We conducted the interview with Snezana Michaelis via video conference. Ms Michaelis is now predominantly working from home. Her son, who usually goes to nursery, has to be looked after at home. Working from home and child care is a situation that many families are currently having to deal with. Snezana Michaelis describes the current situation as a kind of shift work that she juggles with her husband. Her motto is: creating structures, using the day, staying flexible. Before we start the interview, her son comes running in front of the screen and proudly points to a gap in his teeth. The tooth fairy has been there more than once.
Ms Michaelis, how does the Gewobag board work from home? How has your working day changed during the Corona crisis?
A lot has changed for me. The role of personally representing the company to the outside world has largely been eliminated. Instead, I spend a lot of time on ensuring that the company can work by discussing and making the necessary decisions. At the moment, I’m working from home a lot. To be fair, I have to say that my work has always been a lot like this because it is not limited to regular working hours. Of course, in the current situation, we as a company support the implementation of official instructions, such as reducing contact; since mid-March, we have been sending our employees to work from home in all areas and have concentrated their attendance times on core processes that actually require personal presence. This also applies to the board. This means that I have reduced the time in my office from five days to two. One of these days is a joint day with my board colleague, Markus Terboven.
How has Gewobag adapted to the new situation?
To be honest, I’m very proud of Gewobag. Of course, this has to do with the fact that we were simply able to make things happen. There’s a big difference between those who would like to do something but don’t have the right equipment or IT backup, and those who can actually make it happen. The contact ban and restrictions on going out were implemented in Berlin more than a week ago now, and we sent colleagues to work from home over two weeks ago. By doing so, we were ahead of the times.
And there is a second effect: the learning curve is very steep. Of course, we have a large number of employees who have always worked at their workplace, even though there was the possibility of working from home or using various tools, such as Skype, XPhone or Teams. A few colleagues told me that they found it difficult at the beginning. They needed some time to adjust to the fact that they have to work differently now. When we as people are in a dilemma and have to deal with certain things, we often find that it wasn’t so bad.
This means that Gewobag has made a digital step forward in terms of working in a mobile way?
Definitely. We have been following the topic of digitisation very closely in recent years. One example of this is our Service Centre, which was our first major digitisation project. We were, therefore, already on the digital path. I believe that the situation that we are in now has simply catapulted us two years forward in terms of digitalisation. Much of it will remain after the crisis. And this “remaining” should not be viewed in a negative light. There will then be issues, such as putting processes and things to the test. And putting it plainly: if I was able to do without something for three months or more, was it really necessary in the past? Was it necessary in the way it was originally practised? Or is there perhaps an adapted, leaner, more efficient way?
Almost all Gewobag employees are working from home. How is one of Berlin’s largest housing associations able to continue working?
Many things in our company are already set up electronically. I’ll give you an example: it is important for a company to be able to pay its bills and fulfil its obligations for continued stability. It’s also important to earn money – rents. All this is done electronically. In this respect, employees in the accounts payable department, for example, continue to work normally. They can access SAP and are not restricted in their work. The most challenging thing at the moment is the question of how we can ensure smooth on-site management. According to feedback from fletwerk, our central service provider, this is still working well. But of course, we no longer do apartment viewings in groups, for example, but rather as individual appointments. The speed is changing somewhat. We take these measures to protect our employees, and, of course, our customers. What we have noticed when receiving complaints is that people are now considering whether to report a minor matter or whether to limit themselves to issues such as maintenance and disposal. So that’s things like water, electricity and heating, which, of course, are still guaranteed. A broken joint or a crack in the ceiling is of much less interest to customers at the moment.
Are any current corporate goals being modified or prioritised in light of the current situation?
The priority is to maintain business operations. We are keeping a very close eye on how the situation is developing, including our ongoing construction work. So far – touch wood – we have had no feedback from our new construction sites that there are bottlenecks. For example, general contractors often have subcontractors from neighbouring European countries. Or supply chains, in other words materials, simply do not come from Germany but rather from abroad and are not available now. This must be continuously monitored and reassessed. At the moment, we can say that everything that is still going well does not need to be changed. We will reassess if the situation changes.
Of course, things are a bit different when it comes to modernisation. We have ceased all measures that require us to go into apartments. This would be unreasonable for the tradespeople concerned and our tenants. We are making health the priority. We are, of course, concerned with the issue of solvency in the area of stock management. More and more tenants are coming forward, mainly those with commercial leases, saying that their income has disappeared because of the corona pandemic. At the moment, our customer advisers are frequently dealing with the issue of whether tenants can continue to pay their rent and under which conditions.
