New normal Home office: Is there (no) way back to the office?


By fall at the latest, many companies want to get their employees out of the home office and back into the office. But just like the hasty move back to the desk at home in the spring of 2020, the return to the company is not a foregone conclusion.

What will actually happen to the office after more than one and a half years of home office?


More and more companies and their workforces are asking themselves this question. The mandatory home office imposed by Corona in Germany has been history since the beginning of July 2021.


But the pandemic is not over and hygiene concepts and distance rules still apply, making it difficult to run a normal office as before Corona, with a presence at the desk from Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm.


And so most companies are feeling their way around the situation for now. Some continue to let their employees choose where they want to work. Others specify certain days for presence in the office, in an effort to make more use of office space and to encourage direct exchange again.


Tania Lieckweg also advises such a smooth transition. The organizational consultant supports companies in change processes and observes:

"Many people feel that they have taken on an enormous amount for their employer in the past year and a half, in the balancing act between job and homeschooling or caregiving."

How they now react to the new "back to the old normal" requirement depends heavily on personality and how the employer communicates it, he said. "It's best for managers to seek a conversation about this with each individual employee."


Home office is already normal


Some long to be able to do their job again in an environment where direct interaction with colleagues is possible, where there is a comfortable office chair and where small children are not constantly chattering in between.


Others, however, have long since taken a liking to their new daily routine. An everyday life in which work, family and leisure time are more closely intertwined, but which also allows a lot of freedom: no open-plan office, no commuting, no traffic jams, no crowded trains.


In an international survey by HR consultancy Korn Ferry, 70 percent of people responded that remote working felt like a new normal for them. 55 percent said they felt stress at the thought of working permanently in the office again. And nearly half (49 percent) would even turn down a new job if it required full presence at the company.


The Otto retail and services group also surveyed its more than 5,000 employees. Only three percent of them would like to return to the office every day after the pandemic. The bulk favored working nine out of an average of 20 working days per month on site and eleven from home.


"We are experiencing a transformation of the working world that began long before 2020 under the term New Work and has gained significant momentum once again through Corona," writes Irene Oksinoglu, head of the Future Work initiative at Otto in the company blog.


"We will not return to the working world as we knew it until the beginning of 2020." Instead, Otto is introducing a hybrid work model. The combination of mobile and face-to-face work is intended to combine the best of the two worlds, it says.


The office as a meeting place


But is that enough to motivate even those who are now reluctant to return? "Managers should make it clear to their employees why it is important to return to the office at least part of the time," says Lieckweg. Certain benefits simply only emerge when people work together in presence.

"Many activities are easier in a team and work better when people are creative together and discuss things."

On the other hand, he says, it's important to recognize that other tasks can actually be completed more easily and quickly virtually.


Otto provides his employees with a "matrix of collaboration" as a recommendation for this. In it, they can find out which activities are suitable for which team constellation and which work location.


This changes the role of the office. It is not becoming obsolete, but a space for interaction, collaboration - and informal exchange. "Organizations need to realize how many ideas and improvements are created along the way. By people sitting together over coffee or talking across the desk," says Tania Lieckweg.


In fact, a study by the management consultancy Staufen shows that collaboration in companies suffers when canteens and coffee kitchens are missing as communication hubs. Fifty-two percent of the 300 companies surveyed cited the lack of informal exchange as the biggest deficit during the pandemic. Before Corona, the figure was just 16 percent. According to the survey, video conferences, messengers and collaboration tools only succeeded to a limited extent in closing the gap.


The office therefore remains important as an anchor for identification with the corporate culture. Even if it has to change and become more attractive. It's not for nothing that companies like Apple, Google and others go to such great lengths and design their headquarters with cafés, lounges and ball pools more as a meeting place than a workspace.


Don't forget lonely colleagues


Because even though home office offers many advantages, it also poses a great danger. That of loneliness. An analysis by the Institute for Sociology of Work, Industry and Economics at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, describes how the pandemic has reinforced tendencies such as a feeling of social isolation among many employees.


According to the authors, chats and video conferences cannot replace social relationships in the workplace. It is particularly difficult to socialize and arrive remotely for entry-level and new employees.


"Those who started at a new company during the pandemic may never have seen their colleagues live," Lieckweg says. She advises them in particular to actually travel to the company as often as possible to get to know the corporate culture and environment."


A feel-good atmosphere instead of compulsory presence


Even before the Corona pandemic, the 40 or so employees of Düsseldorf-based startup Nexible worked mostly remotely. "As a small company that offers innovative products, we rely on our employees' readiness to work", says Jonas Boltz.


The CEO of the digital car insurance company, which was founded in 2017, has found "that the trust we give employees to choose the right place for their work themselves encourages initiative." Nonetheless, he concedes that face-to-face exchanges cannot be completely replaced by virtual ones. To welcome his programmers, designers, insurance experts back to the office more regularly since July, Boltz therefore relies on attendance days, when entire teams can meet while the rest continue to work in the home office.


Nexible also makes sure that employees feel comfortable in the office. In addition to good technical equipment and common areas that promote personal exchange, little things like good coffee and fresh fruit also help, "but also an open ear regarding the needs and wishes of our employees to create the right framework with our office space," explains Boltz.


Thus, Nexible has rejected the presence culture from the very beginning. Organizational consultant Lieckweg counters the concern of many employers that this is taking too much of the reins:

"We have to accept that new forms of work are developing and see them as an opportunity."

But there is no one-size-fits-all solution, she says. Managers should always ask themselves what pays off in terms of performance, working atmosphere and satisfaction - and trust their employees.


Christian Raschke | 01. October 2021

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