What many years of discussions failed to achieve was forcibly implemented overnight by the corona crisis: working in the home office is the new standard for many, at least up to date. This is only the most apparent change because other unique work aspects are also experiencing an enormous upswing. But what remains of it after the crisis? And what needs to improve on the way to smart work?
Home office: comfort zone or nightmare?
In the past few weeks, you could get the impression that we were thrown into the middle of a new era: Finally, all knowledge workers are allowed to work in the home office! It is almost irrelevant that many employees did not want to do this themselves – it is better not to speak of employers at all.
At the same time, the water they were thrown into is colder for some than for others. Because: Whether you discover the home office as a new comfort zone for yourself or rather feel like a nightmare depends on many factors:
What does the workplace look like at home?
Is there a real workroom with commercial equipment, or do you sit at the kitchen table in a chair that is perceived as comfortable for a maximum of a meal? The latter cannot be easily changed if furniture stores are closed. The spatial situation could only be modified by moving.
How good is the infrastructure?
Is the internet access sufficient, is there a work computer provided by the employer, does one have access to all important company resources? Not everyone had a fully equipped home office with appropriate hardware and all the necessary access even before Corona.
What is the work situation like?
Do you work alone here, or do you have to share the room with a partner who also had to change abruptly to the home office? Two different video conferences that take place simultaneously in one room take at least some getting used to.
How well is the organization doing?
Can I organize myself so well that the loss of the usual guardrails does not affect my work? What do I eat for lunch, for example, when the canteen or lunch walk with my colleagues is canceled?
What is the life situation like?
What do I have to take care of parallel to work? Anyone who has to take care of their children in addition to the new work situation because daycare centers and schools are closed will quickly reach new stress limits.
There are also soft factors. For example, not everyone can cope with isolation in their home office equally well. Depending on the type, employees need a certain amount of feedback to work effectively in the long term. If you need a lot of direct contact and exchange with colleagues, you will never feel the great need to work voluntarily in the home office for a long time. Only the situation is currently very far from this voluntariness. People can deal with this constraint in different ways. Some accept it because they see no alternative anyway. The others cling to the familiar and feel the inner resistance to the news every day.
And despite all these factors, which make the framework conditions very different for each individual, should the home office now be the new standard?
It’s not just about the home office.
The home office has been one of the central aspects of the new work concept for many years. And rightly so, because distributed work can only succeed over a more extended period if other unique work aspects are also taken into account. Ultimately, the establishment of a home office era also stands or falls. But how well are these aspects considered and developed during the forced transfer to the home office?
Let’s take a look at what this is all about:
- Flat hierarchies: The reduction in management levels is intended to enable self-initiative and independent work. This makes the entire company more flexible and dynamic as decision-making processes are shortened and accelerated.
- Agility: Agile working methods complement the flat hierarchies and, together with learning agility, form all upcoming challenges.
- Collaboration instead of silo thinking: departments work on common goals and share data, knowledge, and insights, instead of locking them away in department silos for others.
- Individuality: Employees can choose an individual working model (working time, duration, location).
- Openness and transparency: Every employee gets an insight into the corporate strategy and knows his role very well.
- Meaningfulness of the work: The corporate strategy pursues communicated goals with which the employees can identify.
There are other new work aspects, but these six are particularly relevant to the current context. How far the individual factors have already developed in a company ultimately decides how well the employees can deal with the current crisis: Working permanently in the home office increases the necessity of the individual aspects many times.
Digital tools do not replace a missing corporate culture.
Without flat hierarchies and quick work, the organization of work itself becomes an additional full-time task for a higher-level coordinator who will hardly have time for this in times of crisis. In strictly hierarchically related companies, the communication technology that is now necessary is often missing. Tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Mattermost stand for openness and transparency within communication, while email represents the symbol of silo communication. Employees lose close contact with the company if they no longer have the usual exchange in the morning at the coffee machine or noon in the canteen. You lose a sense of belonging if the lack of communication is not compensated for by digital channels.
This puts particularly high pressure on companies that are still very traditionally organized. In the crisis, you not only have to deal with the challenging market conditions but, at the same time, keep the workforce happy. Because it is not only suffering from the crisis, but also the digital failings of the employer. Anyone who has yet to introduce new technology for communication and collaboration in such a situation runs a marathon with a substantial additional weight.
The tools now required and required not only to have to be carefully introduced but they also absolutely need a corporate culture basis. In a work environment where knowledge is not shared because there is fear that it would give a personal advantage, tools designed for openness, transparency, and collaboration simply cannot work. If they are then set up ad hoc in a crisis, without their functionality and benefits being adequately explained and specific use cases being shown, the motivation and energy of the users as a fuel for the successful use of these collaboration tools are lacking.
The will to change is often missing.
