Munich (GER), April 2022 - Professor Eberhard Steiner is the Director of Munich’s Institute for Enterprise and Change Management (UVM Institute), which advises companies and agencies on strategy and innovation processes, change management, agile methods, and work 4.0, as well as aspects of digitalization. He is the editor and co-author of several specialist publications, including "Managing Home Office Employees". Prof. Steiner will be speaking on his area of specialization at the LEARNTEC 2022 Congress, 31 May, at 12:15.
For many people, home offices have become their normal work venue. Which core problems have you identified in association with this form of work?
Prof. Dr. Eberhard Steiner: I wouldn’t focus on the problems, but rather discuss "special features" that should be kept in mind to prevent them from becoming problems. These can be divided into three groups: organizational issues, leadership-related issues, and self-management issues.
Organizational issues are important, but comparatively easy to solve. A stable, highly secure Internet connection is needed, as are rules regulating data protection, occupational safety, the assumption of costs for office furniture purchases, and the like. Having a detailed, written home office policy is helpful.
Management-related issues are more challenging. At issue are contact and communication with employees, the maintenance of team cohesion, the organization of work processes, etc. Also, complicated are sustaining motivation; assessing performance; compensating for performance losses due to reduced team productivity; integrating new employees into the team; maintaining identification with the company; dealing with uncertainties and mistakes; and handling conflicts.
Resolving these and other thorny issues demands ideas, and a lot revolves around the tradeoff between trust and control. Managers require support here, and - besides traditional training - through opportunities to exchange experiences and share best practices, e.g., in the context of collegial consultations.
The third point is the most complicated: the ability to self-manage. How can you prevent yourself from taking your work too deeply into your private life when it’s glaring at you on the dining room table? How should you structure your day? Which routines help you distance yourself from work and enable you to switch off? How do you manage your time efficiently? How do you find peace and concentration in your home office when you’re distracted by other activities?
Of course, all these issues - occupational safety, data protection, managers who feel overwhelmed, employees who are distracted by private Internet surfing - also exist in the office in a different form and can be managed. Nothing that’s been mentioned vitiates the home office approach.
What is more important is to consider for whom a home office is suitable - and for whom it isn’t. Managers should keep in mind that beneficial personality traits for home office employees, among others, are conscientiousness, social compatibility, and honesty.
Remote employee management is often discussed in this context. Are there any "golden rules"?
Prof. Dr. Eberhard Steiner: An absolutely basic component is trust in employees' abilities and willingness to do their work carefully and correctly. Many supervisors have the illusion they can manage employees better in the office. This is a mistake, though, because observation cannot be continuous; contact is periodic. Nonetheless, managers believe that they have everything under control. This compulsion to control has to be eliminated.
Until proven otherwise, managers should assume that they are dealing with rational, motivated employees on whom they can rely. If however, the contrary indeed proves to be the case, one should ask what went wrong with the leadership. The vast majority of employees in the office are motivated and do their work reliably, but control mechanisms are still put in place to deal with the worst-case scenario - as if the administration were dealing with high-risk activities. In any case, these mechanisms don’t function in the home office, where the perceived control is truly lost. This is a problem for some managers.
Performance measurement, which is still used as part of incentive systems for bonus payments, should also be mentioned in this context: How can performance really be measured in an administrative profession? This type of objectification is frequently illusory, even in the office, and in the home office, it can become absurd; it no longer fits the current reality.
Justice is another "golden rule" that is a basic requirement for any sustainable management relationship. Processes, decisions, information, and regulations that contribute to the determination whether a home office approach will be implemented or not need to be assessed fairly and based on objective criteria rather than intuition. Considerable thought must be given to dealing fairly with employees who cannot work in home office because of their jobs, e.g., sales staff at the checkout and workers on the assembly line.
Motivational factors also have to be given consideration. Employees who have a high need for affiliation may experience isolation in the home office setting. Managers motivated by power will perceive not having employees in the office as a loss of power, and employees motivated by power may actually thrive when contact with an incompatible manager is reduced. Performance motivated individuals may appreciate being able to work independently and alone at home without interference. Depending on the motivational structure, the situation - and the advantages and disadvantages of working at home - will be interpreted differently.
Managers need a participative orientation and sensitivity to recognize employees' needs, even without direct personal contact. They need more time for actual leadership work, which is a scarce commodity among many managers. Instead of remaining in the operational realm and leading through instruction and control, managers also need to be able to lead through meaning and values, to delegate, and to do strategic work. It’s time to say goodbye to knowledge based on domination concentrated within the leader, who knows and can do everything. Managers have to focus more on fostering employees’ skills and knowledge instead of wanting to have everything under their own control.
What do you think is the greatest difference between home office and mobile work?
Prof. Dr. Eberhard Steiner: Mobile office work encompasses additional issues, such as ensuring privacy when someone uses a notebook or makes a phone call on a train; the entire history of a business relationship can be hijacked during a call on the train. Other problems can also arise, like occupational safety. Furthermore, precautions need to be taken against the loss of equipment, for example if a notebook is left behind. And when employees work abroad, tax and insurance issues enter the picture. In any case, clear rules and precautions are important.
Mobile office working is also potentially more dynamic and complex than in a home office environment. Whereas in the latter, you can often set up a fixed workspace, mobile office work is characterized by change. Then there are the practical questions: guaranteeing an Internet connection; keeping a phone appointment in a dead zone; working efficiently in a hotel room that doesn't have a desk; dealing with differences in time zones; ensuring compliance with working time regulations ensured, etc. In any case, these issues should be fixed in writing and on a case-by-case basis.
How do you imagine the future of working at home? Will it be regulated by law, by individual employee-employer agreements, or in a completely different way?
Prof. Dr. Eberhard Steiner: Looking beyond what has happened in the last two-and-a-half years, it can be assumed that the home office has established itself as a form of work that is here to stay. People have come to realize that it works in many areas because - or despite the fact - they have often been forced to work this way. It would be illogical for employers to try to turn back the clock, as it would risk many demotivating experiences. I can only advise against it because many employees reportedly appreciate a certain amount of home office time, just as they appreciate being in the office with their colleagues. It depends on the mix.
There’s no doubt that not everyone wants to work at home - having the choice is an important requirement, and the comment "my house is not an office building" is certainly justified. Dealing with this effectively is crucial.
Employers also need to consider the cost factors: having to keep up less office space for employees opens up potential savings, but these must be gauged against other economic dictates. If costs of performance loss due to working at home are lower than the savings resulting from the elimination of office space, etc., it certainly makes economic sense to have people continue to work at home. I strongly suspect that this is the case, especially since many companies have already made investments in home office work (IT equipment, office furniture, etc.).
It is important to ensure managers’ support and not to leave employees alone in their work at home. Proper time and self-management concepts, as well as dealing with stress and burn out can be important here.
In regard to the legal framework, I think the government should regulate a certain framework. As an economist, I take a critical view of establishing a right to home office because if the economic advantages outweigh the disadvantages, the former will prevail anyway. I would refrain from setting guidelines that are too rigid.
On the contrary, we need to think about whether there needs to be a right to office work in order to prevent employees for whom home office isn’t an option from being disadvantaged. I consider company agreements to be important, and firms should think about what a home office policy could look like. Here in Germany at least, such a policy could be negotiated with what is called the Betriebsrat, the works council.
This topic is also likely to play an increasingly important role in industry-wide agreements, and it can be expected to increasingly find its way into future collective bargaining contracts. The legal aspects will then have to be clarified in court more frequently, as was the case in Germany recently with the question of whether a fall on the way from the bedroom to the home office is to be regarded as an occupational accident. This case, by the way, was decided by the Federal Social Court in 2021 and even made CNN news! In cases like this, legal regulations would certainly be helpful.
The exciting question of how to build the office buildings of the future enters the picture, and the keyword "mixed-use" needs to be examined. How can office buildings be designed so that employees are happy to work in the office again from time to time? Working in the office continues to be very important for communication, team cohesion, and identification with the employer.
It is important not to try to adapt home office work or mobile working to the existing work organization by any means possible. Rather, management needs to flexibly adapt the way people work to the new situation.
As an innovation researcher, I advocate having an appreciation of the new freedom gained through flexible and hybrid forms of work and using it purposefully. In the home office, there is more room for creativity, living according to one's chrono-rhythm, and balancing private and professional life. It also conserves resources and the environment.