In the corona crisis, principles of working life were turned upside down. For decades it was a matter of course for employees to come to the office to work on the premises and on the employer’s equipment to make their contribution to the business. Visits to customers and partners on site were also considered indisputable. Being present was a must – if it was important, anyway. The employees accepted traveling by plane, train or car as a necessity, sometimes as a pleasant change – including overnight stays in the hotel.
Then the virus came over us and changed the rules of the game overnight. Today, sellers look after their customers from the dining room table at home, and their clientele accept it and buy – even if the salesman is wearing a bathrobe and the dog is barking in the background. Teammates sit in the garden with their notebooks, and neither the shouting of children nor the chirping of birds upset their superiors. Corona has changed everyday work life, and the big question that moves everyone is: Will it stay that way?
The scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering and Organization (IAO) wanted to know exactly. In the study “Working in the Corona Pandemic – on the Way to the New Normal”, you and the German Personnel Management Association (DGFP) interviewed decision-makers from almost 500 companies in Germany from May 4 to 24, 2020. Those involved were responsible for areas such as human resources, organizational development and strategy – they wanted to make sure that people took positions who were close to the workforce and who would help shape the future world of work.
First of all, the survey shows how extensive the change to the home office has been. In almost 70 percent of the companies, employees work entirely or mostly in their home office. Another 21 percent split their workforce: some go to the office, the other part stays at home. The agreement is made about who occupies an office workplace and when, usually after decentralized agreement. Decisions are made on a departmental basis, and the responsible manager is in charge.
“There has been an immense modification of the work situation here in fast motion and under great pressure,” write the study authors. To assess how strong this change really is, a look at the situation before the corona crisis helps: In only 17 percent of the companies surveyed, home office was possible for most or almost all employees. Most of the time, the employees were content with a day’s work from home, sometimes only with a few hours. Many companies had generous home office regulations for some of their workforces, but often only a few employees made use of them. A rethink only began due to the corona constraints. According to Fraunhofer IAO, the German working world was transformed into a “large-scale experiment room”.
The “delimitation of work” takes place, but only on a small scale. Most people work the way they always do.
Many skeptical leaders have revised their minds over the course of the crisis. However, they still have to work on their leadership behavior.
The care situation at home put a lot of strain on some employees.
Lessons from Corona: Mistrust of the home office has decreased. Companies also want to reduce their business trips.
Laptops, VPN access, video communication – most of the technical equipment that had become indispensable in the Corona crisis already existed.
Most respondents banally see the lack of labor law as the main obstacle to a work-from-home offensive – an indication that companies mistrust flexible forms of work in front of Corona. The companies simply did not have a home office regulation or a company agreement (58 percent of the mentions). Only after that are there expected arguments against the home office: The employees absolutely have to do essential work on site (51 percent), they lack the technical requirements for working at home or managers (28 percent) and management (30 percent) simply don’t believe in it.
With the corona crisis, the move to the home office was completed in a very short time, and there were positive surprises. The transition was usually not a major problem. Technical requirements such as mobile devices, the possibility of voice and video connections and the support of synchronous conferencing applications were usually already in place.
About three out of four users were already provided with communication software for email, chat and remote access via VPN. Even before Corona, 90 percent of the equipment with self-service applications for digitized processes, such as travel expense reports, was available. The pent-up demand for collaboration functions, video conferencing solutions and, above all, the digitization of working documents (e-signature) was somewhat greater.
It looks different, however, when attention is paid to ergonomic details. Up to a third of home workplaces were or still are not equipped with a height-adjustable chair, an adequate desk or a second larger screen. However, 58 percent of those surveyed do not consider the topic of office furniture to be a priority. However, market researchers expect that poor working conditions at home could negatively change the attitudes of employees over the course of the home office situation.
If work is to become a much-cited “new normal” from home, the workplaces would have to be reasonably equipped and the associated purchasing responsibility and financing should be adequately clarified. Legally, companies are operating in a gray area: the dividing line between “classic teleworking” and “case-by-case, mobile work” is not clear. The former gives clear rules for workplace design and the duties of the employer, the latter makes less detailed requirements and offers scope for improvisation. If a long-term decision for a home office scenario is made, the employer would probably have to set up teleworking stations, i.e. take on more responsibility for the workplace equipment and the well-being of the homeworker.
