The end in sight: can we ever go back to the way we worked before?

22 Jul 2021

The end in sight: can we ever go back to the way we worked before?

As lockdown restrictions ease, emerging working practices must meet multiple needs, and will take exceptional leadership.

After lockdown comes what? How will we work, and live? There are many predictions, but as with so much over the last eighteen months, a great deal of uncertainty.

There are signs that the rise of hybrid working might be here to stay, with, at least in some professions, a permanent blurring of lines between office work and remote working.

The German Banks are certainly finding opportunity in the new world. Bloomberg reports how Deutsche Bank AG are vacating several floors in a building housing about 1,000 employees, HSBC Germany is going from six separate offices in Dusseldorf for one new one with less than half the space, and BNP Paribas’s unit in Frankfurt is cutting the amount of desk space to cover just 60% of staff. Regional lenders DZ Bank AG and BayernLB say they’re assessing similar plans.

With most European banks introducing flexible work policies, so most staff can work from home for two or three days per week, the move from permanent workstations to hot-desking seems set, at least in this sector.

“Talents in the (fin)tech environment are often digital nomads. Employers who do not offer location- and time-independent working will not succeed in attracting those talents”, states Manuela Klos.

Software giant SAP has gone to what some would regard as the extreme, pledging to give its employees complete freedom to work from home, on the go, or in the office.

These kinds of moves are only possible thanks to a new openness to remote work in reaction to the restrictions on mobility when the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

Research from McKinsey underlines that the potential for remote work potential is certainly concentrated in a few sectors, and finance and insurance has the highest potential to do so.

In their estimation, three-quarters of time spent on activities can be done remotely without a loss of productivity. Management, business services, and information technology are next, all with more than 50% of employee time spent on activities that could effectively be done remotely.

In Germany 15% of the workforce could work remotely up to two days a week, whilst 24% could do so between 3 and 5 days a week.

Marco Henry V. Neumueller points out: ”The office will become a central hub enabling employees to work both independently or collaborate and connect, whilst the majority of projects will be completed either remotely or in a third space.“

Disagreement between employers and employees

From the employer side, enthusiasm for turning that potential into reality isn’t universal.  The Institute for Employment Research reported that, “the overwhelming wish of employees is to be able to spontaneously choose to work from home”. However, the employers who responded to the survey offered a contrasting view, saying “they would prefer a widespread return to the office and for their employees to work much as they did before the coronavirus crisis.”

Even in the most digital of companies, not all workers want to do without the office.

More than the type of work done, a person's home circumstances are more decisive in whether a move to working from home is successful.

Leaders need to be aware that living in a small apartment, juggling working from home with childcare, home-schooling and other domestic obligations is very different from the ideal. Not everyone has the space for a separate office, and a day uninterrupted by the rest of life’s tasks.

A survey by TU Darmstadt, quoted in Deutsche Welle, underlined this. They looked at the opportunities and risks of expanding work-from-home schemes. Their researchers found that “the reality of working from home is often completely different from how it is perceived, at least by the 952 office workers from across Germany who were interviewed.

More productive, or not?

Yes, working from home was popular, even before the pandemic. But they also noticed that knowledge work is not always easy to do from home. In fact, more than a third of workers said they were less productive at home than in the office. Tellingly, the longer respondents worked from home, the more they thought this was true.

The more satisfied survey participants were with their living situation — the location and the layout of their home — the more satisfied and productive they were with remote working.

Do young employees lose out?

Employees with higher salaries and many years of professional experience also get along well at home, but singles and younger employees living in smaller apartments complained of isolation and a lack of communication with colleagues. A big drawback for them is a perceived lack of professional development. It is hard to learn from older colleagues, navigate the organization, spot and exploit career opportunities, and identify with the work culture.

This is hugely important on many levels for talent attraction, development and retention, and requires systematic, sensitive and insightful attention at all levels of management when thinking about a world where not everyone is present in the workplace all the time.

  • How do we ensure that nobody gets left behind?
  • How do you make meaningful human moments in the working week?
  • How does an organization’s purpose come to life?
  • How do you guard against slippage against diversity and inclusion targets?

In no way does one want to create a two-tier work society, a haves and have-nots, so to speak. It would be disastrous on so many levels.

Culture is key, again

These issues go to the heart of that most important of all factors determining an organization’s success: culture. If we are having to re-imagine working as some sort of hybrid system, appealing to different groups, meeting what seems to be often contradictory demands, culture will be the success or failure factor. Culture must be successfully driven from the top, yet be understanding all those it must motivate, and it must be led in a way that recognizes that the post-COVID world is not business as usual. This is no small challenge.

Nicole Kremer sums up: “Remote or hybrid, both can only work if the attitude is right: Trust on the management side and commitment on the employees’ side.”

We have seen the leaders who have understood this instinctively, and have pivoted in their own behaviours to face the challenge, even relishing it. Not all are capable of navigating ever-present complexity and ambiguity in a decisive manner, however.

As our pre-pandemic Global Leadership Confidence Index measured, only 15% of senior leadership had the confidence to lead through the type of disruption unleashed by the pandemic. In situations like we face today, boards and execs want curious leaders with real courage and vision, whilst agility, resilience and strategic thinking are the other qualities most in demand.

To discuss finding the right leadership talent for the new world of work culture or if you are keen on developing your own career, we’re happy to help. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch.