Work from Home. Now!

New Work in Times of Crisis

by Marc Wagner and Jan Pfeifer 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized the decision at the beginning of her corona press conference on 11 March. Instead of having all EU heads of government gather on site in Brussels for a European Council conference, the “first videoconference of heads of state and government” was held. “We see that digitalization and new forms of communication are becoming a part of our lives everywhere,” said the chancellor right at the beginning of the press conference.

Mature technology for flexible working has long been available

The world of politics is not alone in being forced to switch to digital communications by the current situation. Despite all the digitalization efforts of recent years, location-independent and flexible working is still far from standard in the business world. Many companies still shy away from introducing more flexible working methods for their employees, even though technology for working and making decisions from anywhere has long been mature and ready for use. Cloud computing, fast internet connections, fast wireless services, low-cost computers, and software that supports remote working have long been available. Even ERP software that is critical for business such as SAP is available from the cloud. Microsoft and its Office 365 or Teams alone provide a wealth of features that make working from home or while traveling simplicity itself. Telephone and video conferences can be set up with just a few clicks. Access and shared editing of documents has been a breeze for years.

Is there a lack of trust?

Do not misunderstand us. COVID-19 clearly poses enormous challenges for companies; nothing can be done in the short term to prevent production losses for suppliers. When trade fairs, football matches, or concerts are canceled, when restaurants have to close, working from home is not the least bit of help. New Work concepts are hardly suitable for production-related jobs in the manufacturing industry, in the construction business, retail trade, or the hotel and restaurant sector. But what about all those employees who actually need nothing more than a computer, access to IT systems, and data for their work? Apart from a lack of trust and security issues, there are few arguments against increasing work flexibility by allowing working from home and remote working – insofar as employees want it. Forcing people to work from home is in the long run counterproductive.

Nevertheless, flexible working procedures are still far from being the norm even in industries that are not dependent on production. According to Statista 2018, the proportion of employees in the workforce in Germany regularly working from home was no more than 16 percent. And according to a study by the Hans Böckler Foundation from 2019, 22 percent of the women surveyed said they were not allowed to work from home. Around 70 percent of those surveyed believed that their presence in the company was important to their supervisors.

Focus on people

Is that possible? Why are so many companies reluctant to introduce New Work concepts and to respond to the new reality in the lives of their employees? Is there a lack of trust? Are there security concerns? Or is there still too little awareness that technology is no longer a limiting factor for new workplace concepts? We often encounter skepticism at the beginning of our New Work consulting projects. For many, New Work describes an epochal upheaval that will change the working world from the ground up because it focuses on developing the potential of every single person. And it is about the symbiosis of life and work. New Work is supposed to provide breathing space that fosters creativity and the development of an individual’s own personality, contributing something truly essential and significant to the job market. It allows real “freedom of action.”

Every crisis is also an opportunity. And maybe COVID-19 will change our working environment faster than we thought possible only a few months ago. We New Work experts have been guiding companies on their journey to a new way of working for years. We now see that these companies are finding it easier to deal with the crisis and, in some cases, are even able to go about their business as usual. They don’t now find themselves in the hectic and surprising situation of having to send employees home to work from there without the necessary preparation. This has long been a part of their everyday experience. And few of them have reported dissatisfaction with the results.

Win-win-win effect

New Work concepts score points with win-win-win effects. Employees are happier and more willing to perform, in turn enabling companies to operate more efficiently. And having flexible working hours and workplaces has a positive effect on the personal lives of working people. But how exactly does work change in comparison to the template that was established over the course of the Industrial Revolution?

Decentralized working

Physical proximity is no longer necessary for a group of people to be productive. Team members are spread over many locations, and some of these locations are their homes.

Flexible office landscapes

Do companies still need expensive office buildings where each and every employee has a separate, personal desk? Yes and no. We definitely need places where people have social contact with one another. But New Workspaces consist of flexible office landscapes for every work context: telephone cubicles for one-on-one conversations, quiet zones for work requiring intense concentration, or open areas for sharing with others.

Active involvement instead of watching from the sidelines

New Work is characterized by independence and initiative, and that means more responsibility for every individual employee. There is more breathing space, and your own ideas flow into your work independently of hierarchies. There are fewer instructions telling you how a job must be done. Instead, a transparent communication structure ensures an open exchange. And teams define goals and deadlines by making joint decisions. How and when the goal is achieved is up to the individual or the team. Speaking of teams – practice shows that the team spirit rises even when individual team members work in different offices or from home.

Work-life balance and reconcilability of family and career

Critics cite the blurring of the boundaries between work and personal life as a counterargument. Yet this is not inevitably a negative aspect, provided that employees are actually allowed to work flexibly. Working parents can more easily adapt their working methods to suit their needs in handling their twofold burden. They can give priority to their children at lunchtime and devote the evening to their work. By the way, people who do not reach operating temperature until later in the day also benefit tremendously.

Greater work efficiency

But let’s be honest. Even those of us who have been working for years according to the New Work principles mentioned above (i.e., largely flexible hours without ties to a specific location) are now putting the model in its pure form to the test for the first time. Since the appearance of COVID-19, we have decided to dispense with personal in-house meetings for the time being and to switch communications with our customers largely to virtual platforms. And lo and behold – it works. There has been no loss of work efficiency, and clients recognize the advantages. There is more time for deep work. Even Detecon employees with years of experience in working from home have confirmed these results. They have reaffirmed that they are able to work much more efficiently when at home and save a lot of time that would otherwise be spent in traveling to and from the office or to appointments with clients; there are fewer distractions, they are better able to concentrate, and their working environment motivates them.

However, this positive assessment may change if the accepted “mandatory phase” becomes a permanent one. The vast majority of people want contact with other human beings and fear social atrophy if they never leave their desks at home. Over the long term, almost all employees working from home eventually miss the short chat in the corridor or having a cup of coffee or lunch in the canteen with their colleagues. So companies must maintain the social contact structures among their employees – even as they increase the flexibility of workplaces and working hours. One possible answer – establishing weekly set days involving shorter meetings for group and team interaction when people must be physically present. However, this will not be feasible until the current phase forced upon us by the coronavirus has come to an end.

The chancellor will certainly not want to give up her personal meetings with the other heads of government even when the crisis is over. Some things can be settled more quickly during one-on-one talks and over a good meal than in video or group conferences. But one thing is certain: virtual interaction will become a more common and normal part of our daily work routine than before the crisis.

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