Here and there may also be approaches for corporate culture changes that will eventually make digital remote working possible in full. As a rule, however, these will remain exceptions. The current emergency is often described as a disruptive change that sets long-term changes in motion, but economic factors are usually given top priority in the crisis.
This behavior may be understandable, but ultimately the companies that set the course for the future will benefit. Companies that have already developed such approaches before the crisis suddenly find themselves in a better position. For them, relegation to the home office is a field trial with an acceleration function that can lead to long-term changes.
As soon as the situation around Corona permits and the necessary easing has been decided politically, most companies will quickly switch to the usual work model. It will feel like liberation to them, but in truth, it will be the opposite. They will not learn anything from the crisis, except that emergencies are challenging times.
Politicians have already recognized this. For example, Minister of Labor Hubertus Heil is trying a new law for a right to a home office, which he plans to present in the fall. Unsurprisingly, there was already headwind from the Federal Association of German Employers’ Associations. Chief Executive Steffen Kampeter said: “Warming up political shopkeepers from before the biggest economic downturn in many decades seems a bit out of time.”
Sticking to traditional work models that had to be abandoned during the crisis is much more modern than the employers’ organizations’ perspective.
What companies could take out of the crisis
The tentatively recognized benefits of working in the home office should now be supported and expanded with targeted measures. Because one thing is clear: If working in the home office is carefully planned and strategically wanted, it can work much better for both employers and employees than the unplanned forced situation and generate more significant benefits. The limiting factors listed above could, for example, be reduced to a minimum in a planned home office.
Better meetings are possible.
But analog resource guzzlers such as meetings are suddenly much more effective. There is no more chatting in between because that bothers virtually more than analog. There are no distracting side discussions because they are not technically possible. There is also no shortage of conference rooms or overbooking.
Now you could argue and say that virtual meetings are much more demanding. That is true and even has a name, but it only means that sessions do not run out of time, but remain very specific and focused.
Meetings will also change structurally if they are practiced virtually over the long term. On the other hand, we are currently experiencing a 1: 1 transmission of face-to-face meetings into the digital space. The fact that the many non-verbal communication signals fall by the wayside is a logical consequence that should not surprise us.
In the future, virtual meetings could also run very differently. Technology such as virtual and augmented reality (VR / AR) could bring back part of the lost non-verbal communication. In the coming months, we will very likely also see new functions in the video meeting tools that enable interactions and make better use of digital opportunities.
Teams can develop a closer bond.
Interestingly, even those who have previously worked from their home office benefit from the status “Everyone works remotely” because, for example, they are docked on a project as a freelancer. Suddenly the work situation is the same for everyone, and there is a greater understanding of the concerns of the colleagues who work remotely. In turn, they can certainly give the newcomers to the home office a tip or two from their everyday lives, which have often been lived for years.
The fusion of work and privacy is also impressive at this point. In video calls, we suddenly look into the private living rooms of our colleagues. In exchanging information about the new daily home office routine, we get an insight into the working and living situation of people whom we had only known until then through their work function. These are just two examples that the strict separation of work and privacy in the home office no longer applies.
There are sensible alternatives to many business trips.
Some companies will also notice during these weeks that the many physical meetings with business partners, customers or service providers can also occur virtually without any problems. After Corona, there will be real-life meetings again, but in one situation or another, a virtual meeting may be preferred. Long travel times, which also often involve high costs, are simply not worthwhile for a one-hour session. Especially since many companies will almost inevitably be looking for potential savings in the tense economic phase.
Companies that we’re able to fill vacancies during the corona crisis also developed digital onboarding processes. Wouldn’t it be negligent not to use them in the future? Especially since the option of remote work could soon become a necessity for companies to be a sufficiently attractive employer for the urgently needed digital talents. The attractiveness can be increased even further by using the experience from digital onboarding to set up a digital academy for further internal training. There is undoubtedly still some catching up to do here.
The temporary home office era is the next step toward smart work.
If there is no other way, because external conditions force you, you are content with things that you would not have accepted under ordinary circumstances. This is an excellent way to describe the current status of working in the home office.
The longer these external conditions, such as the COVID 19 pandemic, persist, the more individual aspects of the new work organization can prove advantageous. If the benefits exceed a perceptible threshold and are also valid for a sufficient period, this can result in new routines that individual employees regard as a comfort zone. Then, at some point, the end of the external constraint, and the established initially work routine is to be resumed, employers have to expect resistance.
Flexibility is the new norm.
Giving up something that was recognized as useful and beneficial during the crisis simply doesn’t seem right. Companies have to come up with convincing and understandable arguments if they do not want to jeopardize their employees’ motivation and commitment. New hires will also exist in the economically tricky post-crisis period, it can even be decisive how an employer positions itself here
Whatever the time after COVID-19 will look like; it will be noticeably different from the time before the pandemic. This applies to all areas of society and, therefore, also to the world of work. For this reason alone, it doesn’t seem to make sense to want to go back to the beginning.
