COVID: Is working from home really here to stay? | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 26.02.2021
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COVID: Is working from home really here to stay?

Remote working will not remain standard for Goldman Sachs staff once the pandemic is over, the bank's CEO has said. With many companies saying the opposite, the future of office work could come down to a compromise.

A man works at home on a laptop as his young daughter works on homework at his side

Since the pandemic hit, many have said working from home is the way of the future. But is it really?

When Kelly Sutamto* moved from Germany to China in 2019 for her husband's job, the Indonesian graphic designer had to get special permission from her German employer to do her work remotely.

Two years and one pandemic later, Sutamto is back in Germany and still working from home. Now, everyone else from her office is, too.

"Since I've been working from home since before the pandemic, my situation hasn't really changed," she tells DW. But it has gotten a lot easier "now that everyone is in the same situation."

When the novel coronavirus began spreading around the globe in spring 2020, many thought remote working would be a short-term thing. But with the virus still posing a significant risk one year later, both managers and employees are asking themselves whether the way we work has changed fundamentally.

A global survey of 800 HR executives conducted last spring by the market research firm Gartner found that 88% of organizations had encouraged or required employees to work from home because of the risk of catching COVID-19. Today, many still are.

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'Not a new normal'

Sutamto loves the time she saves by not having to commute  and by replacing lengthy in-person meetings with email and online conferences. But there are downsides, too. For complex projects, virtual meetings are more challenging than a physical get-together to brainstorm or to just simply draw out ideas on paper. She also misses the social interactions with her team. The digital happy hours her company organizes to keep spirits up are mostly awkward, she says.

These downsides might be what the head of Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, had in mind when he rejected the idea that the investment bank's employees would continue working from home once the pandemic was over.

"It's not a new normal," Solomon said in a conference on Wednesday. "It's an aberration that we're going to correct as soon as possible."

Solomon's comments fly in the face of companies like Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook, who have said remote working would become a permanent option for much or all of their staff.

So what is the future of office work? The coronavirus has not changed the trajectory office work had already been on before the pandemic, according to Kaitlyn Frank, the managing director of marketing at Crossfuze, a US-based company that helps business clients improve performance through digital transformation.

"I think what it did was make it very real for people and force people to make decisions faster, to adopt technologies faster, and to figure out better workflows to enable working from home effectively," she tells DW.

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German businesses see limits to remote working

Do you trust me?

Working from home can work well if the teams are healthy and if people help and support each other, says professor Guido Friebel, chair for human resources at Goethe University in Frankfurt. If not, there is a risk that people get lonely or stressed.

"It would be wrong to believe that just because people work from home, you have to take less care of them," he tells DW. "If anything, you probably have to take more care of them."

In an office, he says, if you have a problem, you can go next door and ask your colleague to solve it. Working from home makes this more complicated.

The technology to address such problems and to help employees work effectively from anywhere has existed for years, Frank points out.

"Meaning, whether the employees are working from home, or in the office, or on a beach in Tahiti, the way people get most of their work done is essentially the same."

Despite this, many managers don't like the idea of their people working from home. The reason? Trust.

"People who give their workforce the opportunity to work from home either do it because they have no other choice, or because they fundamentally believe that this will not be abused," says Friebel. "And research shows it's usually not abused by the workforce. But many managers don't understand that."

Research on remote working shows a few other things as well. For one, Friebel says, it can reduce real estate costs for companies. For another, it could reduce COVID-19 infections.

A paper on the effects of working from home in Germany during the pandemic —  by Jan Schymik and Harald Fadinger — shows that regions with a higher share of jobs that can be done from home have had fewer cases of COVID-19.

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A question of company culture

Companies like Goldman Sachs, where employees regularly work long hours and on tight deadlines, often require a lot of on-the-go coordination, Friebel says.

"Once you work from home, there are contingencies that aren't planned for," he explains. "Your internet may not work. Your kids may be crying."

"While I believe that, in the long run or medium run, you get back more than what you lose, for these very tightly run ships, it is a hard thing to do," he adds.

Frank says she can't envision any particular aspect of that world that couldn't be done remotely.

"It's not like a hospital or a restaurant or something where there's physical interactions," she says. "Everything's digital anyway."

The future is flexible

Sutamto says that going back to 9-to-5 office life is no longer an option for her. Her current routine has become a solid part of her daily life.

"I cannot imagine having to hire a sitter for our dog and wasting 1 to 2 hours every day to prep for work and to commute," she says.

For her, an ideal scenario would be having the flexibility to come into the office once or twice a week to meet and work together with the team.

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Workplace surveillance

"People are heterogeneous," says Friebel. "Some people love working from home. Others like it less. Almost nobody wants to only work from home."

It's important to remember that the workplace is a social sphere and that social closeness is a need that people satisfy when they go to the office, he adds. For that reason, he doesn't believe working from home will completely replace the physical office.

"But it will reduce the amount of work that will be done in offices and it will increase the work that will be done from home."

If this proves to be the case, companies that resist the trend, like Goldman Sachs, may find that keeping people in the office has other costs.

"I think it will be very limiting in terms of the kind of talent they can attract and not just in terms of people who want to work from home," says Frank. "Just geographically speaking, you're limiting yourself to a talent pool that is based in the cities you're in."

Frank believes it will be up to business leaders to determine how much they value having their employees in the office, and to recognize the opportunities they may lose out on because of it.

"The point is, the ability to support working from home isn't going anywhere; the workflows and technology implemented during COVID will stay," she says. "But now companies have the option to support the workforce they need, whatever they believe that is."

*Name changed to protect identity