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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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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