Instead, it would be a progressive strategy to continue on the path we have taken consistently. This would mean that an employer does not ask himself how he can get back to the usual model as quickly as possible, but that he deliberately looks for new options for further changes.
This would make the home office just the beginning of a new era called “smart work.” A key feature would be the place of work, which becomes more flexible. Instead of either working rigidly in the company or the home office, the site of work would not be permanently determined. For this “remote work” to become a “smart work,” further requirements and framework conditions have to be changed radically.
Requirements and framework conditions for smart work
Working hours: The era of the 40-hour week has had its day. It is based on a historical work model and should prevent excessive accidents caused by work accidents and illnesses.
It was primarily intended for physical work, for example, on the assembly line in the automotive industry. There are still assembly lines there today, but the bodywork is now supported by the use of machines, so that here too, the cognitive share has increased due to the necessary control of the devices.
In contrast, it has long been known in knowledge work that our brains are not able to do concentrated and productive work eight hours a day. And even if that were cognitively possible, various studies and statistics show that there are numerous other sources of distraction that noticeably reduce our networking time.
British office workers average 2:53 hours of productive hours a day. The rest of them spend on things like social media (47 percent), preparing hot drinks (31 percent), or looking for a new job (19 percent).
Statistics from Japan show how stressful daily work in the office can be. There, the suicide rate fell by 20 percent year-on-year in April. The Japanese Ministry of Health attributes the development to the fact that people in the home office feel less pressure from their jobs and have more time for their families because they don’t have to commute.
Place of work: In principle, contrary to the widespread fears of decision-makers in companies, productivity does not suffer when employees work in the home office. The time tracking experts at RescueTime compared the work situation in the office and the home office. Remote workers have year over year
- Fifty-eight hours more for core work.
- Spent 256 hours less on communication.
Also, they are more relaxed at work because they do not have to commute. For example, if you reduce an hour to work, you save 10 hours a week in your home office. The following graphic visualizes this:
Permanent work in the home office could also be used to reduce general working hours without reducing productivity.
Type of work: While the traditional times and places as set parameters of work have already been levered out by the COVID-19 pandemic, an essential component is almost wholly missing: This is about the question of which knowledge work we will still do ourselves in the future want, need or can.
Once started, the development of artificial intelligence (AI) continues unabated. But as a society, we can set up guidelines for a desirable development and maybe even have to develop ethical and moral principles that specify the framework in which AI should work.
AI offers an excellent opportunity for us to say goodbye to many routine jobs that have to be done, but which nobody likes to do. Instead, we can concentrate on tasks that we consider useful and for which we are therefore intrinsically motivated. This can also go very well hand in hand with the tasks that we have given to algorithms and automatisms.
Ultimately, we are approaching a working model that follows the original guiding question of the new work movement: What do I want to do?
Work management: The abruptly changed work situation also means a tremendous challenge for work management, from company management down to managing teams in the individual departments.
Leaders suddenly have to endure losing their control, for which the present culture has so far been decisive. If the team works in the home office, the boss can no longer see who is already working and who is not. Of course, this could also be implemented with digital tools; only then it would be pronounced what it is used for.
Some companies had good experiences with trust work even before COVID-19. Instead of checking the working hours of the individual employees, you trust them and control your own hands.
The past few weeks’ experience could push this development further and bring it to a new level. If work management is understood in such a way that employees are primarily given the tasks that they consider useful, that they are good at and for which they have a high level of motivation, then there is no need to control working hours: Those who themselves recognize meaning in their work and knows what he does specific jobs for, is very likely to be very focused, motivated and productive.
This is especially true for remote workers because, on the one hand, they are less actively distracted (for example, by colleagues or the boss). On the other hand, they are very keen to deliver results because there is no presence in the company as a signal for “I work.”
Companies that have already developed further in this area and, for example, rely on self-organization instead of strict leadership are more likely to have the problem that the employees work too much.
Conclusion: yesterday we will not find tomorrow’s working world
A crisis, as we are currently experiencing, is a disruptive event. The answer to that can hardly be: We do everything “after” as before! On the one hand, we do not even know when this “after” actually starts or what it looks like, and on the other hand, we would risk everything we have learned in the crisis.
Nevertheless, companies will rely on the tried and tested, and some will even go back a few steps. But there will also be progressive thinking and acting companies who want to use the experience of the crisis period for growth – not for economic growth, but cultural progress.
Anyone who thinks ahead consistently and builds on the painful experience has a real chance of realigning his company and better coping with future crises. On the other hand, those who voluntarily go back to the beginning can not hope to find the future in the past. It is more like staying seated because the progressive companies’ knowledge and development lead will continue to increase until it cannot be made up.