It is well known that video conferences are now part of everyday work. What is surprising, however, is the breadth of application scenarios in internal and external communication: companies conduct job interviews in this way, organize workshops, clarify order details, conduct employee reviews and much more. It is striking that the business models are now also changing. Around half of those questioned have developed concepts for virtual advice and services – Corona therefore also influences products, services and sales and marketing strategies.
According to Fraunhofer IAO, the devastating virus has at least made a difference. It is a catalyst for the digital transformation of companies. The “lack of alternatives” encouraged companies to be very creative and at the same time produced a “high tolerance for failure”. They are now forced to adopt an agile approach
and use new methods – an experience that “should be built upon” after the crisis. In fact, the managers surveyed seem to be planning to do so. After all, 42 percent are so satisfied with their home office experience that they want to expand their offering in this regard. About the same number are still thinking about it, so that in the end significantly more than half of the companies will also promote virtual forms of work to Corona. Not even one percent plans to reduce the options.
When asked about the learning experience regarding the corona crisis, 89 percent agree that home office can be implemented on a larger scale without any disadvantages. The answers to travel behavior are similar: According to 89 percent of respondents, business and business trips can largely be replaced digitally. Four out of five respondents also believe that their employees will be more active in working from home in the future and that it will be more difficult for companies to refuse this request. After the good experiences during the pandemic, many companies find this very helpful: They now want to plan with smaller office spaces in order to reduce costs. Over 60 percent report that they have learned to know and appreciate the “savings potential through flexible work”.
- Google Meet
Google Meet enables web-based video and conference calls. In the free version available from May, the service allows conferences with up to 100 participants with a maximum duration of 60 minutes – but this restriction will only come into effect from October 2020. Like most Google services, Meet is designed for Google Chrome and other Chromium-based browsers and works here without plugins. Mobile applications for Android and iOS are also available.
- Facebook Messenger Rooms
With Messenger Rooms, users can set up a conference room directly from Messenger or Facebook and invite up to 20 – later 50 – participants to a video call – even if they do not have a Facebook account. There is no time limit. Participation is possible via smartphone or PC via the browser and, according to Facebook, does not require any downloads. However, users of the Messenger app have access to various AR effects (e.g. rabbit ears) and new AI-supported functions such as immersive 360-degree backgrounds and atmospheric lighting.
As the most well-known VoIP service, Sype also offers a range of video chat and video conference functions. Microsoft has replaced Skype for Business with the Teams platform.
The successor to Lync and Skype for Business is not a standalone product, but part of the Microsoft Office 365 Suite. However, Teams is available free of charge and is suitable for small businesses with up to 300 members. Guest access as well as individual and group video calls, screen sharing are also on board.
- Google Duo
Google Duo is designed as a free video telephony tool primarily for home users. The maximum number of participants in the Android and iOS app has only recently been increased from eight to twelve people and is expected to increase further according to Google. Duo is available as a web application for PC, Mac and Chromebook as well as a mobile app for Android and iOS devices.
- Jitsi Meet
Jitsi Meet is an easy-to-use solution for video conferencing that still offers many functions. The free solution is based on the open WebRTC standard and can be used on the PC directly and without registration in the browser (Chrome). Apps (Android, iOS) are available for smartphones and tablets.
The Norwegian service Whereby (formerly appear.in) is free of charge for video conferences with up to four participants. . The solution is WebRTC-based, which means that guests can easily connect via the browser without registration. Apps for Android and iOS are optionally available.
After registration, the free Tinychat offers the opportunity to quickly and easily open a new video conference. All you have to do is create a new “room” and send the generated URL to the conference participants.
Lifesize offers free licenses to companies affected by the coronavirus epidemic for a period of six months. Meetings and call duration are unlimited – the Lifesize solution is available for desktops as well as for mobile devices.
Zoom positions itself as one of the leading providers of video conferencing. The tool is primarily characterized by its ease of use and an attractive freemium offer: video conferences with up to 100 participants are already possible with the free version.
LogMeIn completely redesigned its video conference software GoToMeeting at the end of 2019 and implemented new functions. Among other things, the solution now works in the browser via WebRTC as well as via desktop and mobile apps. The subscription plans start at 10.75 euros per month and host for the professional version.
Cisco will continue to offer WebEx free of charge as part of the corona virus pandemic. Unlimited meetings with up to 100 participants, HD video, audio dial-in, personal conference room, screen sharing on desktop and mobile devices, as well as 1GB cloud storage and recordings are included.
