Nelius assumes the post of executive director with special responsibility for strategic management and organisational development. He will continue to be acting head of the Finance & Accounting Department until that post is filled.
Mandy Schossig conducted the interview and wishes both André and Susanne all the best in their new ventures. She heads the Oeko-Institut’s Public Relations & Communications Department.