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What's next for the home office?

The home office obligation for companies has expired for the time being. Now it remains to be seen whether hybrid working environments will really become the new normal.

No sooner did the COVID 19 pandemic turn our office life from right to left than a term was created for it, "New Normal", to label the state of home office, digital meetings and remote leadership. This shows how we (hastily) maltreat our world with new terms and immediately declare an exceptional situation as a new reality status. All of this without taking the time to differentiate between acute exceptional situations and medium-term developments and to deal with the topic in depth.


One year later, this is now falling on our feet, because the New Normal has been back on old legal terrain since 1 July 2021. Since then, the federal Corona occupational health and safety regulation on the home office obligation has been perdu. Now it's back to the free-for-all when it comes to the home office. There is dynamite in it. While the majority of employees no longer want to go back to pre-Corona status, there is no uniform picture among employers.

How hybrid remains open

Statements from the DAX 30 companies speak volumes: Hybrid will be the future world of work, of course, we believe Telekom and its statements to "There is no going back to the old world. The future of our work is hybrid. We want to combine the advantages of the office and those of mobile working in the best possible way." Only how hybrid is open. For Deutsche Bank, for example, the office remains the first option. And the chemical company BASF defers the question of how hybrid the new working world will become to decentralised agreements: "Whether and how mobile work can be done is discussed by employees and managers, taking into account the operational circumstances."

Rather vague. So it is not yet clear whether hybrid will become a deceptive package or a serious option in large corporations. There are no clear statements from medium-sized companies. But it can be assumed that the local presence will remain dominant here, as they live from direct exchange between employees and less from formal rules. Not to mention that their digital infrastructures often do not yet cover working from home, even though Corona has made some progress.

For all the discussion about the new world of work, one term is scrupulously avoided in the whole discussion about hybrid working, namely control. In (supposedly) agile times, it is simply frowned upon. Nevertheless, it resonates subliminally. Many old-style employers - in my eyes they are the majority - do not trust home office peace: do their employees really work eight hours or do they do too much dolce vita. So much for transformational leadership as the new supreme discipline for managers - many managers still thrive on controlling their subordinates. Target versus actual, backed up with handy key figures. Not being able to keep track of whether their teams are stepping on the gas must be anathema to old-style managers.

Hybrid work needs good leadership

However, hybrid models only work well if the new type of leadership is really lived. A study by the Vienna University of Technology (based on 20 interviews with companies) points this out. It states: If hybrid working becomes the rule, "good leadership is the key factor". It creates trust despite digital distance and orchestrates a "culture of cooperation".

It is precisely for such a culture that companies consider the office important: "We are convinced that innovations, the creativity of teams and a sense of togetherness develop most strongly on site," Allianz takes a clear stand. This is understandable. Despite all the hype about New Normal, no common worlds, let alone trend-setting ideas, emerge from individual monads. In the same way, a common analogue team time cannot be calendared. According to the motto, on Tuesday we'll all be in the office and act like a community. That doesn't work. Team spirit and new ideas do not come about by decree, but spontaneously.

How managers lead teams in the home office

Tips for virtual leadership

Many leaders are facing the challenges of virtual employee leadership due to the COVID 19 pandemic. However, managing employees working from home offices will not be an exception, as many companies want to keep home-based working in the future. Here are some tips on how supervisors lead their team members using video conferencing tools like Zoom, Teams, Google Meet, etc.

Acknowledge different work and life circumstances

Among the biggest challenges are the different circumstances team members face when working from home. Not everyone has adequate space for a separate home office. There are also distractions such as children, pets or, in the case of singles, a sense of isolation. All of this influences how and at what times employees can best complete their tasks. Supervisors who openly show understanding for individual situations create the basis for trusting cooperation.

Managing stress levels

Permanent stress in the home office is not a good prerequisite for continuously doing good work. Managers who communicate that it is okay not to function perfectly all the time take some of the pressure off employees as they get used to the new normality. Many find it easier to meet deadlines and expectations with this certainty.

Maintain regular contact

A daily conversation with the boss - isn't that too much communication? No, because especially in digital employee management, the regularity of the exchange is crucial. This is the only way to assess whether everything is going as discussed and whether everyone in the team feels up to the demands. Misunderstandings and mistakes happen - just like in the office - especially when there is too little communication.

Use new technologies

Relationships can only develop with people with whom you maintain regular contact. In the age of digital exchange, this works through numerous communication channels. Modern video conferencing tools such as Zoom, Teams, Google Meet, etc. enable face-to-face communication and make it visible how all team members are doing.

