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Lessons learned and future outlooks: Remote working is here to stay

By Jürn-Christian Hocke, Interim Head of Faculty of Arts at Berlin School of Business and Innovation (BSBI)

Before the pandemic forced companies and businesses to move most of their work remotely, there were (generally very widespread) concerns about the home office among both staff and management. You would idle away all your time and not work effectively, and the quality of your work would suffer. As a result, freelancers always had to be on-site and employees were rarely allowed to work from home.

The diffused mistrust for remote working was mainly due to the insufficient use of modern communication and collaboration tools, mainly because tools for communication beyond e-mail like Slack, Discord and Teams, were not yet adopted or seriously integrated into existing work processes and were instead ridiculed as “nerdy”.

This is exactly why communication in the home office was not adequate at the beginning—because e-mail is a much more cumbersome and inconvenient means of communication and if the communication is not right, then, of course, the quality of the work is in serious jeopardy. The same hurdle existed with collaboration tools, such as shared office documents or design programmes like Figma.

Failure to adapt

With the widespread introduction of remote working, old, inefficient and outdated ways of working were simply transferred to the new working environment and situation without re-evaluating them. As so often, action was taken blindly and haphazardly. The opportunity to overhaul work processes and bring them up to date was missed by many companies. Absurdly, this does not only affect companies whose main business is beyond the digital world, but also agencies and companies with digital products or services. This weighs particularly heavily when you consider that many companies see remote work in parts as the “new normal”.

One of the first things to be revealed was the lack of onboarding processes, as new colleagues had also started work during the lockdown. If there is no close direct support, one cannot be trained if there are no processes in place.

Lack of organisational skills also became very clear between those who were used to filing their data neatly on the server and those who were not. Filing structures that were not in place led to delays or errors that ran through a project like a red thread. This became particularly clear when staff were put on furlough and temporarily laid off, with no handovers taking place to prepare for a later return to work.

One of the biggest issues that was revealed was the handling of working and break times. When you are in the office, you notice that it slowly empties at lunchtime and the staff take their lunch break. Often enough, however, meetings or conference calls were scheduled exactly at this time, so it was not uncommon to just not have a lunch break. When everyone was in the home office, even this last visual indicator did not exist, because everyone was on Slack or Microsoft Teams calls without interruption and hardly had time to catch their breath. Increased workloads also became more obvious. Small breaks that employees usually had throughout the day, when briefly talking to a colleague while fetching coffee or smoking, were omitted and yet many were working until late at night when there was now almost no closing time at all.

Here lies the last and biggest problem: weaknesses in leadership, both at a company and team level. Due to the lack of “direct” access to employees and team members, leadership slipped away from many supervisors. Lack of leadership – and by that, I mean contemporary leadership and not “bossing around” – leads to a lack of structure, a lack of support and a lack of belonging throughout the organisation. This initially manifests itself in heavy workloads to get the chaos under control and then naturally affects staff morale and ultimately their ability and motivation to do a good job.

Looking for change

As the situation kept changing, as well as regulations and restrictions for all kind of businesses, there were four areas in particular that needed to evolve over the last two years.

First and foremost, is leadership. Many leaders did not have a good leadership ethos and the lack of direct contact made that very clear. Supervisors who lead in an empathetic and appreciative way have emerged as the winners. By eliminating the “office culture”, every employee was left to his or her own devices. If appreciation and a certain amount of empathy by supervisors are lacking, you lose your employees. It was clearly shown that leadership through bossing around and a regime of fear has had its day.

In second place is corporate culture. It has become clear that this is about completely different things. The small chat in the corridor while fetching coffee is just as much a part of workplace culture as group activities, such as joint remote cooking evenings, and shows approachability and humanity. We often spend more than half of our waking hours with colleagues – more time, in other words, than with our spouses or children. It is obvious that a healthy relationship with each other is crucial. This is also where it becomes apparent whether the people who are employed by the company are really suited to each other. So, it becomes clear that recruiting is an important part of the corporate culture and should not be based solely on performance parameters.

Thirdly, IT infrastructure had to evolve to meet the increasing demand, both in terms of hardware and software. Where VPNs were never possible before, they suddenly had to be. Meetings were suddenly held via appropriate software and employees had to learn new programmes accordingly. Things that were supposedly impossible before the pandemic are now part of everyday life.

Last but not least – as already mentioned – the processes in the companies had to adapt and evolve. Somewhere between corporate culture and IT infrastructure, old paths have to be left behind and new ones taken. There is definitely still the most to change here, some tentative first steps have been taken, but it will take time for people who have been working in outdated processes for decades to shake off this stumbling block and get used to hybrid or purely digital processes. The greatest hope here lies in a young generation that is now growing up and has the chance to call the digital world entirely its own.

A thing of the past 

As well as teaching valuable lessons and new ways to work, the pandemic also showed which practices may have become obsolete in what we’ve come to know as the ‘new normal’.

Unfortunately, I think we (and I can only speak for Germany here) missed a great opportunity to really bring the world of work to a more humane level. We have taken a step forward and adopted technologies faster than would otherwise have been the case, yet the lifting of the lockdowns has clearly shown that companies and employees have very quickly fallen back into old (and unhealthy) patterns of behaviour. The economy finds it difficult to really support workers in living their lives. Processes to reduce standard working hours are incredibly slow, although the pandemic has shown that it is absolutely possible. There are small partial successes and developments, but I honestly hoped for much more “revolution”.

If there is one thing that has become clear, it is that you should constantly educate yourself. Companies or teams that have always worked according to the same principles and with the same technologies and programmes for years or decades have had an incredibly hard time changing. Progress is like a muscle: if you don’t train it, it withers away.