The question of geographical flexibility primarily characterizes the discussion surrounding hybrid forms of working after the Corona pandemic. For some employees, especially younger ones, it may indeed be essential to work flexibly in terms of location and, in extreme cases, to indulge in digital nomadism. In essence, it is less a question of local flexibility than of temporal flexibility. In the pandemic, work-life balance became work-life integration, and now no one wants to miss out on this flexibility.
We have three children, and even with our two daughters, Marie and Ella, I’ve always spent much time with family (e.g., taking parental leave, reducing travel and evening events, carefully considering extra miles). Compared to our youngest, however, I’ve had little of their early years: Valentin was born in January 2020, and I was in the home office a lot during his first two years. In addition, our oldest daughter also had her start of school in 2020, and I was always able to help her with homework and homeschooling and give her moral support. I’ve also never been as fit as I was during this time because I can easily integrate the short run or yoga session into my daily routine. This seamless integration of work and private life leads to a better balance and less stress for me, leading to better performance.
Unlike most, I have already made the unsatisfactory step from a lot of time flexibility to less and, in my extreme case, to a classic presence culture with 8 hours or more in the office. Our consulting firm esc Solutions, which I helped build from 2010 to 2015, initially had no office at all and later only a small one where the management team met once a week. We were at the client site or in our home office most of the time. Part of my significant pain of adaptation when I moved to the corporate world in 2015 stemmed from its temporal and local rigidity. Having a newborn child intensified this pain back then, as I would have liked to spend more time with the family.
The pandemic has shown many people how fulfilling it can be to integrate work and private life flexibly. Of course, this has a local aspect, as this work-life integration can only occur at the respective center of the employee’s life. However, local flexibility alone is of little use if the culture and management expect constant availability and the work is nevertheless, or precisely because of this, too densely packed, and it boils down to the tiring pattern of “eat, sleep, zoom, repeat.”
Let’s suppose the core issue is indeed temporal flexibility. In that case, the question of hybrid forms of working cannot be answered exclusively by joint times around the office and home office arrangements, and certainly not by hybrid meetings. The question of hybrid working also aims at a mix of synchronous and asynchronous working in the team, and this is the only way to maintain the beloved temporal flexibility. I wrote at the beginning of the pandemic that video conferences are not a solution either. Today, I would say that hybrid videoconferencing is only part of the solution and rather misses the point in terms of the actual question.
The pandemic has made many knowledge workers think about what is important to them and, at the same time, has shown that the pre-pandemic working world is not a god-given but can also be changed, and then many things might even work better. We see this effect in America as the “Great Resignation,” but this trend is also becoming increasingly apparent in Germany. On the question of what people need and want now and what employers must offer them, Marcus Buckingham summarizes very aptly in this interview on the occasion of an extensive study of 27 countries with thousands of participants being at the core of his associated book:
What people are really looking for isn’t flexibility of location. It’s flexibility of time. The pandemic has kind of shown everybody that we’re whole humans. [Ed. Note: At this point in the interview, my 3‑year-old daughter ran into the room.] Like your kid today on spring break, we now know what she looks like and that she runs in every now and again. We want flexibility to go pick up my kid or pick up my grandma. All this hybrid talk misses the fact that it’s not the geography, the location. It’s the flexibility of being a whole human.Marcus Buckingham
I believe this is the key: offering employees an environment where they can be not just employees (in the sense of cogs in Frederic Laloux’s machine model) but people with a family, needs, and hopes. Work-life integration means welcoming the whole person and understanding the company as a workshop for a prosperous life, as Bodo Janssen puts it, referring to the rules of St. Benedict of Nursia.
The core message in the discussion about hybrid forms of work and a decisive assurance should be loosely based on Goethe: Here I am a human being, here I am allowed to be one. As managers, we have a leadership and role model function here. We must lead through visions, framework conditions, and results (wherever and however these are achieved), but also as role models, with a life outside of work and the need for flexible integration of work and private life and, not least, family.