Establish communication rules

Decentralised teamwork works most effectively when everyone agrees on the basic rules of communication. Supervisors can ensure clarity by specifying the frequency, purpose and timing of exchanges and the channels prioritised for them. Video conferencing is usually the first choice for daily group meetings. Especially larger discussion groups can be structured with simple tricks so that even meetings with a large number of participants run in an orderly and effective manner. When it comes to urgent matters or follow-up questions, other channels such as instant messaging are the better way. Unified communications platforms allow for a variety of applications and communication channels.

Define expectations

Often, when transitioning from traditional office work to home office, tasks are redistributed within a team or new ones are added. In order for employees to be able to fulfil these, it must be clear what exactly is expected of them. Some may find it difficult at first to prioritise tasks outside the familiar office atmosphere. Together, it can be clarified which tasks have priority and need to be accomplished. Simply assuming that everyone knows what needs to be done is counterproductive. It is better to agree on a feedback loop from the beginning to adjust expectations and document them in the familiar applications.

Pursue a common goal

Teams work best when all members share a common mission. The resulting sense of community also helps overcome uncertainties and deal with unfamiliar work situations. When everyone knows what they contribute to the common success, this is the best motivation to perform at the highest level. Successes should also be recognised.

Focus on results

How can commitment and personal responsibility be fostered? By focusing on the desired results and giving team members the freedom to decide for themselves how they want to reach the goal. The prerequisite for this is sufficient time and trust built up beforehand. If this is the case, it is not only possible to promote the creativity of the employees, but also to avoid energy-sapping micromanagement. Virtual brainstorms can be divided into breakout rooms, for example. Smaller teams can then work in separate sessions and collect their ideas, which are then presented to the larger group.

Avoid strict control mechanisms

Regular communication and clear objectives are important. However, they must not lead to employees getting the feeling that they are being monitored in the home office. Supervisors who demand meticulous feedback on completed work steps several times a day signal a lack of trust. They also risk teams losing focus. Advice and support are better than strict control.

Integrate new team members

Joining a decentralised team as a new member can be a challenge because the dynamics of a group are difficult to sense at first. This makes it all the more important to give newcomers the feeling of being part of the group at the beginning of their work. Companies that already have longer experience in decentralised working have made this an integral part of their onboarding.

Strengthen the WE feeling

Even in well-functioning work environments, there can occasionally be uncertainty, dissatisfaction or anxiety among employees. The task of managers is to protect teams from this. This is best achieved when the social aspects of joint work are also taken into account. This does not require obligatory joint coffee breaks, but from time to time the opportunity for a casual exchange that gives employees the feeling of being noticed despite the distance. Team spirit can also be promoted virtually if, for a change, a happy hour, a virtual quiz or a joint meal is organised via video chat.

Is the home office the measure of all things?

And what about the employees who were catapulted from nowhere into a new working world within a few days in 2020? It would be advisable for them to think more deeply about whether the home office is really the measure of all things for them. Of course it was great at first not to have to move and to do everything comfortably from home. But by no means for everyone. For families with two working parents, the home office is sometimes a horror. Who gets the quiet workspace, who takes a seat in the kitchen? Who does the housework, who looks after the children? Many private dramas have taken place here in the home office. Perhaps there is still something good about the spatial separation between work and privacy. It provides a precious commodity, namely the separation of two spheres of life. In the home office, work and privacy become mixed up, which is often not good for people. Because it causes boundaries that in the past offered protection and set end points to disappear.

No matter from which perspective we look at the home office, it is time to change New Normal into something else. The Corona Ordinance has expired, the social situation is normalised. Organisations cannot avoid negotiating the issue seriously and can no longer hide behind occupational health and safety and workplace regulations. What is needed are actors who probe and measure the terrain anew: the employees' wishes for more home office with those of the company for high productivity and a common culture as well as cost savings for superfluous office space.

Hoping that the legislator will fix it with a framework like the Netherlands did in 2015 is not an option in Germany at the moment. The issue is off the table in this legislative period.

Instead, company agreements could emerge. But who is driving the process? Works councils are not everywhere and what about their own shares in the game? Are they not also interested in a return to the analogue world in terms of their original interests. Or does HR, which so often slays uncertain and ambivalent situations with bureaucratic regulations, become the advocate of the issue and sound out both parties?

Not so easy. But if there are no clear and binding rules that are at the same time supple enough to be adapted to specifics, companies run the risk of home office becoming a privilege for high achievers and the irreplaceable. In this sense, it would then not be a general good, but a luxury good that everyone has to work hard for. Granted by the immediate managers. (pg-cw)


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