You joined the Ikea Group in 2000 and rose from personnel manager in Italy to CEO of Ikea Switzerland. How has digitalisation changed the working world since then?
Above all, it’s shaped the way we communicate – not only in private life, but also on the job. With that, I don’t mean just the faster pace of everything. Today, we’re practically joined at the hip with technology, so much so that we can hardly live or work without it anymore – unless of course we opt for an ascetic existence. But we also have to realise that technologies like smartphones open up entirely new possibilities and have given us a variety of freedoms we never had or knew before. Nonetheless, two side effects gave me reason to think twice about my use of these devices. For one, I started to get the impression that I was spending too much time surfing around; and secondly, it sometimes felt like an addiction. What suddenly dawned on me: I don’t want to be a slave to technology. The gadget has to serve me, not vice versa.
What does that mean for you as a CEO?
Fighting or otherwise simply ignoring technological progress is the wrong way to go. Rather, we need to accept technology as a given, recognise its potential and take responsibility for how we use it.
“As employers, we have a moral obligation to think hard about what will happen to people whose jobs have become superfluous.”
What has digitalisation afforded most to you personally?
The biggest relief came from the simplified possibilities for archiving stuff. At the beginning of my career, there were these huge filing cabinets full of folders – OMG, it was a nightmare! Today, computers take care of that. At the click of a mouse, we have access to any and all information we need. It makes my life much less stressful.
You alluded to a sense of dependency on digital media. What are the consequences of this for society?
I have three children who are now grown-ups. There was a time, especially when they were still teenagers, when all they did was sit in front of their damned devices. Basically, they’re very sociable kids. But when I was their age, I was out and about much more than they ever were. So I ask myself: To what extent do these devices help us to connect with other people, or do they in fact effectuate the exact opposite because we can hide behind them?
Originally from Italy, Simona Scarpaleggia has been CEO of Ikea Switzerland since 2010, after having worked for the Swedish interior design group for ten years in her home country. Prior to that, she gained experience in the chemicals, consumer goods and engineering fields. For many years, she has been committed to the interests of women in the business world: she initiated the “Valore D” association in Italy in 2009 and Switzerland’s “Advance – Women in Swiss Business” network in 2013.
Simona Scarpaleggia is co-chair of the United Nations High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment. She is also a member of the advisory board of the Zurich University of the Arts. Scarpaleggia studied political science in Rome. She is married, has three adult children and lives in Kilchberg ZH.
What do you mean by that?
When you use a device to communicate, you automatically conceal at least some of your identity as a person. Nothing beats good old face-to-face interaction, where you can look each other directly in the eyes. We mustn’t delegate the emotional dimension of life to any sort of gadget. It’s precisely this interpersonal emotional link that makes us human.
Do these devices take away some of our inhibitions?
Sometimes when I read the public comments in response to articles posted on news websites, I’m shocked by the threats and anger that are frequently voiced. But I also think that the person who wrote such a comment would never have the nerve to say or do stuff like that to the object of their ire. It takes guts to say what doesn’t suit you directly to another person’s face. Those who do it by means of an online comment box haven’t got the backbone.
Many people fear that artificial intelligence (AI) will be a job killer. Others are convinced that, thanks to AI, more or at least a wide array of other jobs will be created. To which camp do you belong?
I’m one of the optimists. We need to embrace the opportunities AI opens up for us. The nature of many jobs will change entirely, or perhaps they’ll no longer even exist. Countless studies vouch for that likelihood. But in the end, is it all that bad if tedious repetitive work is taken over by a machine? By the same token, the creative dimension of jobs will increase. As employers, we have a moral obligation to think hard about what will happen to people whose jobs have become superfluous. What do you do for instance with sales personnel who are suddenly redundant because you’ve launched a web shop? Should they become consultants? After all, they’re highly qualified to help customers make decisions about products that suit their lifestyle from a price/performance standpoint. Of course, machines make impartial decisions, and they’re much more precise in what they do compared to us humans. But there’s also beauty and dignity in man’s imperfections.
Would you buy a household robot?
I’m not an old fuddy-duddy – except when it comes to food. I wouldn’t dream of cooking with a microwave, for example. I love the handicraft that goes into a good meal. But who knows . . . ? Maybe in five years, it’ll be possible to turn the oven on just by saying: “Heat to 180 °C.” I’d probably get one of those!
“We must not delegate emotional engagement to devices. It’s this personal emotional interaction that differentiates us as human beings.”
Would robots like that fit into Ikea’s product range?
We don’t have anything like that yet, but we’re working on expanding our home electronics offerings. Just recently, we announced a collaboration with Sonos in order to add audio components to our Smart Home programme.
Which digital assistants do you use on the job or at home?
I really like FaceTime and Skype because I want to see the face of the person I’m talking with. I’m kind of old-fashioned that way.
What things would you never communicate digitally, but instead only in person?
I’d never convey especially good news by digital means. Take for example someone’s promotion – I want to be there to hug that person. Unpleasant feedback is also something I only convey verbally – unless it’s impossible to do so, for example because I’m travelling.
Ikea, “Still just inhabiting – or are you already living?” This advertising slogan (loosely translated from the German) has practically become a household expression in reference to Ikea, the Swedish furniture giant founded by Ingvar Kamprad in 1943. Spreitenbach, a few miles west of Zurich, was site of the company’s first non-Scandinavian satellite store, which opened its doors in 1973. Today, Ikea employs nearly 194,000 people worldwide and generates annual revenues in excess of CHF 40 billion.
How important to you is data protection?
Extremely! Ikea has an enormous community of over 1.1 million Ikea Family members. These people entrust us with personal information and we make a promise to use it prudently and responsibly. Therefore, we’re currently revising all data-relevant processes and routines in keeping with the new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Many companies are already far along that path. Unfortunately, there’s the danger that this otherwise laudable quest will turn out to be one monstrous bureaucracy that ultimately benefits nobody. We need to take a close look and decide what we want to change.
Do you share private information online?
No. Nothing. I had a Facebook account some 12 years ago, but then I deleted it. Why should I tell the whole world what I just saw at the movies? At the time, I was simply curious and wanted to know how Facebook worked. In the end, I decided it’s not the right thing for me.
Did you make your kids aware of the risks?
Yes, but of course they said: “Mommm . . . you don’t get it!” (laughs) And okay, they post a lot of personal things, but nothing embarrassing that could cause them problems later on.
Do you arrange for personal offline oases?
Essentially, I want to be reachable at all times. Only when I’m on holidays do I have a deputy. But last summer I had an “Oha” experience. I was with a travel group in Mongolia. Of course, there’s no electricity, no Internet, no anything in the Gobi Desert. That totally stressed me out the first few days. Everyone else in the group, too. After seemingly endless hours of driving across terra incognita, we finally reached something vaguely reminiscent of a city and, voilà, an antenna! Everyone immediately ran over and turned on their phones. And what did we find out? The company was doing just fine, thank you; family and friends were healthy; and in the world – unfortunately – the same-old, same-old: war and chaos. So you ask yourself, was it really so urgent to merely get confirmation of all that? And was it really so terrible that for ten hours we didn’t know what was going on in the world?
How did you all react to that revelation?
We talked a lot more than one usually does on holidays. In hotels, you often observe how each guest is doing something on their own, heads bent down, fiddling around with their electronic gadget of choice. But in our group, we talked to each other. Someone had a book on Genghis Kahn with him and he read portions of it aloud for us! We gazed at the millions of stars in the sky and discussed the Grand Khan of the Mongols. It was a wonderful communal experience.
Will you go on another adventure like that?
Oh yeah! But to get the same effect, you don’t have to wander around the desert for weeks on end. With a bit of self-discipline, you can integrate it into your workaday life. Something like “An Apple-free hour a day keeps the doctor away.” (chuckles)
But self-discipline is hard for us humans to keep up, simply because it’s not very fun.
You’re right. But I think self-discipline is something quite positive. It helps us in many life situations.
Short questions – short answers
Which background image do you have on your mobile phone?
The screensaver shows a lion, and as a background image I have a lioness and her cub. I, too, am a full-blooded mom. My lioness is emblematic of what’s important to me personally: she’s courageous, independent and has a slew of relatives around her. My combination of lion and lioness is a metaphor: as with humans, the female of the species does a lot – she hunts, feeds and raises the young. And just like with people, the females should muster some pluck and demand a little more help from the males of the species.
What was your dream job when you were a kid? And why did you ultimately choose your current profession?
I wanted to be a doctor. Do you know the film “Sliding Doors”? It relates two versions of the life of a young woman. My “Sliding Doors” moment didn’t take place alongside a metro wagon, but instead due to the renovation of a university building in Rome. The pre-med courses there were highly prized, but the number of students was strictly limited. Nevertheless, I wanted to give the entrance exam a go and told myself that if I failed, I could still study medicine somewhere else. I actually passed, but ultimately ended up studying political science. I don’t regret it. I’m sure I would have been a very good physician because I love taking care of other people. But I also wanted to be independent as soon as possible and finally earn some cash of my own. As it turns out, my wish came true, because in my current position I can also look after other people.