The Covid-19 crisis has driven forward a development in German companies within a few weeks that no-one had ever thought possible. While only around ten per cent of employees had the option to work from home before the pandemic, this went up to around 90 per cent in many companies during the pandemic. This matched the standard of American companies such as Amazon, Google or Facebook. For the managers there, the place of work – be it the balcony, the kitchen, the living room or the café next door – is irrelevant.

As it is the company policy for each person’s place of work to be where they can develop most productively.

Some German companies have already taken this to heart, but still far too few. Covid-19 has now accelerated this kind of thinking, however. I imagine that in future too, around 50 per cent of employees on average will be working from home, either all week or several days a week. Employees see that both positively and negatively. With no more commute to work and more attention to each employee’s biorhythm there is plenty in its favour. Each person can then follow their own individual concentration and productivity phases, depending on the time of day. It also means that private and professional life can be more closely combined. This makes sense when children are around, for example, as it enables better reconciliation of work and family life. Yet superimposing professional life on private life can also have the opposite effect, especially in small flats. Beyond that, employees are concerned that, as they are no longer seen, they are missing out on the chance to develop their career. There are missing social elements in addition to this. Employees sometimes really suffer because they don’t get their daily feedback from colleagues.

For some managers working from home brings up an additional negative aspect: loss of control. Employees’ productivity can only be monitored more accurately if they are present in the company. If they work from home there are no adequate ways of checking. At least that’s what they believe. This has resulted in a perceived loss of control, which is of course nonsense from today’s point of view. Employees of course consider this type of thinking immature. indeed, they may rightly question their supervisor’s management qualities. Digital management is different from analogue management in many ways, as it requires even clearer communication in terms of objectives, conveying meaning, communication and feedback With poor digital management, things go wrong more often than they would under analogue management. That generates frustration with everyone involved.

So the crucial insight should be in understanding working from home as an opportunity. An ideal work culture emerges when the job requirements for management, employees and, consequently, the entire company culture is fully readjusted.

The intention behind this is, ultimately, to remove the necessity to work on site and to shift the focus on the results of the work from home.

With working from home it is more than ever about the balance in what we know as an implicit, or also psychological, contract. This sheds light, on the one hand, on the role of the manager, whose unspoken expectations are that their employees complete their tasks professionally, conscientiously and as quickly as possible. At the same time, the employees can have the (implicit) expectation that they are trusted. If a balance between the two parties is missing, this will inevitably lead to problems. This also implies a new formulation of a different understanding of management. A formulation that says “give people space, transfer responsibility and promote an open feedback culture”. In return, the task for the employees involves properly embracing their freedom by structuring their day, setting clear routines, taking on more personal responsibility, using their own initiative and, last but not least, trusting their manager.

In summary: working from home provides an opportunity for a new company culture in terms of management and cooperation. A culture characterised by trust, loyalty, freedom and responsibility. With the new corporate culture as set out above, working from home, in the right proportions, brings with it a whole range of good prospects for employees as well as their managers. The employees may now be less visible, but still indispensable, because they can also develop their potential for working independently with the kind of freedom and trust they have been granted.

    Three essentials for the home office to work well

    1. Clarity of objectives, tasks, work stages, responsibilities and scheduling
    2. Communication through regular telephone and video conferences for allocating the individual work within the work of the whole team
    3. Reflections on a transparent feedback culture for sharing views on what works well and what works less well and which improvements would be necessary

    Prof. Dieter Frey

    • Member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Psychologist of the Year in 1998
    • Professor at the University of Kiel, guest professor at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York and holder of the chair for Social Psychology at the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich
    • Head of the Bavarian Elite Academy for ten years
    • Head of the LMU Centre for Leadership and People Management, an Excellence Initiative institution. It is dedicated to instructor training in management and teaching skills and, most recently, in home office support. A key role in its work is on advising organisations.