Eastern Approaches

EUWIN’S Sofia Workshop paves the way for an innovative future

Rosemary Exton, UK Work Organisation Network (UK WON)


On a splendidly sunny day in Sofia over 100 participants from business, government, academia and trade unions were attracted to the European Commission Representation Office for a day of knowledge sharing, exploration and debate about workplace innovation in South Eastern Europe. Advanced Workplaces for Advanced Business on 29th September brought together participants from Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Romania and Serbia as well as speakers and EUWIN representatives from across Europe. 

The Workshop offered an eclectic mix of inspiration and challenge. Powerful accounts of transformation in several different types of organisation were matched by realistic assessments of the difficulties involved in addressing “command and control” management cultures. Lessons from initiatives in other parts of Europe offered a source of inspiration, providing a platform for further EUWIN activity as the Network moves into its third year.

Feedback from participants was overwhelmingly positive. According to Workshop organiser Zoya Damianova (Programme Director at Bulgaria’s Applied Research and Communications Fund):

“Companies said that workplace innovation was still new for them, but they found it highly relevant and very, very interesting.”


Steven Dhondt (Left), Grzegorz Drozd and Peter Totterdill discuss workplace innovation with keynote speaker Solomon Passy.

A positive welcome for workplace innovation

Participants were warmly welcomed by Grzegorz Drozd and Aglika Sabeva-Tzvetanova (European Commission), Eli Anavi (Bulgarian Ministry of Economy and Energy) and Nikolay Badinski (ARC Fund) all of whom stressed the important of support from both EU and national levels to encourage entrepreneurship and enhance productivity through workplace innovation.

The opening session concluded with a highly encouraging video message from Daniel Calleja, Director General of the European Commission’s DG Enterprise & Industry. Mr Calleja spoke of the Commission’s strong belief in the role that workplace innovation has to play in Europe’s competitiveness strategy. You can listen to Daniel Calleja’s video message here

Keynote speaker Dr Solomon Passy, President of the Atlantic Club of Bulgaria, serial entrepreneur and former government minister, warned participants that they would soon have to bin the tangled coils of chargers required by each electronic device. The concept of the universal charger is a great example of an innovation generated by dialogue with peers, and one which has received positive endorsement from the European Commission. Dr Passy argued that the office of the future would not only be paperless but equipment-less with employees requiring only a smart phone and laptop. Team working would become even more important in this new environment.

Beyond command and control

Leadership is about creating spaces for other people to lead! This was the core message from three stories of transformational workplace innovation.

EUWIN’s Peter Totterdill began the panel session with the animated video The Fifth Element followed by an engaging presentation on the nature and importance of workplace innovation. He then addressed a series of questions to the three panel members – and sometimes to the other workshop participants as well.

Ton Driessen of Resato, a high technology engineering company based in The Netherlands, believes in people capital. When he and a colleague bought the company five years ago it resembled “two chiefs and too many Indians” with too much authority concentrated at the top.

Ton set out to turn the struggling company around. Starting with a Town Hall meeting for all employees, he and his partner introduced a new culture of openness and transparency about everything including finances and plans for investment. The feedback was immediate and positive: one employee reported “I’ve learnt more in the past few hours than in the past 18 years”.

Self-organised teamworking was introduced, empowering operators to perform at their best together. An enabling culture encouraged “natural leaders” to emerge throughout the company, using their tacit knowledge to drive improvement and change. Ton delegated responsibility for running the weekly operations meeting to a production operator “who knew what the job was about”.

Ton is particularly insistent that it is essential to enjoy work – everyone should be smiling when coming to work, and when leaving because of what they have achieved. Work should be fun!

Jeremy Ling is equally passionate in his belief that the behaviour of leaders makes the difference. As CEO of UK-based bathroom manufacturer Bristan, he argues that value creation based on extraordinary customer service is achieved by creating an environment in which all employees can succeed and develop themselves. His clearly stated aim is to create “a great place to work”.

Jeremy described the culture when he came to Bristan five years ago as “can do”, with passionate people involved in lots of activities but wasting energy in pursuit of uncoordinated objectives. His first task was to introduce proper processes and accountability, enhancing professionalism while retaining the family culture.

Jeremy’s own behaviour in the workplace reflects his commitment to shared leadership - he asks his staff to tell him what to do. He insists that “moving from command and control to empowerment is like a religion” and believes that leaders emerge from every part of the organisation when there is trust and transparency. Jeremy suggests that a CEO should be renamed Chief Energising Officer, generating a culture of continuous improvement and innovation by fostering empowerment and personal development.

At Bristan there is an expectation that everyone will take part in continuous improvement projects on a regular basis. This will be discussed at monthly one-to-one meetings with their line manager and it contributes to their yearly performance appraisal. Bristan provides all staff with development opportunities but everyone is expected to use their initiative to develop themselves. Crucially each employee is expected to adapt her or his role over time, enabling them to use their newly acquired learning more effectively and thereby improving the company.

Adriana Rosu represents a very different type of organisation. She has spent her career in the care sector in Bacau County, Romania, working with adults and children who often suffer multiple disabilities. Remembering the dreadful conditions revealed in Romanian orphanages and institutions after the fall of the Ceausescu regime in 1990, Adriana moved Workshop participants with her passion and commitment in describing the transformational changes that are taking place in the sector. 

Adriana is part of a new generation of leaders who are challenging traditional bureaucracy, moving away from hierarchical command and control leadership towards a more open and inclusive culture with greater involvement from both staff and service users (or “beneficiaries”). Multidisciplinary teamworking plays a vital role in this, enabling other professions to break down the “medical model” with its over-use of medication and to develop the full potential of each beneficiary as an individual.

