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Working from home after coronavirus

Malte Rohwer-Kahlmann
March 20, 2020

Office workers these days are swapping blazers for pyjamas, uncomfortable desk chairs for their own couch. The spread of the coronavirus changes the way many of us work — and we might just get used to it.

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Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Klose

Full disclosure: I'm wearing sweatpants as I write this. I take very, very, very regular breaks. You know, to make coffee. Or check what's in the fridge. Or robot dance. I've been working from home for about a week now and, let me tell you, it's fun and frustrating and rewarding and aggravating – all at the same time.

Millions of people currently banished to the confines of their own homes are probably having similar experiences. The coronavirus has made remote working a sudden reality. Yes, people have done it before. And yes, tech startups, digital nomads and new work gurus have long praised its benefits like increased productivity and happiness. But not everyone has been exactly eager to embrace the possibilities modern technology offers.

Take Germany, for example. Before the virus spread, only around one in four companies let at least some of their employees work remotely, according to a study by the IAB Institute for Employment Research. Only twenty percent of workers made use of that. And the majority of those who didn't work from home said they actually wanted to go into the office every day.

Are we in the midst of the WFH revolution?

But guess what, at the moment, many of them can't. Germany – and every other country hit by the coronavirus – is in the middle of a huge work from home experiment. Which begs the question how work life will continue once we have hopefully returned to something vaguely resembling normality. At least for those who could theoretically work from home.

Will we just pack our laptops and head back to the office? Or will the next few weeks and months prove that it works – and we just keep robot dancing to our fridge in between sending emails from our kitchens?

"I do believe this will really change something," Josephine Hofmann of the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering told me on the phone. She said companies would invariably see the positives of letting people work from home, now that the only alternative is pretty much not letting them work at all.

Time-consuming, inefficient meetings can be replaced by an email. Fly-in-fly-out business appointments can be a video conference. These realizations might stick, also after the crisis, and lead companies to ramp up their remote working infrastructure. "This would be very much in the interest of our planet, our climate and a more sustainable way of working," Hofmann said.

Lessons from China

Looking at a case study from China would at first seem to encourage this shift. Travel agency CTrip allowed some of its call center staff work from home. A group of economists measured the impact and found they were happier, more productive and saved the company money by reducing the need for office space.

In fact, the experiment was so successful that management soon extended it to the entire company. Only to find that working from home doesn't work for everyone. While some may thrive when they can bang out task after task from the comfort of their own couch, away from the probing presence of their supervisors, others may feel abandoned. The main reason why some at CTrip didn't enjoy remote working was because they felt lonely.

And I can see that. After only a week of working alone from my kitchen table, I miss bouncing ideas back and forth with my colleagues. We're in touch, of course, through email, messages, phone calls – we even had a quick after-work drink together on a video chat. But it's just not the same as that spontaneous storm of creative energy that a shared office space can whip up.

The future probably holds the best of both worlds

"The solution will be to work from the right place at the right moment," Tristan Horx told me on Skype. He works for Germany's Zukunftsinstitut, a think tank that researches future trends. He says different environments favor different kinds of work – and employees will be more and more inclined to look for that.

That means workers could tackle individual tasks that require a lot of focus from home in the future, and go into the office when they need to work on projects together. While the working world was headed in this direction anyway, he thinks the current situation will speed up the shift. "If you have many digital meetings right now, you'll notice how much better a real collaborative creative process is in an analogue meeting, " he said.

So yes, the coronavirus will most likely change the way we work. Because if companies realize they can navigate this crisis while their people are at home, business as usual should be a walk in the park. Or maybe I should say a lap in the living room.

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