The study also looks at the perspective of personnel management. According to this, managers before Corona were reluctant to critical if “flexible working forms” were to be introduced. They placed value on the presence of the employees on site and feared limited childcare options. According to the Fraunhofer analysis, this is now changing. The statement that executives have reduced their reservations about working at a distance based on their experience in the past few weeks is in full agreement with 47 percent, and a further 17 percent affirm this, at least for smaller numbers of cases. Working in the corona pandemic had acted like a “boot camp for executive development”, the study authors state.
Just 2.4 percent of those surveyed report increased conflicts between employees and managers, which can be attributed to the increased proportion of home offices. And only twelve percent of those surveyed noticed that managers were overwhelmed by the new work situation. What is striking, however, is the large proportion of those surveyed who see a “definitive training deficit with regard to leadership at a distance” among management staff. This is often the case in 40 percent of cases. However, this problem can be solved: Training and further development approaches can be promoted if the will to do so is available.
However, there is a problem here: It is the company management itself that refuses to work virtually, at least 36 percent of those surveyed are critical of this. They also complain about the poor training of managers: the skills to delegate tasks, organize teams and fulfill care duties are not particularly well developed in times of distant work.
In addition, the respondents miss training courses on how to deal with each other in a media-competent manner and how to look after customers remotely using digital workshop formats. It’s not just about using technology, the employees want help with topics such as moderation and didactics in digital formats. And finally, many also miss the industrial radio, they want to be able to exchange information informally via uncomplicated digital platforms. What may seem banal is actually very important for the world of work: the exchange between door and rod represents the social glue in the teamwork of relationships.
Do people in the home office exploit more? Do you work more at unusual times, such as in the evening or on the weekend? According to the study, this happens, but it is th
e exception rather than the rule. 15 percent of those surveyed report that their employees now work more frequently at unusual times of the day, while another 51 percent believe that this only applies to a small proportion of the employees. Only four percent register overtime on weekends and seven percent more overtime – results that can be neglected overall.
If there is a loss of productivity due to the corona crisis and the special work situation, then this is most likely due to employee care obligations. Some employees have reduced their working time accounts or taken special leave to look after their children and support homeschooling.
So even though the issue of unrestricted work affects the employees in the corona crisis only marginally, there is obviously great concern that something could change – especially if the economy picks up again. Three out of four respondents miss a “company-wide strategy to adequately counter the effects of demarcation”. The study authors refer to a phenomenon that has already been identified by the AOK, according to which flexible forms of work harbor the risk that some employees will no longer be able to switch off and can only recover poorly.
Companies should clarify what expectations they have regarding accessibility, how they want to monitor adherence to working hours, how managers will behave when controlling remote teams, and what expectations they have of self-management among employees. Employees who are in a homeschooling situation in particular currently feel heavily burdened and sometimes also poorly managed.
The study shows particularly impressively that good cohesion and a strong culture can support companies through times of crisis. 94 percent of those questioned agree with this statement (70 percent “fully”, 24 percent “more”). In the entire survey, there was by far the highest approval rating on this point. There is also a broad consensus in the thesis that the corona crisis is definitely fueling the development of innovative solutions in the team. Fraunhofer IAO sees these statements as evidence that people can develop a common creative force in exceptional situations if the conditions are there.
Finally, the investigation also raises the question of what will pass into our normal working life after the corona crisis as a “new normal”. So the times when we “went to work” as a matter of course will inevitably come to an end. Collaboration at a distance works well and efficiently in times of advanced digitalization, which has now been proven in a “cross-national experiment room”.
It also shows that new performance processes, virtual customer interfaces and business models based on them can be developed in an agile, cooperative manner and without the “perfectionism typical of our country”. In many companies, overcoming an existentially threatening situation is experienced and shouldered together. This experience is positive, it welds the workforce together and can be useful for dealing with future crises.
It is more important than ever, however, that managers empathize with their employees, prevent them from being de-bordered and train themselves for the new work and management situation. According to the study, all participants are in a “jointly experienced training camp”, in which they have to get fully involved in collaboration techniques and get to know new forms of cooperation and leadership in the shortest possible time. Whether this opportunity can be used in the long term is also due to the fact that management personnel face the challenge of flexible, location-independent collaboration regardless of location.