The swimming pools and restaurants are full, almost two thirds of Germans are fully vaccinated and the first come back from vacation tanned — it almost seems like the corona pandemic is history. The fact is, we can almost enjoy the summer as in pre-corona times. But what about the working world? While some companies’ employees are returning to corporate offices as quickly as possible, for others, full-time home offices have become a habit after more than a year of the Corona pandemic. Nearly half of employees worked from home offices, at least transitionally, during the pandemic, leaving many corporate locations empty for months. As a result, countless employees have made themselves comfortable in the home office and do not want to return to face-to-face work, even partially. Among other things, they appreciate the greater flexibility, the time saved by not having to travel to work, and the opportunity to work at unusual hours, which makes it easier for them to take care of their families. In addition, new employees who started working for a company during the pandemic are not at all familiar with the daily routine of working face-to-face and in some cases have never been in the office. For them, it is even more unfamiliar to actually commute to work every weekday. These experiences have also changed the wishes and needs of employees. For example, 72% want to work more often from home in the future and 83% want to flexibly arrange their working hours, according to surveys conducted by the personnel service provider Robert Half1 and StepStone2. Managers also seem to have fewer reservations about home offices due to their experiences during the pandemic and to have successfully adapted their management style to remote work. Home office will therefore be more of a standard than a benefit in the future.
However, there is also a flip side to the coin. Due to working in a distance, many employees suffer from the reduced social exchange and few personal relationships with work colleagues. More than two-thirds of the employees miss the social contacts in the home office the most. We at Breitenstein Consulting definitely miss the interactions in person even though daily virtual check-ins. The reduced social relationships when working at a distance are due to various aspects. Virtual meetings eliminate most interactions that are not needed for the actual work. The chat on the way to the meeting room, the coffee break together, the short question to the colleague that expands into an intense discussion – all this cannot be covered on the same level virtually. However, it is precisely these interactions that are very important for people as social beings to be satisfied. It also makes it much more difficult to maintain or develop a sense of belonging to the company, which weakens employee loyalty. Additionally, virtual interactions are often not as in-depth as a face-to-face conversation. Due to the small video window, a lot of non-verbal cues, e.g. gestures and body posture, is lost. However, these are very important in order to be able to correctly assess the conversation partner or to convey understanding and emotions through one’s own body language. Working at least partially in person is therefore indispensable to maintain social exchange in working life. Employees are also aware of this- only 4% would like to work permanently in a home office. For this reason, it is becoming apparent that hybrid work models, in which both home office and in-person work are practiced, will be the work form of the future. In this way, deep social interactions can be maintained without having to restrict the newly gained flexibility.
Transformation to hybrid forms of work
But how do you successfully convert to hybrid work in the long term? Simply allowing employees to work from home can very easily lead to negative changes in the corporate culture. For example, team cohesion can be lost if only a fraction of the team is ever in the office. Employees in the home office may also feel excluded if active participation in meetings is limited due to a lack of technical equipment. Therefore, a transformation to hybrid working must be well planned and must not be done imprudently. The following three steps provide pointers for a successful change to hybrid forms of work:
- Evaluation: The past year in the home office offers us a unique opportunity to analyze the benefits and challenges of home office and hybrid working, to reflect on initial attempts at solutions and their successes, and to elicit the needs of employees as well as the company. That is why it is very helpful to evaluate the experiences of the past year and compare them with the in-person work before Corona in order to identify the most important aspects for hybrid work in your own company.
- Develop a picture of the future: Each company must decide individually how it wants to implement hybrid working. There are different variants, from fixed home office days to work formats without any location or working time specifications, from which a company must work out the form that suits it best. It is important to include the wishes and needs of the employees in order to generate a comprehensive picture of the future. This picture of the future is then communicated transparently to all those involved in order to encourage their support.
- Implement: The framework conditions must be right for successful implementation. For example, appropriate equipment (e.g., loudspeakers for virtual conferences) must be purchased or the recording of working hours in the home office must be clarified so that hybrid working is possible without any problems. It is also beneficial to try out different approaches quickly and flexibly when new problems arise and to develop long-term solutions over time in order to bridge the transition phase as well as possible.
Promote deep social interactions
Regardless of how hybrid working is implemented in detail, the Corona pandemic has taught us the importance of social exchange in the workplace. In the future, offices will therefore increasingly become places of exchange and deliberate collaboration rather than consisting of pure workstations. After all, working on tasks can often be done just as well or better at leisure from home. To support this change, social exchange in the office must be specifically encouraged. And even if a potential fourth wave of Corona causes everyone to transition back to working from home, maintaining deep social interactions is very important to employee well-being. Below are a few ideas on how to foster deep social interactions in the workday:
- Promote qualitative interactions: In order to create a deep exchange and show appreciation for the other person, it is important to pay full attention to the person you are talking to, to listen actively, and to support the conversation with eye contact and body language.
- Conduct one-on-one meetings: In a private conversation, the other person can be dealt with much more directly than in team meetings. In addition, wishes and needs can be better identified and addressed, for which there is often no room in group meetings.
- Plan team activities in presence: Whether a joint lunch, an after-work beer or a foosball tournament – social exchange can also be promoted outside working hours. Often, a different context or a joint activity stimulates special conversations.
- Share personal information: In order to better assess and respond to employees, you can encourage them to also talk about personal interests, experiences and their current life situation. It is also helpful to talk about your own experiences and interests in a reciprocal manner.
- Create incentives for face-to-face work: If everyone works from home, there is hardly any advantage to going to the office yourself. Incentives can be created to encourage more in-person work and exchange. For example, ‘team days’ can be set aside where a team is on site and takes a lunch break together. Or you could plan an after-work beer near the office.
The challenges of the Corona pandemic have greatly changed our working world and made us aware of how important social relationships are for personal well-being and job satisfaction. Therefore, the experiences and insights gained in the permanent home office must be used to make our form of work and companies fit for the future – and to be able to enjoy a hybrid work routine even after the summer.
written by Sina Schumacher