Jöerg Bakschas explores how employers and employees have had to quickly adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The possibility to work from home at least some of the time has been demanded by many employees, especially younger generations, for quite some time. Recent surveys even show that the possibility of working flexibly in terms of time and space is a key feature in the “War for Talent” when it comes to choosing an employer. The reasons why many employers have previously rejected such working models are complex. On the one hand, their structure and management is geared towards physical presence, while on the other hand, corporate culture often does not suit mobile working. Plus, the lower the degree of digitalization of a company, the greater the potential for IT issues.
No longer a choice
Now we have all been surprised by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many companies that have so far refused mobile working have been forced to allow their employees to work from home so that they have a chance to survive the crisis. Suddenly, those who have always wanted to work from home have been granted their wish. But those who never wanted or were never able to get mobile working, now also find themselves at home.
A shift in culture
The pandemic therefore requires not only a fundamental rethink of the way companies organize themselves, but also a questioning of the current corporate culture, and perhaps even of the current business model. The practice of ‘social distancing’ also leads to some previously uncharted issues within organizations.
Adapting with technology
The technical necessities of moving office workplaces to the private homes of employees has not posed too many problems for most IT departments due to increased digitalization. However, not everyone has fast internet access and employers had very little opportunity to prepare and adapt existing communications for their employees working at home.
Challenges of working in a home environment
In contrast to home offices that had been prepared long ago, many people have been thrown in at the deep end. The situations found in the home environment are as individual as the people’s life models. There are single people, families with and without children, flat-sharing communities etc. … in any case, everyone is now at home at the same time.
Is there enough space in the apartment and maybe even a study? Where do you work now? Are there perhaps two people sharing one study? Where do you put your computer? Is the Internet fast enough, or can I access the company network via VPN? Who will take care of the children? So many questions and circumstances most people had not prepared themselves for.
For three weeks now I have been following what moves people and how they organize themselves. Advice and tips are springing up everywhere and flooding the social networks. Especially in Western Europe, I notice that people are trying to get employees to build up solid structures. Morning digital team meetings etc., right up to the recommendation to dress in business attire.
This shows me above all, that the culture in companies is still based on traditional control and not on a sustainable culture of trust, which is a prerequisite for mobile and networked working, among other things.
Embracing a new working culture
Actually, mobile working and especially the home office should enable a free and independent organization and use of one’s own time to reconcile childcare, household, leisure activities, family, shopping, etc. with work. Of course, the unfamiliar situation may also be a psychological strain for people living alone. On the one hand, there may be a lack of social integration, on the other hand, people do not have control over their working hours and overtax themselves. Meeting places in the community are created virtually, e.g. in the form of a “digital coffee break”, and a new type of management also ensures that employees do not disconnect and overtax themselves.
Positive effects also become quickly visible. For example, people now notice how much more productive they can be when working from home without distraction (provided that this is also possible due to individual family situations in these times).
Unproductive times in the office are also reduced, for example when employees leave their workplace to get to the meeting room. This also applies to the case of looking for something in the cupboard, possibly meeting colleagues and having a chat. Mobile working is generally accompanied by a higher degree of the digitalization of processes. Meeting culture is turned upside down. Now you notice how you can prepare for a meeting better and get results in a relatively short time.
Much of what one would take for granted in a planned mobile organization cannot be implemented at present. Especially blocks of contact that are desired and made possible through social interactions. Some workers also experience issues with their nutrition through increased consumption of sweets and high sugar foods. It is considerably more difficult to offset this through sport, depending on the residential area. Fitness-centers are closed and parks often have limited access. But even this pandemic will eventually be over and then we will all have a different view of traditional office work.
In the next installment I explore the changes we can expect to the workplace post COVID-19.
This article was written by Jöerg Bakschas who is an independent workspace specialist, change coach and design thinker. He is a member of several European committees working on standards for the office.
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