Flexibility and Digitalisation at Skoda Auto - during the pandemic and beyond
For car-makers, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything. How did, Skoda Auto, the largest Czech car manufacturer, one of the world's oldest automotive brands, react to the crises and mobilised all its available resources to turn things around? In this episode, we chat with Andre Wehner, Skoda's Chief Digital Officer, who played a crucial role in driving the digital changes needed for his organization to successfully respond to the crisis.
In this episode, our guest is Andre Wehner, Chief Digital Officer of Skoda Auto. To know more about the different activities of Skoda please visit Skoda Auto's Storyboard page. Below is the excerpt from the conversation, edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the podcast, either via the player above or on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcast.
Agnes Uhereczky: Welcome to the listeners of the WorkLife HUB podcast. This is your host, Agnes Uhereczky. I'm very excited about today's episode because we usually have academics or authors and if we have private companies, and employers on the podcast, they're usually knowledge economy, where remote work, flexible work, is very, let's say, easy to implement. And this time, I'm very excited to have the chief digital officer of Skoda Auto here with us on the podcast, Mr Andre Wehner. We will be looking at the practices of a manufacturing company from the automobile industry, and I am very excited about this conversation. So thank you so much, Andre, for accepting our invitation and joining me on this podcast.
Andre Wehner: Hello, it's a pleasure to be here on the podcast together with you and to talk with you about the digital items and what we implemented so far in Skoda Auto.
Agnes Uhereczky: I have read many interesting things. The reason why we also invited you to come on this podcast is that you have implemented several very interesting, very relevant initiatives, especially in the past year and a half. I've read that there were 39 days of the shutdown last year, last spring, that was perhaps also time for accelerating some of these initiatives. But before we get ahead of ourselves, would you mind telling listeners a little bit about Skoda auto how many people it employs? In which countries it is based, and in which country or region are we going to be focusing on in this conversation?
Andre Wehner: Sure, with pleasure. So Skoda Auto is a manufacturing company in the automobile industry, and we are an international company. We are active in more than 120 countries. We are building and selling more than 1 million cars a year and we have about 40,000 employees worldwide.
Agnes Uhereczky: That's great. Would you agree that the covid-19 pandemic has acted as a catalyst in accelerating some of the digitalization projects that you had, mainly in the field of remote working or online training?
Andre Wehner: Yeah. I think this is not only true for Skoda Auto, but almost for every industry, every branch, what we have seen within the past one and a half years was a complete acceleration on the digital activities. At Skoda Auto, we have been working with the advantages of IT, and digitalization. But also we had to adapt very fast to the requirements and the challenges of the pandemic. It's like you said, we use the time of the shutdown last year, and tried immediately, to see the chance and not only the challenges within the pandemic. We set up a complete program during the time on how we could use any potential chance which is coming out of the crisis.
Agnes Uhereczky: like, as the saying goes, do not let any good crisis go to waste, right?
Andre Wehner: Absolutely.
Agnes Uhereczky: and this program that you're referring to is the #strongertogether initiative?
Andre Wehner: Not only the #STRONGERTOGETHER initiative. One of the activities is based very much on communication and the support of our employees within the frame of the pandemic within the frame of mobile work. How we could support our people, which of course, we're also not used to work in such a situation. But we also need to support our people in terms of documentation, communication, training, and how to work in this situation. In this challenging situation for the employees, this was the #STRONGERTOGETHER. The other activity I was referring to was an activity which we called the “FastCo initiative”. Here we said: okay, let's go through every area of the company, and also our surroundings, especially in relationship with our customer and find out what is needed within the pandemic, but also afterwards, to support our customers, our people in the right way. We wanted to find out how we could use the challenges, but also the chances that we see, and become more efficient to have even better customer service using all the digital technologies, that we have been using, but also in a faster way. On top of this using new technologies, which we have not been using so far.
Agnes Uhereczky: would you say that - I assume the answer is probably going to be yes, but I'm still interested - in what degree, the already quite active digital project that you had at Skoda with the digital labs, being involved with the startup ecosystem with exploring already how to take Skoda to the 21st century. Would you say that all of the digitalization projects that you have done before the pandemic have laid the terrain over faster? To adopt these new approaches that were required to weather the pandemic?
Andre Wehner: Definitely. It was like a complete acceleration program for us. And if I just take out two examples, the first of which was a virtual show that we built up during the time. We started from the situation that also the dealerships were closed during the lockdown in almost all of the markets. We had a situation where our service was still open, but the sales part of the dealerships had to be closed. So, we started from this point and said, okay, how is it possible to support our customers who are willing to buy a new car, who are interested in new cars. How we are going to support these customers also during that phase. And, of course, it's not a new idea to have a showroom. And in this way, it's seen as an acceleration program, because we set it up in a very fast way, a virtual showroom, which was just launched a few weeks ago, to give the possibility to our customers to visit a completely normal showroom. So they have all the possibility to get the information about the cars in detail and look around in the showroom. They can look at every detail of the car; they can even virtually go into the car, to get a very good impression of our products. This was one example for our customers, which we set up in a very fast timeframe.
