The Home Office: What It’s Really All About

Home office is in fact only at first glance a question of where you work. In essence, it is about equality, about concepts of human nature, trust instead of control, and fundamentally about the relationship between manager and knowledge worker.

The Corona pandemic has finally established home office as a viable option. Overnight, working from home has become the standard for many knowledge workers and is well on its way to becoming the “New Normal” also after the crisis. Even though mobile working was already possible in principle in many companies before, it remained the exception, second-rate, always a bit suspicious and explicitly a justifiable way of working and therefore not suitable for real top performers. In many places before Corona there was a distinct cult of presence and its credo was: Real work takes place only in the office and under supervision.

This credo is now beginning to falter even in traditional German corporations. “We have seen how productive and effective mobile working can be. Some prejudices have vanished into thin air,” Jochen Wallisch, a leading manager in Siemens’ global human resources department, recently noted. This week, Siemens drew the consequences of this lesson with a resolution passed by the Managing Board to make mobile working on two to three days the global standard for around 140,000 employees. (ZEIT Online from July 16, 2020)

Allianz also had to move everything over to the home office and cancel all travel within a few days. And it worked surprisingly well. So well that the CEO of Allianz, Oliver Bäte, believes that a massive expansion of mobile working could save 50% of travel costs and, in the long term, a third of office space. His personal experience of working from home is consistent with the observations of many other knowledge workers: “I am sometimes considerably more productive.” To ensure that this continues to be the case, Oliver Bäte has announced that he will continue to work partly from home. (Manager Magazin from 2.7.2020)

A resolution with the dimensions of that of Siemens has a signal effect, because the context set by this decision emphasizes the fundamental and unambiguous equivalence of home office. More importantly, however, the role model of Oliver Bäte at Allianz, who as the boss himself sometimes works in peace at home. Both together work wonders.

Knowledge workers cannot be managed as subordinates; they are associates. They are seniors or juniors but not superiors and subordinates.

Peter F. Drucker, Management’s New Paradigm, 1998

Home office is actually only at first glance a question of where you work. In essence, it is about self-determination and equality. It’s about concepts of human nature, trust instead of control, and fundamentally about the relationship between manager and knowledge worker that Peter Drucker so often raised. Ultimately, it’s about who decides about home office and mobile working. As long as the last word lies with a superior who equates home office on Friday or Monday with a long weekend, mobile working will not prevail. And as long as the management team diligently feeds the narrative of the captain on the bridge, even the best declarations of intent will fizzle out.

That is why new regulations are needed that allow for a balance of interests on a par. Like at SAP, for example, where the 22,000 employees in Germany have been largely free to decide since 2018(!) whether they want to work in the office, in a café, at home or even at the swimming pool. The innovation of the regulation at that time was in particular the statement that it is generally desired that managers enable mobile working. This reverses the burden of proof. In the question of mobile work, the employee is no longer a dependent petitioner, but an equal partner in a joint weighing of interests. Head of Human Resources Cawa Younosi describes the exemplary slim process for coordination as follows: “The employee and the manager agree informally, this can be done by e-mail, SMS or calendar entry.” (FAZ from 2.3.2018)

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.

Henry Ford

So it works. Some companies have done it before Corona. A lot of others are doing it now, all of a sudden, and at an unimaginable speed. And others go back to their previous cult of presence as quickly as possible. In a few years’ time, the latter will have to pay for this missed opportunity when companies without a reasonable regulation of home office based on equal rights and self-determination will simply no longer be competitive on the labour market. Even if it doesn’t feel that way in the middle of the crisis, but it still applies: “War for talent is over—talent won.”

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