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German firms clueless on future of remote working

Google Oneindia News

Berlin, July 19: As both the global COVID-19 pandemic and work-from-home experiments appear to be stretching on for a while longer, there's a dawning realization among company heads that new "hybrid" forms of work may become the new normal. Hybrid working is a form of flexible working that involves traveling to the office on some days and working remotely on others.

German firms clueless on future of remote working

Germany's traditionally strong sector of small and mid-sized companies (SMEs), also known as Mittelstand, used to be especially skeptical about the pandemic-induced drive to work remotely, criticizing government efforts to force them to send staff home. But now executives said in a survey they are amazed about how well their workers are coping.

During the pandemic, about 30% to 40% of the staff of typical Mittelstand companies based in the Ruhr Valley industrial heartland were, or are still, working from home, said Dirk Erlhöfer, managing director of the Ruhr/Westfalen Employers' Association, a lobby group that represents 430 SMEs in the region.

"This high number has even surprised us because most of our members are active in the industrial sector," he told DW.

More light than darkness

As well as offering protection from the pandemic, remote working has also led to better work-life balance that Erlhöfer says has boosted productivity. In addition, the number of sick days has dropped significantly, he said, and work-from-home offers have become increasingly important in recruiting young executives and specialist workers.

But a wider adoption of new work designsis going to be challenging said Erlhöfer, pointing to some of the problems that have emerged. "It is, for example, more difficult to coordinate processes between administration and production. Technical problems also come into play, and the gradual evolving of a kind of divided, two-class staff could disturb company peace."

Despite the downsides, Erlhöfer said member firms would cherish the advantages more, as about 80% of them said they are planning to continue remote-work arrangements.

Flexible work environment

German chemical company BASF is currently developing a hybrid-work model that would allow its employees to choose between in-person meetings in the office and virtually connecting to their co-workers. Valeska Schößler, a spokesperson for the corporation, said the model intentionally abstains from imposing binding rules for all.

"We are giving our teams a larger degree of flexibility in organizing their work," she told DW, noting that the number of days employees would want to work from home are to be negotiated between the employee and their team leader individually, and "under due consideration of actual work requirements."

"You cannot oversee a test run in a laboratory from home, nor can our plants be maintained and repaired remotely," Schössler said. Furthermore, some people would insist on drawing a line between private and work life, or they find face-to-face encounters "the key to success" in developing their creative ideas.

German firms clueless on future of remote working

Designing the office of the future

As more companies are transitioning back to the office amid the subsiding pandemic, the new era of flexible work is, however, bound to alter workplace designs. Studies have shown that frequent in-person interactions lead to commitment, support, and cooperation among co-workers. But how can this be ensured if some of the employees prefer to stay at home?

A recent paper circulated by Germany's National Academy of Science and Engineering says that the office design of the future should be providing "optimal support for activity profiles, with a focus on social interaction, collaboration and innovation."

The paper, which was compiled by the academy's Human Resource Working Group (acatech) that brings together staff managers from large German corporations, also says that in these offices it will be possible to book rooms for quiet working or for employees to work together with others in flexibly designed meeting rooms and project rooms or in collaborative open workspaces.

"For concentrated, focused work and routine work, employees will be encouraged increasingly to work from home or in places other than on company premises," the paper adds.

Young startup firms, meanwhile, have been readily adopting remote work because it cuts travel expenses and allows them to attract talent from all over the world thanks to virtual meetings, machine translation and digital contracts based on Blockchain technology.

OroraTech from Munich, for example, uses the Donut app that randomly pairs co-workers and reminds them to meet up, whether it's for coffee or just a 15-minute Slack call. And the employees of Cloud & Heat, a German data center provider, have regularly met for virtual after-hours gaming nights to stay in touch during lockdowns.

German firms clueless on future of remote working

'Experimental phase'

Working from home, with all the digital and virtual underpinnings it has, can also turn out to be problematic, as German recruitment platform Campusjäger (Campus hunter) has found out.

Workers of the firm took part in a field test recently in which they were required to wear pulse-rate meters to find out how distracting and stressful are interruptions caused by electronic communications. Inactivated alarms, it turned out, made people remain focused for longer — 19% longer at the office, and even longer when working at home.

"Flexible and hybrid working models require a balance between trust and transparency," acatech notes in its paper. Static annual performance assessments must be replaced by "continuous, transparent ad-hoc feedback, which takes account of peer feedback and is employee-driven rather than management-driven."

Acatech proposes that companies begin the transition by establishing "experimental zones," because there isn't "a masterplan" for shaping the future of work that would anticipate all relevant developments and provide guidelines.

Chemical firm BASF is currently trialing mobile working at its headquarters in Ludwigshafen within a project called Flex Work. It is intended to create concepts for "office design, IT solutions as well as providing advice on how to forge cooperation in flexible work teams," said Schössler.

BASF has set up pilot teams tasked with guiding employees through the first phase of the flexible-working project. They have a special digital tool kit at their disposal that will help staff organize workshops, conduct surveys, and meet administrative requirements. For staff in management positions, virtual tutorials are available about how to lead from a distance.

This article was adapted from German

Source: DW

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