Agnes Uhereczky: You said there's another example.
Andre Wehner: Yes. What we did was to support our people, who knew the mobile ways of working, but not in a way that everybody works mobile at the same time. We mainly implemented related tools like Skype or Teams to have an efficient way to work virtually together and be able to support all the activities that we have been doing before the pandemic started.
Agnes Uhereczky: I have read on your website on Skoda storyboard that after the initial lockdown a year ago, in spring 2020, the number of VPN connections for people working remotely went from 1200 to 8000. That's a pretty massive scale-up of teleworking.
Andre Wehner: Absolutely. This could only be done because we were prepared for it in a way. The number you were referring to was the actual users. So we were prepared before that, and also had a high number supported. But once we needed it, we got the IT support to support us in a very fast way. So all the necessary capacity has been implemented within the timeframe of two weeks. So we were up and ready and supported all the activities there.
Agnes Uhereczky: How was it for managers to all of a sudden be faced with a different way of managing people who were working from home?
Andre Wehner: Very interesting. I think for everybody, of course, they used to work mobile, we are used to working from abroad while travelling on a business trip, or whatever. But of course, the situation, starting with the pandemic last year, was completely different. It's one thing to have telecommunications during a business trip. But the other thing is that you know, for the upcoming days, weeks, months, that you have to work mobile at home, and you need to support all the activities, you need to present in a way as if you were physically together in one room. This was a challenge for the whole organization. But in this way, I think we managed well enough. Also, our managers were capable of setting this up for themselves in a very fast way. And therefore I think we came very good out of the crisis so far.
Agnes Uhereczky: I've also seen that there was real training offered to the managers for them, to get more acquainted with how to manage a remote workforce. Is this also something that was done via the Skoda Academy, which I also read went digital?
Andre Wehner: Yes, definitely. Everybody had to go digital because it was not possible to work in another way. So, therefore, all the different parts of the company had the same challenge and used this as a chance. Yes, it was supported by the Skoda Academy, while training, while communicating, while supporting how to act, what could be the hints, what could help. But also in terms of mental and physical health, here we have the appropriate support program. As you know, in the pandemic, a lot of people, a lot of employees were threatened. This was what is important for us as a responsible employer; to look after our employees as well as we can. This was also a very important part of the whole program.
Agnes Uhereczky: Absolutely. And I think we already touched upon this a little bit now that the #strongertogether program here.
Andre Wehner: That this was exactly the intention of the #STRONGERTOGETHER program, to get the right level of information and communication with technologies, and training to support all of our people in the best suitable way.
Agnes Uhereczky: Now, I would like to ask you a little bit about the people working in the manufacturing branch of Skoda auto because everybody who works in knowledge work or marketing or sales or accounting works on their computers. We know that's a very mobile way of working. It's possible to do practically from anywhere at any time. But I'm also curious to know if you have offered or enabled some opportunities or possibilities for the workers in the factories to cope with the pandemic, in certain flexible working ways or while they're doing their quarantine. Could you just tell us a little bit about those initiatives?
Andre Wehner: Yeah, certainly with pleasure. This was in fact with a big worry in the beginning, because we knew you can work almost one hundred per cent digitally in the indirect fields, but in production, you cannot digitally produce the cars. This digitally is before that but the production itself, of course, is not possible. So the challenge for us was how we can protect our employees and the production knowing that they have to be on-site and have to run the production process as such. This was a burden for us to get the right measures in place, in the beginning, to have the optimal safety and security concept for our people down. What we did was the concept of safe work and self-production, to have the most suitable solution in terms of safety and security.
What you can have within the frame of the pandemic we checked, for example, very concretely, where we can set up higher distances, where we were able to support our people in this way, and we have a huge intensive test program. We have, of course, the mask, which was provided to our people, to be protected. We checked intensively who was allowed to get into the plant. Everybody who wanted to get into the plant, also the drivers of the trucks, for example, had to be tested. So a complete list of all activities, to set up the whole protection program for our employees was set up during the time.
Agnes Uhereczky: I also read that Skoda even developed a smartphone app to help employees with the tests and the track and tracing.
Andre Wehner: Exactly. This was always important for us to get the information very fast if someone was infected, who it is, and how to protect potential colleagues in their surroundings. Therefore, it was our task to get the information fast on the right level and to inform the potential colleagues. The idea was that we build up an app to get the information fast, protected, and on the right level to the right people.
Agnes Uhereczky: Sounds great. I have to say that it all sounds very impressive; how you have taken things into your own hands and mobilized all the resources to ensure that first and foremost the health of the employees and their family members can be protected.
