The pandemic has acted as a catalyst for the implementation of digital processes in companies. Apart from enormous IT purchases and the new learning of digital applications, New Work is becoming more and more pervasive: a structural change in the working world as we knew it before. Remote work and home office: What was otherwise an exception is increasingly becoming mainstream.

Now that the supposed normality is returning due to the progress of the vaccination, we are hearing more and more often about cases in which employees would prefer to continue working in the home office, even post-pandemic. What are the opportunities and what are the limitations of remote management? Can a hybrid between New Work and presence culture succeed? And if so, which distance leadership skills are a must? An interview with Dr. Axel Hermeier, our Head of HR.

Axel, we're both having this conversation from our home offices. Is that already New Work?

It's just one aspect of New Work that says that spatial proximity is not absolutely necessary to work together as a team and productively.

What is New Work in its entirety?

It's a concept that Frithjof Bergmann developed back in the mid-1970s. His short version sums it up for me: New Work is the work that a person really wants to do. Bergmann associates it with values such as independence, freedom and participation in the community. These are the essential characteristics of this "new" form of work. Ultimately, however, New Work is being used as a kind of catch-all or umbrella term that is currently coming into existence. Somewhat more broadly, it is now used as a synonym for any change in the world of work. Like "Working World 4.0." Because of the pandemic, New Work has become more relevant than ever.

Many aspects of the New Work concept had to be applied virtually overnight. What does New Work demand of companies?

Yes, this is very much the case. A key challenge is to develop new concepts for the dimensions of time, space and organization. What does that mean exactly? The longstanding ties to fixed workplaces, standardized working hours and fixed organizational structures are increasingly dissolving. Companies have to find appropriate answers to this and create a framework in which the organization and its employees can perform at their best. New Work is therefore not a project that is introduced ‒ it is rather a topic on the cultural level. It corresponds to an attitude, a mindset, and therefore New Work is not least a leadership issue.

How does New Work shape the work of managers? And what components make distance leadership easier?

The ability to trust and build trusting relationships. For me, that is the foundation. This trust goes hand in hand with a high degree of interest in and empathy for employees. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of employees is critical to success. Or, at the latest, to recognize them when it comes to assigning the right tasks and responsibilities despite distance. This only works if managers know the individual strengths and weaknesses of their teams. Another must is the ability to formulate and communicate clear goals and to create the appropriate framework conditions to accomplish the tasks. An absolutely critical ability for success.

A culture of trust instead of a controlling corporate culture: This is a tightrope walk for many managers. And it's also not easy to learn. What helps?

Of course, there is no patent remedy for this. Corona has brought many executives into this situation overnight with no alternative and no way out. Accordingly, they had to come to terms with it. For some it is easier, for others more difficult. Looking to the future, however, it is also becoming clear who is suitable for distance leadership, who can be a digital leader and who cannot. For me, the question is not whether the wheel can be turned back: It can't be turned back. Accordingly, distance leadership is a critical leadership trait that has abruptly become important. And it will have even greater significance in the future. Either executives learn to deal with it or they are not the right digital leaders.

Sounds like distance leadership skills will soon be a criterion in job postings.

Most certainly.

Trust instead of control: What are the advantages of this approach? Is there a way to measure success that also makes this clear in figures?

There is not yet much empirical data on the extent to which this culture has a positive impact on companies in monetary terms. In the qualitative interpretation, however, various points are mentioned as beneficial. First of all, process speed. This is associated with the potential to reduce costs. Put simply: less travel ‒ more time. And in turn, more productivity. Digital formats make this possible. Other benefits for employees include less stress, fewer sick days, fewer burnouts and ultimately an improved employee experience ‒ in the sense of greater cohesion and greater loyalty to the company. In the end, however, it really depends on how the company develops the concept and materializes the potential benefits.

What leadership skills are an absolute must in distance leadership?