Adriana described the ways in which a UK organisation, Muzika Charitable Trust, had worked with the care sector in Bacau and other parts of the country since 1990. Muzika initially focused on working with frontline care staff and beneficiaries, introducing arts-based activities into daily life at the centres. However the charity realised that progress in care quality improvement would be limited without leadership development and staff empowerment.

Adriana described her involvement in Muzika’s conferences and workshops on workplace innovation as “life changing”. Bringing these lessons back to her own care centre, she succeeded in creating a team culture by “watering a flower that grew and blossomed”. Centre directors no longer make every decision alone. Staff and beneficiaries work together as a team, addressing problems and sharing decision-making.

Adriana also emphasised the need to build and maintain the momentum of workplace innovation. Muzika is now working with Daniela TiĊ£aru, Bacau County’s enlightened deputy director of social services, to spread public sector workplace innovation across the region through a programme of action learning.

Peter Totterdill, Jeremy Ling, Adriana Rosu and Ton Driessen recover after their lively panel discussion.

Workplace innovation – helping European regions and countries become more competitive

After a networking lunch characterised by good food and lively conversation, EUWIN Coordinator Steven Dhondt led a stimulating panel session which brought together workplace innovation activists from The Basque Country, Flanders and France. Steven was assisted by Adriana Boscanici of Trainart, Romania, who explored the ways in which lessons from international experience could benefit South Eastern Europe.

Adriana drew on Trainart’s own experience of developing leaders but recognised that many are reluctant to abandon a command and control culture for fear of losing status. However larger international companies are bringing new ways of working into these countries, recognising that workplace innovation is essential to retain talent and enhance productivity.

Ségolène Journoud described the Rally’Nov initiative in the Franche-Comté region (see article in EUWIN’s August Bulletin here). Egoitz Pomares outlined the emergence of interest in workplace innovation in the Basque Country (see the article by Antonio Corral in this Bulletin) and Inge Arents described how Flanders Synergy and its partners were raising awareness and knowledge of workplace innovation. Each recognised the importance of making the business case and of sharing good practice, and this is done most effectively when the major stakeholders in a country or region work together in partnership.

Bulgaria: what is to be done to promote workplace innovation?

The final session, facilitated by Peter Totterdill, brought together the World Bank, a trade union and three enterprises to explore different perspectives on the opportunities and challenges posed for Bulgaria by workplace innovation.

The World Bank’s Christian Filipov drew attention to the long-term demographic crisis facing Bulgaria and its implications for skills and productivity. More immediately he argued that the country’s innovation ecosystem lacked sufficient focus and direction, suggesting the need for a strategic review. Workplace innovation was not currently prominent in the World Bank’s perspective but he admitted that it could play a role in securing Bulgaria’s future competitiveness.

From a very different perspective, Slava Zlatanova of the Federation of Trade Unions in Health Services argued that human capital should be given greater prominence in planning for Bulgaria’s future. Human capital depends on investment in education and skills, but it is also eroded by the increasing levels of stress seen in the workforce, especially since the economic crisis. Unions have a role to play in building a more secure and successful future.

Finally three Bulgarian companies shared their own very different journeys towards workplace innovation.

Diyana Gabrovska of Herti JS, a component manufacturer, spoke passionately from an HR perspective about how the creation of good working conditions and a structured approach to competence development can unleash employee engagement and creativity.

Nikolay Chalakov of INCH FRIGO had a dream. His desire was to visit Japan and learn about Toyota’s approach to manufacturing and management. Having fulfilled his ambition by means of an extended study visit, he recognised that prevailing approaches to management and organisation were stuck in a previous age and not aligned the demands of the knowledge economy. Working towards lean production and management in INCH FRIGO, Nickolay recognises the potential for frontline workers to make a much greater contribution to the company’s success.

Pavel Penchev, CEO of transport and logistics group ECont, takes a different and more controversial approach. Arguing that people can be treated as mature adults, the company is abandoning traditional forms of employment in favour of allowing freelance couriers to log in online whenever they want to work – an approach which he describes as “crowdsourcing”. Pavel argued that this encourages entrepreneurial behaviour amongst couriers as they compete for work, while others saw it as an erosion of security and employer commitment.

Workshop participants shared their own reflections, ranging from the need to encourage greater creativity in the Bulgarian education system to the need to loosen bureaucracy. The dominance of command and control management culture was a recurrent theme in discussions and this needs to be confronted with more and better training and development opportunities for managers.

In her concluding remarks, Workshop organiser Zoya Damianova was optimistic about the future of workplace innovation in Bulgaria and its neighbouring countries, stressing the importance of future collaboration.


As an outsider with little prior knowledge of Bulgaria I was surprised and delighted by the level of interest and enthusiasm for workplace innovation. As Zoya says, Bulgarian companies are unfamiliar with workplace innovation but it is clear from the Workshop that its promise resonates with managers’ recognition of the need for enhanced productivity, engagement and quality of working life.

As in the other countries in which EUWIN works, there is a need for spaces in which all the key stakeholders in the future of Bulgaria’s economy can come together to drive this agenda forwards. Workplace innovation with its potential for win-win outcomes can be a uniting force, enabling diverse actors to work together around a common purpose.

Thank you to EUWIN, to Zoya and to all the Workshop speakers and participants for the opportunity to share a really exciting event in a beautiful city!

Contact Rosemary

Note: opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of EUWIN or the European Commission.


Professor Frank Pot, Chair of EUWIN’s Advisory Board, makes the case for workplace innovation.