Has Come to Stay

How Covid-19 Has Changed the Working World

by Lars Attmer

Covid-19 has really turned the working world topsy-turvy. What many German companies had considered risky or too Silicon Valley-like just a short time before had to be implemented from one day to the next. The positive effect: actual practice has proved that many new forms and instruments of work that New Work experts have been propagating for years are actually viable, and now they have the potential to improve the working world in the long term. For example, the pressure to respond to the pandemic has noticeably accelerated the transformation of companies’ working environments. Even though there is still uncertainty as to whether the crisis in Germany has been overcome or whether the situation is likely to worsen again, companies and decision-makers have learned plenty of lessons in recent months. As their companies slowly return to a more normal state, decision-makers are faced with the challenge of combining the lessons learned during the lockdown with the strengths of their existing work culture. The goals are to mold the transition to a changed working environment and to establish structures that are equally effective with respect to employees’ interests and achievement of company targets. By taking these steps, companies can also prepare for the effective handling of a possible second wave.

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The instruments that have helped to create a new working world and sparked so much discussion in these last few months are not really all that new. The technological preconditions were in place long before the lockdown started, and the German economy was in a comparatively comfortable initial position thanks to the country’s good infrastructure and the reserves from the persistent high of recent years. Employees in many positions had been expected to demonstrate greater flexibility and self-determination for a long time as well. The missing element before, however, had often been the readiness of decision-makers to break new ground and to dare to experiment. The necessity for change brought about by the crisis set the ball rolling in many companies. Ideas that were previously viewed critically and that provoked indulgent smiles are today being discussed as valid options; thanks to this new openness, the long overdue New Work process may finally be taking off. Decision-makers understand that “back to (office) business as usual” is not going to be an acceptable option. They are coming up with models that combine the old with the new: hybrid working models that are highly likely to become the norm in the future.

A new work culture is successful when it is understood and practiced as such. It must be based on clear regulations and guidelines and, while taking social components into account, be firmly anchored in the companies’ organizational structures. Assuring the success of a hybrid work culture requires the presence of three factors:

  • A decentralized organization oriented to agility
  • A suitable spatial working environment
  • Digital platforms and IT infrastructures

A change in the work environment means a change in the understanding of leadership

Before basic work processes and structures can be modified, a prior in-depth analysis of the decision-makers’ own management style is essential. Not every good “physical” leader is automatically a good “hybrid” leader. There must be a shift from control to trust. Agile working often fails because managers do not fundamentally grasp what agility means. Many equate agile working with loss of authority and fear that employees will feel free to do whatever they want. Until these executives understand what agile working truly means and apply its principles to their own working methods, they will not be able to convey the concepts to their own staff. Decision-makers must redefine their management style and determine priorities. They will then be in a position to create a framework for the employees that, on the one hand, allows flexibility and freedom, yet, on the other hand, establishes clear rules and objectives.

More productivity when working from home?

This type of framework must be substantially more robust than any required in a culture of physical presence. Leadership styles can and must differ from one division to the next, but they should be fundamentally aligned with the overall corporate culture. During the conceptualization of this framework, care must be taken to ensure that social components in particular are not neglected during the drive to achieve efficiency. A hybrid model can increase employee satisfaction. A recent survey by the Fraunhofer Institute showed that 40 percent of the respondents were more productive when working from home. When combined with periods of physical attendance in the company that enhance a sense of belonging, this option leads to an experience offering people more satisfaction in their everyday work.

The hybrid model is highly compatible with the desire to integrate personal and professional life. There is no longer a question of a work-life balance, but rather of flexibility and a resulting self-determination in all areas of life. This starts with working hours and continues through self-organization of work content. The challenges confronting managers operating in hybrid models differ from those of the past: learning and active employee development will be especially in demand for the future. The crisis has demonstrated that our working world is vulnerable to unforeseeable shocks at any time. Employees with an agile mindset master crises more easily and strengthen the company’s success in the long term.

From the classic office to marketplace

The way office space is used will also be different in the future. Traditional offices as we all know them will become a thing of the past (at least in the familiar scope). There will be an oversupply of commercial space in the coming years; some experts are forecasting a decline of up to 30 percent. Classic single and open-plan offices will develop into marketplaces. As working hours and locations become more flexible, the use of commercial space can change along with the situation. Such marketplaces make it possible, for example, to conduct workshops, to receive customers, or to work on a team. The focus should be on redesigning the workspace in such a way that collaborative work is encouraged even more strongly – for example, through functional zones and formats for networking. Insofar as allowed by legal regulations, companies will no longer be required to provide individual workstations for every single employee. Instead, a certain number of stations that can be reserved according to need using a booking app will suffice. An individual’s productive work will be performed remotely. Office space that becomes additionally available can be used for small home zones that teams can design themselves as needed to meet their needs.

An analysis of how the resultant savings (i.e., because of the reduced number of business trips) can be used for smart concepts such as business gardening, the greening of roof gardens, and other sustainable strategies will prove valuable. None of these concepts are new. But the time has now come to give them more serious consideration.

Agile action is the order of the day!

The Covid-19 crisis has proved to be a catalyst for the acceleration of long overdue changes in the digitalized working world. The level of ambition to take a new tack has risen sharply. Now it is important to view the changes forced upon the world as an opportunity to introduce regulations and guidelines for a new working world that must be supported by the decision-makers in companies and carried over to the workforce. This does not require sophisticated transformation concepts worked out in detail over many years that are already obsolete at the moment they are introduced. Agile action is the order of the day. New Work strategies with a maximum lifetime of six months must now be designed and be piloted from the start on small teams and in various work areas. The future has long since begun; now is the time to create the general conditions that will enable it to flourish.


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