Working according to Corona: “The way of leading employees has changed”.

The pandemic has made the home office a common working model. Now some companies are returning to the office. What has changed and how does the future look?

Professor Werner Eichhorst conducts research at the “Institute of Labor Economics” in Bonn on the future of work and changes in the world of work. He does not believe that in view of the changes in companies, time can simply be turned back – which he does not consider desirable at all. A conversation about employers\’ need for control, overcoming the culture of being present and a real end to work despite working at home.

ZEIT ONLINE: Mr Eichhorst, is the current return to the office working world leading back to normality or is everything now becoming completely different than before?

[“Werner Eichhorst: I tend to take the second view. At the moment we are still in an intermediate phase. There are distance rules in the office and we are not there as often as in January. But many meetings still take place digitally or in a greatly reduced form. Business trips, events, all that is cancelled. In this respect, I don’t think that most people expect anything like normality when they return to the office. The question of what work in the company should look like now will only gradually be answered.”]

TIME ONLINE: In which direction will the answer go?

Eichhorst: presence and absence will alternate permanently. Many have got used to working from a distance, have had positive experiences and are therefore no longer prepared to commute long distances every day. This could lead to the fact that people still meet at one place for weekly appointments, but are otherwise networked independent of location.

TIME ONLINE: Before Corona, many companies blocked the wishes of employees to work at home. They wanted the work to be done at the workplace. Why?

Eichhorst: This goes back to the bureaucratic and industrial tradition of a strictly hierarchical management culture. The factory, or office building, plays a central role in this. The separation between work and leisure time is also particularly important in Germany, and it is also reflected in the separation of work and living space. These contrasts are now dissolving, in Germany somewhat later than in other European countries. In 2019, only five percent of employees here were usually working from home; in countries such as Finland or the Netherlands the figure was already 14 percent.

ZEIT ONLINE: So far, this has also been about the concern of employers in Germany about losing control over female employees.

[“Eichhorst: This fear certainly played a role. Yet it is unfounded. Because if someone in the home office doesn’t complete the work assignments or doesn’t achieve goals, that’s what happens. But teams, project managers and executives must of course make sure that everyone in the home office knows what they have to do and by when. Executives, however, who until now have assumed that whoever is in the office works and whoever is not there does not work, have probably paid little attention to the actual productivity of the employees before.”]

ZEIT ONLINE: Until now, many companies have tried to tie their employees as closely as possible to their company by offering a chic canteen, in-house daycare, fitness rooms and lounge furniture. Is that over now?

[“Eichhorst: The advantages of a joint presence are of course still obvious. There are also spontaneous forms of work communication, conversations in the corridor, which are important for cooperation and the emergence of ideas. And there’s also your own visibility and the feeling of being part of a team and being noticed – things like that are easier to create where people also come together physically. So it would be wrong to give up the office space itself. It’s more about giving employees more choice. Even before the Corona phase, many people expressed the wish to no longer have to be present every day. Now employers should give employees the freedom to choose where they work.”]

ZEIT ONLINE: What would be the point of these weekly meetings of the office staff?

Eichhorst: Among other things, they offer the opportunity for open-topic journeys and informal meetings such as coffee breaks and lunches. Even in intensive phases of work, such as a team project shortly before a deadline, it should still be possible to be in the same place at the same time for long periods. In principle, however, the emergence of creativity is not bound to a specific location. A good idea can also arise when two colleagues meet for lunch in a café.

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