2020/08/26

Working from Home and Back Again – Return to a New Normality

Die Folgen der Corona-Pandemie haben in den letzten Monaten für einen enormen Digitalisierungsschub gesorgt, der Wirtschaft wie Gesellschaft in eine neue digitale Realität katapultiert hat. Technologien, deren Durchbruch bislang in die Zukunft verortet wurde, sind breitenwirksam angekommen. Bislang vorherrschende Geschäftsmodelle werden dadurch derzeit immer stärker – und zu Recht – hinterfragt. Bei aller Goldgräberstimmung müssen wir im Zuge des Eintritts in diese „neue Normalität“ allerdings achtgeben, dass wir das Kind nicht mit dem Bade ausschütten – erst recht nicht bei den ersten zaghaften Schritten zurück ins Büro.

Von Ralf Pichler

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Over the last several months, the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic have triggered an enormous surge in digitalization, catapulting both the economy and society into a new digital reality. Technologies that had not been expected to achieve a breakthrough until some point in the future have become widely implemented. As a result, previously dominant business models are now being increasingly – and rightly – called into question. Despite all the gold-rush euphoria, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water as we enter this “new normality” – and most certainly not as we take our first tentative steps back into the office.

In March, there was a mad scramble to find ways for people to work from home, but in the last couple of weeks, many companies have found themselves wanting to bring employees back into the office with as little disruption as possible. This is turning out to be more difficult than expected, however, because the sudden broad acceptance of working from home as a feasible work model has opened the floodgates. The doubts about the value of a culture of physical presence that have arisen simply represent the most visible aspect of a debate with far greater implications: the reinvention of interaction in the office under the banner of social distancing and the establishment of an understanding of leadership that contrasts the increased use of New Work technologies with the related change in corporate culture.

Now that the coronavirus has proved that even large corporations can be managed from home, the masterminds of tomorrow’s working world seem to be divided into two camps: those who see in the broad breakthrough of working from home the promise of salvation for the future of work and those sceptics who fear, among other things, a return to a cottage industry, the breakdown of the borders between work and personal lives, and the erosion of workers’ rights. It is already becoming apparent that the truth will be found somewhere in the middle. As Tim Höttges, CEO of Deutsche Telekom AG, the parent company of Detecon, has said on the subject: “I am absolutely convinced that it is good to have hybrid structures.”

Nevertheless, whatever thoughts there may be concerning what our working lives will look like tomorrow – the new normal on the job – we must not overlook all the challenges on the road to that point, especially in relation to the issue that is currently so pressing for many companies: how to bring their employees back into the office and how to structure workplaces in the age of the coronavirus. I have two thoughts about this.

  1. Working from home does not inevitably establish New Work

    The decisive success factor in the sudden rejection of physical presence on the job at the beginning of March was that there was no alternative and everyone was affected. It marked a sink or swim moment of the global economy. Can an economy survive if entire business sectors stop working, introduce short-time work, or have their employees work from home?

    Circumstances have changed in the meantime. As the restrictive measures of the lockdown are gradually eased, there is no longer the intense urgency that reigned at the high point of the first wave. A new normal state of affairs is emerging in which, after weeks of one-sided obligations for a general public, many people finally have a choice again: return to the workplace or continue to work from home? This is precisely the point, in this regained “new" normality,” at which New Work must prove its feasibility as an alternative to the previously prevailing work culture.

    At the same time, a clear distinction must be made between working from home and New Work. The former may be a page taken from the New Work manual, but the use of this technique by itself can by no means be interpreted as equivalent to a New Work organization. If working from home – like other agile forms of cooperation – is to be effective when we are not in a state of emergency, companies must undergo a cultural change and establish an understanding of leadership that values trust over control and the needs of employees over management dogmas. Without such a transformation, we will have simply the old normality in a new guise.

  2. Social distancing does not mean social distance

    Social distancing requires a culture of maintaining a respectful distance when dealing with one another in the workplace. The social aspect of cooperation among colleagues must not be neglected, however. Work and production areas must be redesigned with the changed circumstances in mind. Social distancing must be understood in its original sense as physical distancing, staying apart spatially, and be supported by strategies that enable and actively promote social interaction at the workplace.

    Organizations that were already practicing New Work before the crisis will superficially be affected more than traditional companies because the infection prevention and occupational safety regulations associated with the coronavirus can be more easily enforced in one-person offices than in shared spaces or open-plan offices. A delicate balance must be found here between employers’ responsibility to protect their employees and the simultaneous preservation or creation of spaces that make new forms of work possible. Employers with an orientation to traditional methods have the unique opportunity to rethink completely the workplace of the future independently of any previously established New Work concepts. The two approaches should ultimately come to a similar result: enabling employees to work together safely and productively in flexible working environments that encourage collaboration and co-innovation while incorporating hygiene concepts that (ideally) merge imperceptibly into the daily work routine. In conjunction with the increasing amount of work being done while people are on the go, the concept of the physical workplace is undergoing a transformation; it is becoming the site of encounters and is no longer simply the place where people do their jobs.

    Besides increasing our awareness of the value of interpersonal contact, the shift will fundamentally change our understanding of non-virtual cooperation. What could previously be taken for granted – the meeting of colleagues at the workplace – has gained in exclusivity due to the strict regimentation of the age of the coronavirus. The physical meeting of employees becomes the exception rather than the rule. It becomes just one possible opportunity for personal interaction, and one that must be used with caution at that. Whether collaboration, co-creation, or working-out-loud – any form of physical networking and collaboration in the workplace will have to be more justified and goal-oriented in the future. Quality time among colleagues, apart from purely social encounters, will become more than just a proverbial qualitative claim – and will ideally become directly measurable as added value in the form of improvement in the meeting culture for the company.

If the return to the office is accompanied by a cultural change that questions traditional ideas of leadership and workplace design and replaces them with new concepts, the requirements for control of coronavirus infections can be understood as an opportunity to create sustainable organizations whose self-image goes far beyond what is subsumed under terms such as New Work and agility. And the relevance of such a fundamental revision of our way of thinking does not end with the successful return to the office. After all, the impact of a second wave of coronavirus is even now the subject of discussion.

The original article appeared on Linkedin.

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