“Working at home – how is that supposed to work?” “How am I supposed to check if my employees are working?” “But you have to be at the office!” “At home, the employees are only distracted and busy with other things!”
The concerns of many business managers about regulations for working from home looked something like this. And now? All of a sudden, entire companies are relocating to home offices. Because of the Corona crisis, the reservations are no longer taken so seriously in the blink of an eye. Is now the time when companies can experience the advantages – for both sides: company and employees – of remote work regulations – for both sides: companies and employees – and learn to value them?
I work in a company that had home office regulations in place even before the crisis. So we are well prepared for the transition. Nevertheless, there are new challenges, when not only individual colleagues work from home for a few days. Now, we are all at home and nobody is in the office.
In this article, I would like to draw a comparison between voluntary, flexible arrangements and an “enforced” decision to work from home. What opportunities and obstacles does the current situation present us with?
To date, the concept of remote work from home has been widely known in Germany, but not to the current extent. According to a study conducted by the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) last November, only about one tenth of all employees work from home from time to time. The study also takes a look at companies and whether they offer or support mobile working. It concludes that only about 12 percent of employees have the option of working from home or mobile. No wonder that many companies are currently breaking new ground.
One reason is probably corporate structures. Home office regulations are based to a certain extent on the fact that superiors have confidence in their employees and their work discipline. In Germany there is a culture of presence, many managers have the feeling that by being present in the office they can assess the work performance of their employees. In addition, they assume that the performance in the office is better. This is also reflected in the employees’ response: two thirds of them say that they never work at home because their supervisors consider it important for them to be present at the workplace.
With us, as I said, it looks different. Some colleagues work regularly from home and only come to the office once a month. Others have a fixed day working from home. And the following applies to all of them: flexible days of remote work from home (or anywhere for that matter) are possible without any problems after prior arrangement. Last summer I was even able to work from Canada with time-shift, but more about that later. We are experienced in online collaboration anyway, as our teams are based in Cologne and Amsterdam. And now many other companies are faced with the decision of whether to accept the loss of control, sending their employees to work from home – all employees. The risk of employees infecting each other and then nobody working weighs more heavily.
In addition to the corporate culture, the technical requirements must also be in place. With us, every employee has his or her own laptop – including data security. This is not given in every company. A representative survey of employees recently showed that 45.3 percent assume that their employer is technically capable of enabling remote work. However, 45.7 percent of employees do not consider their employer to be ready.
If you switch to working from home within days, then of course the conditions are often not optimal. The workplace at home has yet to be set up. The technical infrastructure is at the top of the list to enable working from home. Without laptops, which have to be data secure, working from home is almost impossible. Employees sometimes have to learn how to work with new programs. Meetings now take place as video conferences. Collaboration takes place exclusively online and by telephone.
Meanwhile, I have a lot of experience in working from home. As already mentioned, we already had the possibility to work from home in a flexible way. Then last summer, I tried out how online collaboration within our team works with a time difference. The result: It works perfectly.
So what is the difference to the current situation? I think it’s mainly the time inside your own apartment. In Canada, I have adjusted my working hours a little bit to maximize the time spent together with my colleagues. I was 6 hours behind, but we still worked 5 hours simultaneously. Although I was working remotely for two and a half weeks and was not at the office, my colleagues were there. And I was in Canada, meaning my afternoons were an extended vacation, so to say.
Normally, home office days – or in the example of Canada periods – alternate with attendance at the office. Arrangements and meetings take place when all colleagues are at the office. Now, however, everyone is at home and not only on individual days. We are now in week 7. This is probably not how we had imagined spring and our cooperation – exclusively digital. Not to mention other challenges in this crisis: children who have to be taught at home; partners who are also working from home and may have a telephone conference at the same time; no fixed (ergonomic) workstation. The boundaries between professional and working life are probably blurring more than ever before in these times.
But with all this, we should not forget that there are benefits to remote work.After the first week, which we probably all needed to get accustomed to the situation, the processes and cooperation returned to normal. Making arrangements with colleagues is just as much a part of everyday work at home as in the office. Although communication takes place online, the content remains the same. We continue our team meeting at the beginning of the week as usual. And breaks are also important when working from home. Why not spend a lunch break with colleagues via video conference? Or spend the coffee break together virtually?
People who can work from home and remotely and whose companies accept home office arrangements are more satisfied. This is confirmed by numerous studies. The reconciliation of professional and private life – work life balance – is a high priority. This is especially true for the younger generations, who are entering the labour market more and more. In studies, more than half of the representatives of Generation Z say that they reject jobs that do not offer flexible and location-independent work arrangements. Satisfied employees also lead to more successful companies in the long run, because the employees stay and new recruiting is secured.
The fear that people work less at home than in the office is also refuted in studies. In some cases the opposite is true: people work more productively than in the office. Employees take fewer breaks, work longer, and are even more satisfied. What more could an entrepreneur want?
Let us see the crisis as an opportunity! We have all just been forced into a situation for which we were not (sufficiently) prepared. The involuntary and short-term nature of the current home office regulations means that we are only slowly adapting to the situation. If we do not resist and try to take advantage of the benefits, we can become comfortable with the situation. Structures need to be revised and adapted. We have the chance to experience for ourselves what opportunities digital tools and techniques offer.
Supervisors can learn that losing control is not as bad as they thought. And that they can rely on their employees and their work ethic. And we can also do something for the environment: not every meeting, every training, and every interview has to be conducted on site. The same results can be achieved even without a long journey and via video conference, e-learning, or telephone call.
Let us use this chance and get away from the prevailing culture of presence. Towards more flexibility and remote work.