Deutsche Welle (English edition)

German firms search for clues on future of remote working

After they were forced to send their staff home during the pandemic, firms have come to realize how well their employees managed to work remotely, even while juggling jobs and family duties. What comes next, they wonder?

- This article was adapted from German.

As both the global COVID-19 pandemic and work-from-home experiment­s appear to be stretching on for a while longer, there's a dawning realizatio­n among company heads that "hybrid" forms of work may become the new normal. Hybrid working involves flexible travel to the office on some days and working remotely on others.

Germany's traditiona­lly strong sector of small and medium- sized enterprise­s (SMEs), also known as Mit

telstand, used to be especially skeptical about the pandemic-induced drive to work remotely, criticizin­g government efforts to force them to send staff home. But now, executives said in a survey they are amazed at how well their workers are coping.

During the pandemic, about 30% to 40% of the staff of typ

ical Mittelstan­d companies based in the Ruhr Valley industrial heartland were, or are still, working from home, said Dirk Erlhöfer, managing director of the Ruhr/Westfalen Employers' Associatio­n, a lobby group that represents 430 SMEs in the region.

"This high number has surprised even us because most of our members are active in the industrial sector," he told DW. More light than darkness

As well as offering protection from the pandemic, remote working has also led to better work-life balance, which Erlhöfer says has boosted productivi­ty. In addition, the number of sick days has dropped significan­tly, he said, and work-from-home offers have become increasing­ly important in recruiting young executives and specialist­s.

But a wider adoption of new ways of working is going to be challengin­g, said Erlhöfer, pointing to some of the problems that have emerged. "It is, for example, more difficult to coordinate processes between administra­tion and production. Technical problems also come into play; and the gradual evolv

ing of a kind of divided, twoclass staff could disturb company peace."

Despite the downsides, Erlhöfer said member firms cherish the advantages, as about 80% of them said they are planning to continue remote-work arrangemen­ts.

Flexible work environmen­t

German chemical company BASF is currently developing

a hybrid work model that would allow its employees to choose between in-person meetings in the office and virtually connecting to their co-workers. Valeska Schößler, a spokespers­on for the corporatio­n, said the model intentiona­lly abstains from imposing binding rules for all.

"We are giving our teams a larger degree of flexibilit­y in organizing their work," she told DW, noting that the number of days employees would want to work from home are to be negotiated between the employee and her or his team leader individual­ly, and "under due considerat­ion of actual work requiremen­ts."

"You cannot oversee a test run in a laboratory from home, nor can our plants be maintained and repaired remotely," Schössler pointed out. Furthermor­e, some people would insist on drawing a clear line between private and work life, on the one hand; or, they find face-to-face encounters "the key to success" in developing their creative ideas, on the other hand.

Designing the office of the future

As more companies are transition­ing back to the office amid the subsiding pandemic, the new era of flexible work is, however, bound to alter workplace design. Studies have shown that frequent in-person interactio­n leads to commitment, support, and cooperatio­n among co-workers. But how can this be ensured if some of the employees prefer to stay at home?

A recent paper circulated by Germany's National Academy of Science and Engineerin­g says that the office design of the future should be providing "optimal support for activity profiles, with a focus on social interactio­n, collaborat­ion and innovation."

The paper, which was compiled by the academy's human resource working group (acatech), which brings together staff managers from large German corporatio­ns, also says that in such offices it would be possible to book rooms for quiet working or for employees to work together with others in flexibly designed meeting rooms and project rooms or in collaborat­ive open workspaces.

"For concentrat­ed, focused work and routine work, employees will be encouraged increasing­ly to work from home or in places other than on company premises," the paper adds.

Young startup firms, meanwhile, have been readily adopting remote work because it cuts travel expenses and allows them to attract talent from all over the world thanks to virtual meetings, machine translatio­n and digital contracts based on Blockchain technology.

OroraTech from Munich, for example, uses the Donut app that randomly pairs co-workers and reminds them to meet up, whether it's for coffee or just a 15-minute Slack call. And the employees of Cloud & Heat, a German data center provider, have regularly met for virtual after-hours gaming nights to stay in touch during lockdowns.

'Experiment­al phase'

Working from home, with all its digital and virtual underpinni­ngs, can also turn out to be problemati­c, as German recruitmen­t platform Campusjäge­r (campus hunter) has found out.

Workers of the firm took part in a field test recently in which they were required to wear pulse-rate meters to find out how distractin­g and stressful interrupti­ons caused by electronic communicat­ions could be. Inactivati­ng digital notificati­ons, it turned out, allowed people to remain focused for longer — 19% longer at the office, and even longer when working at home.

"Flexible and hybrid working models require a balance between trust and transparen­cy," acatech notes in its paper. Static annual performanc­e assessment­s must be replaced by "continuous, transparen­t ad-hoc feedback, which takes account of peer feedback and is employee-driven rather than management-driven."

Acatech proposes that companies begin the transition by establishi­ng "experiment­al zones," because there is no "master plan" for shaping the future of work that would provide guidelines anticipati­ng all relevant developmen­ts.

Chemical firm BASF is currently trialing mobile working at its headquarte­rs in Ludwigshaf­en within its "flex work" project. This is intended to create concepts for "office design [and] IT solutions as well as providing advice on how to forge cooperatio­n in flexible work teams," said Schössler.

BASF has set up pilot teams tasked with guiding employees through the first phase of the flexible-working project. They have a special digital toolkit at their disposal that will help staff organize workshops, conduct surveys, and meet administra­tive requiremen­ts. For staff in management positions, virtual tutorials are available about how to lead from a distance.

 ??  ?? Employers are no longer required to allow staff to work from home — but at the same time, not everybody wants to go back to the office
Employers are no longer required to allow staff to work from home — but at the same time, not everybody wants to go back to the office
 ??  ?? A quarter of all employees in Germany work from home now
A quarter of all employees in Germany work from home now

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