Brave new working world
The Corona pandemic has changed the world of work: a short-term adaptation or a longer-term rethink?
Does working when we like really work for us? When the early riser takes a first short break at 9.00 in the morning and sleepy head is just getting up. Because my laptop attaches me to my company like an umbilical cord, I can work in the kitchen, at my desk at home or on the road. I clock off when I want to. Sometimes not until 9.00pm, after I’ve put the children to bed.
Cue the Brave New Working World. Should we be at least in part grateful for how the world has changed? The pandemic has led to lots of people working from home out of necessity. Bosses have had to learn to let go and trust that their staff will achieve just as much at home as in the office, where they can keep an eye on them. However, in the course of the coronavirus crisis it became apparent that the number of overtime hours increased when people worked from home. The survey ‘People at Work 2021: A Global Workforce View’ looked at the behaviour of 32,000 workers in 17 countries and unveiled a substantial increase in the number of unpaid overtime hours from an average of 7.3 to 9.2 hours per week.
Study findings diverge: while some studies, for example by Berlin Social Science Centre, speak of retraditionalisation because many mothers reduced their working hours or even gave up work altogether during the pandemic, other studies, for example by the Federal Institute for Population Research in Wiesbaden, revealed that men took on more family responsibilities during the lockdown.
The pandemic paralysed the world of work as we knew it. ‘What has remained is an awareness of other ways to work. New opportunities have opened up,’ says Amanda Voss, sociologist and doctoral candidate at the Chair of Occupational and Social Medicine at FAU, taking a positive view.
She is a member of the Public Health Working Group at the Institute and Outpatient Clinic of Occupational, Social and Environmental Medicine (IPASUM) at FAU. For the ‘Long-term Study on the Effects of the Coronavirus Crisis on Health and Work’, the group interviewed over 280 employees in the autumn of 2020. ‘Fifteen per cent would like to work from home all the time after the pandemic too, just over 20 per cent not at all. Between these two poles, needs and wishes are very mixed,’ she says, adding that each person must see what suits them best. She thinks it’s important, however, that companies and staff discuss together what works well and what works less well.
Flexibility is appreciated
There are those who appreciate that working from home allows them to take a break when it makes sense to do so. And not necessarily when everyone in the office goes to the canteen. Workplace regulations do not demand that I stare at my computer all day. At home, I can empty the dishwasher and stretch my legs at the same time.
Some people are happy when they don’t see their colleagues every day. Others miss the workplace because they can talk about private matters there too. ‘Though it’s also possible to talk about private and practical things online. Provided the team works well together,’ says Amanda Voss.
Most staff would like to work a few days a week from home and a few days in the office. In the office, you can work on things together; at home, you can work in peace. Family life permitting. ‘During the pandemic, homeschooling and the lack of childcare meant additional stress factors that have nothing to do with working from home,’ says Voss. This makes it more difficult to evaluate the survey in terms of lessons to be learned from the pandemic. Voss is hopeful: ‘Maybe the awareness will stay with us after the pandemic that we don’t have to continue working in the same way as we’ve done in the last 50 years.’
Professor Sven Laumer, business IT specialist and Chair of Information Systems at FAU, also finds change desirable. ‘But we have to take into consideration that different things we do at work require different constellations of online and offline activities. When I’m working on my own and have to concentrate on something, I need peace and quiet. That can be in the office, if I can lock myself away somewhere, or else at home.’ On the other hand, there are always things that need doing in a team.
More working from home?
Will there be even more working from home after the pandemic? According to the ‘Arbeitswelt-Bericht 2021’ (a report on the world of work), many companies are sceptical despite mostly positive experiences overall: 55 percent of the companies interviewed that do not want to increase working from home find it makes teamwork more difficult. 39 percent note negative effects on corporate culture. The report is published by the Council for the World of Work, a panel of experts that the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs presented to the public for the first time at the beginning of 2020.
(Source: Rat der Arbeitswelt https://www.arbeitswelt-portal.de/arbeitsweltbericht/arbeitswelt-bericht-2021)
How might new work structures look?
If the group knows each other well and trust has already been established, you can do it online, he says. ‘But especially when a new member joins the team or a new project is on the horizon, entering into direct contact offline makes sense.’ On the one hand, we must first be able to trust that the other person can really accomplish what they promise. On the other hand, it’s about forming an emotional basis.
The search for successful work structures therefore leads neither solely to working from home nor straight back to the office. What counts is the mix. ‘Also important for innovation and creativity are chance encounters in the workplace,’ says Sven Laumer.
I meet people in the lift or the canteen who are not in my team. Yet it is precisely in chance conversations that new ideas can evolve. These random contacts were so important to Yahoo and Bank of America that they summoned their staff back to the office years ago after a period of working exclusively from home.
The pandemic has illustrated how challenging it is to achieve a good mix of online and offline work. Laumer: ‘We’re at the point now where companies are thinking about how they can arrange space for concentrated working on the one hand and for teamwork as well as social contacts on the other.’ Some companies are coming to the conclusion that they no longer need fixed desks. ‘Instead, they’re planning more areas for exchange and communication.’
It might therefore be the case, for example, that teams work from home on Mondays and Tuesdays, meet up at the company on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and on Fridays everyone decides for themselves where to work. It should be born in mind, in this context, that different working groups can meet and exchange ideas in the office too. To ensure creativity.
