“We thrive on personal exchange” – is the home office a blessing or a curse?
Working from home: the concept moved in, unannounced, with Austrian companies across the board in March 2020, as an emergency pandemic plan. It’s probably set for a prolonged stay. Or it may never leave. In itself, it’s nothing new. Companies all over the world have been experimenting with the ‘home office’ working model for years. They introduced homeworking, but in some cases brought employees back to the office if things didn’t go to plan.
Thanks to the coronavirus, the parameters have fundamentally changed. Many companies have been forced into the home office, emptiness and silence reign on the premises, office parks are wastelands. After months of exceptional conditions, the first long-term effects of collective office absence are beginning to emerge. There is no argument about the fact that the home office also has its shadow sides. In this interview, Günther Tengel thinks a few steps further: “The home office damages companies,” he says.
By Sandra Baierl, Dana Dauer: KURIER
KURIER: The home office is being hailed as the new concept of New Work. You don’t think it’s all good, why is that?
Günther Tengel: I’m asking myself whether we’re all already part of a completely new working world, simply because we were all forced into the home office from March 2020 on. Clearly, New Work and change would have happened in any case. But not at this speed. It took one day for all of us to be in the home office, and it will take years for us to establish a system that really works well.
What’s bad about the home office?
There’s nothing fundamentally bad about it. What I miss is self-determination and free will. Everything has gone very fast. Too fast. Now we have to address the topic in a completely different way, and that will take time.
It’s already the case that big organizations with big office spaces can’t get out of the system.
Many big organizations have 80 per cent or more of their workforce in the home office. From the outside we hear how superbly it’s working. Functioning fantastically. Interestingly, many of these decision-makers tell quite different stories when they come to our office. Namely, that productivity and creativity are moving backwards. Teamwork is missing. I absolutely do not understand why the home office has such a positive connotation. People want to work together with other people, surely.
You brought your colleagues back into the office relatively quickly. What arguments did you use?
That’s right. We’ve been back in the office since 1st May. All our tasks in executive search have to do with people. We live from personal exchange. And over the years we have put in unbelievable efforts to develop a sense of belonging, team spirit and collaboration. I can’t just act as if that would all work just as well in the home office. Because it simply isn’t the case. As a manager, I say: we’re not going to willingly go on a downward slope in performance.
Would you say that performance at the beginning was more of a given, because you could still benefit from the team as it was? And that this, however, erodes over time?
Absolutely. Colleagues develop their own work system when they’re at home. They also get lonely. People are social beings. They didn’t stop being social beings in March. In the home office, however, the common whole is lacking, personal relationships suffer immensely. And that is reflected in the performance.
How long can firms cope with lower productivity and less creativity?
As long as everyone is doing it, it won’t be so noticeable. If everybody goes downhill, and it all happens at the same time, then that’ll somehow be okay. However, the moment in which global competition regains its strength, where there are sectors in which some are saying ‘we’re going to do things differently again’, only then one will have to act. Currently, many companies are just preserving the status quo. They are holding on to their existing clients, but don’t acquire new ones. In the long-term, this won’t be sustainable.
I hear from firms that staff are allowed to come back into the office, but don’t have to. The result is that nobody is coming in. How do you interpret that?
This is exactly the signal, which we brought upon ourselves, based on how we’ve acted during the past years. We’ve behaved as if we would do anything and everything for our staff and offices. Keyword: employer branding. But there was too little behind it. And interestingly, staff are now saying: no thanks, we’ll stay at home.
Because we’ve clearly been working around people’s needs. A large office space, in the eyes of employees, has its disadvantages; presence has its disadvantages. So, all of a sudden, 90 per cent of staff don’t want to go back into the office. This must have its reasons. But let’s ask again in half a year’s time. If everybody hunkers down at home, I don’t want to envisage the short- and long-term effects.
You have spoken about the fact that different jobs function to different degrees in the homeworking environment. Not everyone can be at home. That’s not necessarily fair.
With this, we’re walking headlong into a brutal war of divisions. My main theme, related to this, is group-formation. In every company, there are three groups: the core workforce, the peripheral workforce and flexible project groups. These are much more visible in the home office concept. Look at who was in the office over the past months. The core workforce? Top Management? And why is that? The people who truly belong are present. Because the decisions aren’t taken in the home office. Put in a more radical way: whoever is now sitting in the home office will soon find themselves outsourced. It’s extremely short-sighted, also for the unions, not to see it that way.
It’s often said that if the home office is to work, this depends on executives simply needing to lead and communicate better.
Leadership at close quarters follows completely different protocols than leadership at a distance. We have learned to lead by numbers, data and facts. And now, we’re leading in the fog. Every day looks different and nobody knows what tomorrow may bring. So: please, let’s give the leaders time to learn this. The management researcher Fredmund Malik already said years ago: “The world needs leaders, but finds only managers.” That’s more true today than it ever was.
What system will there be in the future?
We’ll live in a hybrid work environment. The home office will, however, be only one of many future themes. Maybe we don’t just need different offices, but also different organizations, different leaders, different staff.
Different offices? No more big offices spaces then?
Many company executives have probably mis-speculated. Have built the wrong offices. The concept of big office spaces is no longer working. I estimate that 80 per cent of companies will perform layoffs within the next six to twelve months. It will have to work with fewer employees – and consequently also with less space.
You can read the original interview here.