Andre Wehner: Absolutely. But it was clear for us from the beginning that everything we do needs to include the utmost protection of our employees and their families. This is our responsibility. What we see is what we feel as an employer, towards our employees, and therefore this was from the beginning the number one priority. In everything that we do, we need to see how we can protect our employees in the best suitable way.
Agnes Uhereczky: how do you see the next phase? Having read all of the different digital tools that have been put in place in a way, in a sarcastic way, it almost feels like the pandemic was a chief digital officers dream come true for legitimizing all the investment and deploying of all of the resources to very quickly develop these tools. How can you harness this catalytic moment? How is it going to be built into your way forward? I guess you have probably completed your to-do lists for the next few years, very quickly in a few weeks. And what's next, how do you see this now being embedded into going forward? At some point, hopefully, the pandemic will subside, and we'll go back to the way it was, but many people do not necessarily want to go back to the way it was. Tell us a little bit about how you see all this big change and big leaps that may be taken forward?
Andre Wehner: Well, first of all, I have to admit that the pandemic is not my dream. But of course, you're right there, that the pandemic showed what is possible of acceleration if it's needed. In this way, I would describe as the way forward that when we saw possibilities in the past, maybe on the one-hour item, we could have gone through faster with the idea. We were a bit too sceptical, in terms of what is possible, the digital solutions that we could support in a better way. I think what we did together within the past 12 to 15 months, showed what is possible, if needed, and what is also the advantage out of it. I think going forward, we need to frame it more in this direction and be a little bit more open towards new technologies to support and, and use them in the right way. Test them in a faster way to see if the advantage of what we see is supported in the right way, I think that's the way going forward, to speed up all the activities in this field. If you take one example, our people were on regular business trips, and of course, in the future business trips are needed but other business trips, I think you can do completely digital. You can just say I'm saving the pure travel time to prepare for the meeting, and go for the support of the related technologies. In this way, I believe that we can use all new technologies, innovations, which are coming up more suitably.
Agnes Uhereczky: I think it's also a question of behaviour on how we use technology. You can have the most amazing technology but if people are not inclined to use it, or engage with it then it's not serving its purpose. We sometimes joke about the kind of conversation they used to have before the pandemic of, “could I please please work from home one day because I have the plumber coming or my child is sick” and those floodgates or barriers have been removed. So, I think you're right that how do you justify flying across Europe for maybe a two-hour meeting? Well, all we have been doing in the past year is meetings online and people getting very comfortable and skilled at working from home and managing these remote meetings. So, it's probably that we've been just as much pushed into adapting these new behaviours as we have been in adopting the new technologies.
Andre Wehner: Absolutely. And this way, I would say that we also gained a lot of trust in these digital technologies, saw what is possible, if needed, and also how much it can support if we wouldn't have these digital solutions up and running. I don't know what would have happened with all the industry. So just imagine such a pandemic would have happened 25 years ago. With all these digital support and technologies, I can't imagine. Therefore, I think we gained trust. Now, going forward, we have also to use the trust for even better support in this way.
Agnes Uhereczky: Now, before we go to the last question, may I just ask you, Andre, to share with listeners a website or a portal for where they can go and find out more about the kinds of activities Skoda Auto is putting in place.
Andre Wehner: Absolutely, with pleasure. So we have a portal, which is called Skoda Storyboard where you can find all the interesting information about Skoda, the company, or about the people or the areas of the company, with a lot of interesting stories, and also about our products. So if you're interested, just go to Skoda storyboard.com and you'll find all the related information.
Agnes Uhereczky: Thank you for this. So, coming to the last question, which is more or less always the same here. If I could ask you, Andre, to give a piece of advice to other leaders, other c- suite executives, who are maybe a little bit still on the fence about digitalization or remote work, what would be your advice based on your experience of the past year and a half.
Andre Wehner: I can only say how we did it in Skoda and I think you need to be courageous enough to set up new things in a very fast way, knowing that some of them might fail. But if you're fast, you also see very fast if it works, or doesn't work, and then take the decision. So be courageous and always have in your mind the customer. But secondly, everything is related to our internal customers and the employees. Seeing what is the advantage that you can give, why IT, why digitalization, and then go for it, I think then it's the best way. You get immediate feedback if it works if it doesn't work, and then you can go on and work further on the activities.
Agnes Uhereczky: Great. Thank you so much. This sounds like very good advice. Especially because I think a lot of the time it's this hesitancy, right? This paralysis of which way to go which technology to; so just jumping in and trying it and the fast I love this piece of advice that you gave the faster you start trying, the faster you will know whether it works or not. That's great. Well, thank you so much, Andre, for joining me in this podcast conversation. I enjoyed listening to you sharing the experience of Skoda Auto and your experience as chief digital officer in how you cope with a pandemic and the different projects and initiatives that you implemented. I just want to wish you the best going forward.
Andre Wehner: Thank you very much, Agnes, it was a pleasure for me, discussing the items with you and also all the best to you. Thank you.