Exchange of experience is important
If staff have no peace and quiet at home, a co-working space can be the answer. ‘If staff from Weißenburg have commuted every day to company headquarters in Nuremberg up until now, then it’s fair to ask whether that’s really necessary,’ says Laumer. Another option, he says, would be to rent a co-working space in Weißenburg together with other companies. That would give your own people new input straight away, and they would only have to travel to Nuremberg once or twice a week. Which is in turn good for the environment. Companies in Nuremberg are currently thinking about such solutions.
Since COVID-19, one thing is clear: work is becoming more flexible. But is everyone able to handle it? Many people incline towards self-exploitation when working from home. According to a study by the Hans Böckler Foundation, half of all employees working from home find their situation very or extremely stressful; for single parents or low-paid workers, the figure is 62 percent.
At home, it is often difficult to separate private life from work. You need to speak to your family again and again and tell them that you just can’t do all the housework on top, says Sven Laumer. He assumes that companies will have to prepare their staff for new working models. ‘Employees need an opportunity to talk about their experiences. And not with the boss because people are too scared. We need new coaches for the new world of work.’
Some like working with a headset in a café, others in their campervan. ‘The limits of flexibility are reached when productivity is impaired and it becomes damaging to health,’ says Laumer. Companies should also think about what they can offer their staff. ‘Ensuring that employees have an ergonomic workplace at home contributes to their health as well as to retaining skilled staff.’ In times when employees can pick and choose, this is an important aspect.
Is the pandemic not accelerating digitalisation after all?
But what truth lies in the theory put forward by Jutta Allmendinger, Managing Director of Berlin Social Science Centre, that women’s career prospects significantly diminish when they are working from home simply because they are no longer as visible in their companies? For Laumer, the danger of losing visibility is more a personality than a gender issue. ‘Extroverts can dominate online conferences, they create a presence for themselves. That applies both for women as well as men.” People who tend to be reserved and not say anything in an online meeting never figure in the mosaic on the computer screen either, despite being clearly visible to all. While such individuals at least have a physical presence offline in the meeting room, they do not exist online, as it were.
For Professor Sabine Pfeiffer, Chair of Sociology with a focus on Technology – Work – Society at FAU, the question is whether we want to dispense with companies as social meeting places in the long term. ‘Is working apart something we should allow ourselves, or is a company more than that?’
In the company, everyone feels part of a larger whole; this is where innovations are born. ‘Management literature and business consultants look at how to involve and inspire staff.’ Pfeiffer is convinced: ‘Meeting in person is an important driver for this.’ She assumes that in the coming years companies will try out which models suit them best.
‘Working from home is nothing new, we know it from teleworking in the 1990s.’ It’s just that processes have gained momentum since the pandemic, she says. With ambivalent consequences. Sabine Pfeiffer is rather sceptical about the usual discourse that enthuses about how much the pandemic has accelerated digitalisation: ‘The nature of their work allows just 25 per cent of the working population to work from home for a longer period of time in the first place. In nursing or factory work, for example, it’s not possible at all.’
Furthermore, research shows that although colleagues now meet up more in online conferences, ‘they nonetheless continue to send each other emails and don’t use more advanced tools, such as working together in the cloud, any more often than they did before.’
For Pfeiffer, the pandemic is not a great accelerator of digitalisation: ‘All we’ve done is come up to speed with what was already possible before.’ What’s more, a lot of additional stress factors are the price we’re paying for the hope that working from home would let us work more flexibly. ‘Work is condensed when working from home. The time saved by not having to commute is quickly swallowed up. If a colleague asks whether you can fit in another online meeting, you don’t say ‘No’. You deal with your emails on the side because you’re pushed for time. Or you placate your kids. In fact, however, we humans are entirely incapable of multitasking.’
Which changes will remain?
Stress can lead to health problems. In addition, it has been shown that working from home means that women are stuck more with family responsibilities. ‘This still doesn’t change even when both partners are working from home.’ In the private sphere, gender roles are more old-fashioned than thought, says Pfeiffer. ‘Structural differences between the sexes have tended to increase during the pandemic.’
What, then, ought to remain of the upheavals triggered by the pandemic? Like Sven Laumer and Amanda Voss, Sabine Pfeiffer hopes that in the long run there will be less business travel. ‘But it’s difficult to make predictions,’ she says. She assumes that companies will enquire more often whether a business meeting is about something that could just as easily be dealt with online or whether the informal side is also important, for example because business partners should first get to know each other and perhaps chat over dinner on the evening before the meeting.
At the beginning of the pandemic, hopes were great that an ecological rethink would occur thanks to the crisis. ‘Suddenly, cities were deserted, and many thought that was great. But that alone isn’t enough,’ says Pfeiffer. ‘If we want to see an ecological about-turn, the economy needs to stop focusing primarily on fast growth and instead more on sustainability and quality.’
The pandemic has shown clearly where the problems lie – for example, that nursing staff are notoriously underpaid not least because hospitals too are supposed to make a profit. But politics and citizens keen to make a difference ought to do their utmost now to find solutions, she says. We can only establish a new world of work, in which as many people as possible feel comfortable and no one is envious because some can work from home and others cannot, in joint discourse with all parties involved. And a sustainable economy and an ecologically minded society even more so.
About the author
Ute Möller is a freelance journalist, editor of the empowerment magazine for Franconia “Flamingo und Dosenbier”, host of the podcast “Be49 – der Empowerment-Podcast für Franken” and moderator. Previously she was editor of the Nürnberger Nachrichten.
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