Are move-in dates, such as those for WATERKANT, still tenable?
We are assuming so for the moment. Last week was the approval of the first construction field in the 1st sub-project. The aim is to rent the site from 1 May 2020. The on-site rental office is staffed. Appointments continue to be made there. In this respect, we are only talking about “rental speed” here, because everything else is only happening via individual viewings. I am still quite confident at the moment.
What is the situation on the construction sites; is construction continuing?
For new constructions, yes. And for modernisations, too, provided that they are made in unoccupied buildings. This is possible with our complex redevelopment properties, which we usually vacate beforehand. Adjustments and changes are made when people are living there.
Which personal challenges will you have to overcome in the next few weeks?
We have had restrictions on going out for just over two weeks now. If we look at the discussions on the question of when the restrictions can be relaxed or rather lifted, one of the major challenges will be to maintain the composure of the population and to keep the comparatively positive tenor alive, in other words the helpfulness, support and community spirit.
If you look around your home, there is honestly a lot you can do that can take up quite lot of time. For example, we’ve been in our home for six years and last week, I did a general check of the utility room and kitchen. In passing, I had been wondering what was in that drawer at the very back. And I found out (laughs). There are many people who live a much more cramped life who don’t just have one young child but several children, and have to work from home without a study. This can really increase stress levels. But, in principle, you can cope with a lot if you don’t put too much pressure on yourself and really plan and structure. In our case, we’re effectively working in shifts because my husband also works full-time. He also likes to get up at three o’clock in the morning when he has a lot to do. Unlike me, he is no longer capable of working in the evenings
How is Gewobag helping Berlin to get through this crisis?
Firstly, by giving our customers assurances that they don’t need to worry about losing their home. And secondly – at least as important for Gewobag as a company – that we can do the same for our employees: you don’t have to worry about your jobs. I think we have managed to do this very well over the last few weeks. We set up our risk prevention management team early on. Regular updates to FAQs give colleagues the comfort of knowing how they can and must deal with this situation. At the same time, it’s also important that we now work differently – but we work unlike many other industries. We can’t forget that.
As a housing association, I consider us to be part of the critical infrastructure. Officially, we’re probably not; this includes maintenance and disposal, everything to do with heating, water, electricity, but also street cleaning, waste management, the fire brigade and the police. But, of course, housing is part of it. In this respect, we make a very significant contribution to more than 120,000 people in the city if they don’t have to worry about how they will get through the crisis because they are falling short on rent payments due to lost sales or short-time work. We will ensure that people who need help get it. For the others, we will make sure that they continue to fulfil their obligations.
What should residential and commercial tenants do if they experience problems with their rent payments due to the current situation? Who is best person to get in touch with?
Our Service Centre. That’s the first port of call. You can also contact us via the service app, email, or call us at the Service Centre. I think the best way is via email. And ideally, tenants should be able to prove their needs so that we can react quickly. Just send along evidence that shows “This is my current situation and these are my prospects. For the following reasons, I cannot or can no longer make rent payments to the same extent. Let’s talk about options.”
How great is the team spirit, the solidarity in the Gewobag neighbourhoods?
We get feedback on this from our voluntary tenants’ advisory boards and also from our tenants’ council. It is fair to say that it varies from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. We experience a great deal of solidarity in neighbourhoods where we have long-standing tenancy structures with established relationships. This is not the same throughout the city and, as is always the case in life, must be considered individually.
What can we learn from the corona crisis?
I think an important overriding realisation has been that no man is an island. The same applies to individual states. We have to be aware of the fact that we are linked in terms of the flow of goods, infrastructure and supply. We are all facing an enormous challenge despite isolation and separation. It’s the same for everyone. Now we will see how the European community or even the world community can operate. How well, how much stronger or weaker we come out of this whole crisis will depend very much on how individual nations deal with this issue. We will be preoccupied by this crisis for a long time yet. If not by active intervention in our movement options, then at least due to the economic impacts.
Nevertheless, it is important not to waste a crisis. With that in mind, I believe that many things are being reconsidered. Digitisation will be much more important to us than it was previously. Hopefully, the issue of infrastructure development and network expansion will also be given a completely different priority at national level, also in terms of funding.
Thank you for talking with us!
Editor’s note: Due to the current situation, archive images have been used for this article. Titel Photo © Felix Seyfert