Balance sheet after two years of home office

Status: 01/19/2022 06:11 a.m

Corona has caused the number of employees in the home office to skyrocket. After two years of the pandemic, the German Economic Institute in Cologne is presenting a review and outlook today.

By Vera Schmidberger, SWR

Torsten Wagner sits in front of three screens in his home office and jumps from one virtual meeting to the next. The engineer is head of pipeline planning at the Leverkusen chemical company Covestro. Wagner joined the company right at the beginning of the pandemic. His challenge: design a new work area, get to know employees and build global networks – all from the home office. “I was amazed myself that it worked so smoothly,” says Wagner in retrospect, “that both engineering projects and internal change processes could be managed so well.” To this day, Wagner only knows half of his employees from the screen due to the pandemic.

Vera Schmidberger

Omikron pushes home office again

The rising corona numbers have brought more employees back to the home office. According to the latest survey by the ifo Institute in Munich, around 28 percent of employees worked from home at times in December. However, there should be even more: “Not all companies are apparently observing the home office obligation that was reintroduced at the end of November,” says Jean-Victor Alipour, an expert on home office at the ifo Institute.

Looking back, a lot has changed in Germany. This is how the German Economic Institute (IW) in Cologne takes stock after two years of the pandemic: In Germany, before the outbreak of the pandemic, significantly fewer people worked mobile or in the home office than elsewhere in an international comparison. With the first lockdown in March 2020 and the home office obligation that has meanwhile been imposed, the numbers rose rapidly. At its peak in February 2021, almost half of dependent employees worked from home.

Car, agil – modern?

“Home office is considered contemporary and chic, presence as old-fashioned – but I would warn against that,” says Oliver Stettes, head of the labor market and working world competence field at IW. Working from home is neither good nor bad, but simply one of two forms of work. Both would have their justification. With the hope of an end to the global health crisis, the fundamental questions about the advantages and disadvantages of mobile work are now increasingly coming into focus again. Operational needs and individual concerns must be balanced.

“Where you have found in the course of the pandemic that it is not the right form of work, you will return to presence quite quietly if circumstances allow,” predicts Stettes. However, if the wishes of employees to work from home and the plans of small companies in particular diverge, there is potential for conflict. “That will be the great challenge of dealing with these conflicting interests,” says Stettes.

A question of teams

Whether home office works or not is not a question of the respective industry, but according to Stettes has a lot to do with people: “We will have completely different solutions within a company.” So it is quite conceivable that two apparently similarly functioning areas within a company organize themselves in different forms of work in the long term. That means a lot of responsibility for managers. According to Stettes, it becomes critical if, for example, the basis of trust is not sufficient or the manager thinks that an employee is unwilling or unable to assume the personal responsibility required for the home office.

Because autonomy in the home office also means: taking responsibility for your own performance. What is often overlooked, says Stettes, is the point of friction between managers and employees about concrete work results. “It’s not enough to say ‘I’ve tried so hard’ if no result is achieved in the end or external feedback isn’t good,” says Stettes. In such cases, you have to signal that the employee has to take responsibility for the work result. “In extreme cases – if you have flexible remuneration systems or performance management systems – this can be associated with it being expressed in the account. And then, for many, the having fun with the home office,” says Stettes.

Advantage through company agreements

The Institute for Co-Determination and Corporate Management (IMU) of the Hans Böckler Foundation has also examined the effects of the pandemic on the world of work. The focus was on company and service agreements that were decided before the pandemic began and their implementation during the course of the crisis. IMU expert Sandra Mierich sees a clear advantage for companies with works councils or staff councils, collective bargaining agreements and good trade union organization. Important framework conditions were already regulated here before the pandemic – a head start over companies that had to start from scratch with Corona: “This refers, for example, to the question of which activities can be relocated to the home office, to organizational processes and questions about the technical infrastructure. Wherever this was already regulated, there were no certain discussions.”

Communication center coffee machine

However, the large proportion of employees working from home across industries and company sizes has also shown that even the best digital networking does not replace all personal communication. For the time after the crisis, experts are increasingly looking at the great importance of social contacts in the company. “Even the well-done online works meeting or virtual coffee rounds are no substitute for personal discussions,” says Mierich. This informal communication is not only important for employees’ loyalty to their company: “It is also particularly important for employees. You can understand and question things better, and that makes work easier”.

In any case, manager Torsten Wagner is looking forward to one thing above all at the Leverkusen-based Covestro AG: that the pandemic will give him the opportunity as soon as possible to get to know the other half of his employees – those whom he has only seen on his three screens so far.

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