German companies look for clues about the future of remote working | Company | Economic and financial news from a German point of view | DW


As the global COVID-19 pandemic and work-from-home experiences appear to drag on for some time, business leaders are realizing that ‘hybrid’ forms of work could become the new normal. Hybrid work involves flexible commuting to the office on some days and remote working on others.

Germany’s traditionally strong sector of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), also known as Mittelstand, was particularly skeptical of the pandemic-induced willingness to work remotely, criticizing government efforts to force them to dismiss staff home. But now executives have said in a poll that they are amazed at how their workers are doing.

During the pandemic, around 30-40% of the staff of Mittelstand Companies based in the industrial heartland of the Ruhr Valley either worked or still worked 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 even surprised us as most of our members are active in the industrial sector,” he told DW.

More light than darkness

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

But wider adoption of new ways of working is going to be a challenge, Erlhöfer said, highlighting some of the problems that have arisen. “For example, it is more difficult to coordinate the processes between administration and production. Technical problems also come into play; and the gradual evolution of a sort of divided, dual-class workforce could disrupt the peace of the company.

Despite the downsides, Erlhöfer said member companies cherish the benefits, as around 80% of them said they plan to continue with remote working arrangements.

Employers are no longer required to allow staff to work from home – but at the same time, not everyone wants to go back to the office

Flexible working environment

German chemical company BASF is currently developing a hybrid working model that would allow its employees to choose between in-person meetings in the office and a virtual connection with their colleagues. Company spokesperson Valeska Schößler said the model intentionally refrains from imposing binding rules on everyone.

“We give our teams more flexibility in how they organize their work,” she told DW, noting that the number of days employees would like to work from home should be negotiated individually between the employee and his team leader, and “with due regard to the real demands of the work”.

“You cannot supervise a test in a laboratory from your home, nor can our factories be serviced and repaired remotely,” Schössler stressed. In addition, some would insist on drawing a clear border between private and professional life, on the one hand; or, on the other hand, they find face to face meetings “the key to success” in developing their creative ideas, on the other hand.

Woman sitting in front of her laptop at her dining table at home, hands on her face

Some people who work from home find it more difficult to separate work and personal time

Designing the office of the future

As more companies return to the office amid the abating pandemic, however, the new era of flexible working is set to change the way the workplace is designed. Studies have shown that frequent in-person interactions lead to engagement, support, and cooperation among colleagues. But how can you be sure if some employees prefer to stay at home?

A recent article disseminated by the National Academy of Sciences and Engineering of Germany indicates that the design of the offices of the future should provide “optimal support for activity profiles, with an emphasis on social interaction, collaboration and innovation “.

The document, which was compiled by the academy’s human resources working group (acatech), which brings together personnel managers from large German companies, also states that in such offices it would be possible to book rooms for work quietly or for employees to work with others in flexibly designed meeting rooms and project rooms or in collaborative open workspaces.

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

Young start-ups, on the other hand, have readily embraced remote working as it cuts travel costs and enables them to attract talent from around the world through virtual meetings, machine translation and digital contracts based on Blockchain technology.

OroraTech from Munich, for example, uses the Donut app which randomly matches colleagues and reminds them to meet up, whether it’s for coffee or just a 15-minute Slack call. And employees at Cloud & Heat, a German data center provider, have regularly met for after-hours virtual game nights to stay in touch during blackouts.

A group of people sitting and standing around a long desk talking

Could collaborative arrangements be the future of post-pandemic work?

“Experimental phase”

Working from home, with all its digital and virtual foundations, can also be problematic, as the German recruitment platform Campusjäger (campus hunter) has discovered.

Workers at the company recently participated in a field test in which they had to wear heart rate meters to find out how annoying and stressful interruptions caused by electronic communications can be. Turning off digital notifications turned out to keep people focused longer – 19% longer in the office and even longer when working from home.

“Flexible and hybrid work models require a balance between trust and transparency,” notes acatech in their article. Static annual performance reviews should be replaced with “continuous and transparent ad hoc feedback, which takes peer feedback into account and is driven by employees rather than management”.

Acatech proposes that companies begin the transition by establishing “experimental zones” because there is no “blueprint” to shape the future of work that would provide guidelines anticipating all relevant developments.

The chemical company BASF is currently testing mobile working at its headquarters in Ludwigshafen as part of its “flexible working” project. This is intended to create concepts for ‘office design [and] IT solutions as well as advice on how to forge cooperation in flexible work teams, ”said Schössler.

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

This article was adapted from German.

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