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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