The ability to trust and build trusting relationships. For me, that is the foundation. This trust goes hand in hand with a high degree of interest in and empathy for employees. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of employees is critical to success. Or, at the latest, to recognize them when it comes to assigning the right tasks and responsibilities despite distance. This only works if managers know the individual strengths and weaknesses of their teams. Another must is the ability to formulate and communicate clear goals and to create the appropriate framework conditions to accomplish the tasks. An absolutely critical ability for success.

The employees are also challenged. What challenges has the new situation presented them with?

One concrete result of flexible working time models and home offices is the new German term "work-life blending. So it's no longer about the old mantra of "work-life balance" - balancing work on the one hand and private life on the other. Now it's about New Work blurring the lines between work and private life.

 

Is that positive or negative?

In case of doubt, this varies from person to person. But ultimately, if you go back to the core concept of New Work, it's about doing work that fulfills you, that is meaningful for you personally, and that you can do with as much flexibility as possible: in terms of space and time. For example, not having to go to the office on some days can make it easier to reconcile family and career. Meetings and work packages can be organized in such a way that private concerns can also be integrated into the daily calendar, and when peace returns to the home in the evening, project work can be continued.

 

What conditions must be met for this to work well?

The prerequisites are undoubtedly a certain willingness to change, agility and IT competence. In addition, a certain degree of self-management, because the greater degree of freedom also brings with it a higher degree of decision-making ability. And that, in turn, is critical for the success of each individual employee. After all, freedom and independent working must be backed up by good results.

 

Much is possible in remote management, but there are certainly limits. What does distance leadership only cover to a limited extent?

There are several dimensions here. I will mention three: In our industry, the first dimension is interaction with customers - from initial contact to actual project work. Digital tools contribute to success, no question about it. However, after a certain point is reached, I believe it is essential to sit face to face and perceive the other person holistically.

 

What is the second dimension?

The second dimension concerns me directly as HR Director: talent acquisition and recruiting. Gestures, facial expressions and interpersonal chemistry play an essential role here. These are all aspects that are very reduced in two dimensions on the screen - perhaps with additional technical limitations. In my opinion, making solid decisions on this basis does not go well. The same applies to crisis meetings. No video call can replace a face-to-face encounter here.

 

Let's move on to the third dimension:

The third dimension relates to interaction with employees. Offices are places of encounter and an essential source of creativity and innovation. This is essentially due to the fact that people can run into each other unplanned in the hallway or in the kitchen. And they can also use the ready opportunity to discuss and decide on topics at short notice. This often gives rise to ideas that would never have been generated in a planned, structured setting using video conferencing. In my experience over the last 15 months, there is a certain boundary between digital and real in all three areas described.

 

What is the solution in the end?

AH: From my point of view, it is not a good concept to juxtapose the 100 percent home office with the 100 percent presence culture as an "either-or". But an intelligent hybrid can be the solution.

 

Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, recently called on his employees to return to the office - for three days a week - starting in September. A hybrid. But it resulted in a push-back, The Verge reported. Many employees called for an even more flexible approach. What would your advice be for Tim Cook?

I would advise every company to analyze the initial situation, the framework conditions and requirements individually for itself and ultimately develop its own concept from this. Above all this, however, the topic of increasing flexibility should be a priority. Which brings me back to the New Work idea: In order to create a win-win situation, the ultimate goal must be to meaningfully link the needs of the company on the one hand and the individual needs of the employees on the other. Tim Cook's concept is a hybrid - three days one way, two days another. But if it is applied rigidly, it will not do sufficient justice to the new situation of the employees and the company.

 

Better would be?

It would be better, for example, to talk about fixed time quotas that can be flexibly utilized. Because at the end of the day, companies naturally need a certain degree of plannability.

 

Does a hybrid also make sense in business consulting?

I am convinced of this: In consulting, in the people's business, it is indispensable to create personal encounters and facilitate personal contacts - within the company and in the exchange with customers and stakeholders. However, in the sense of a hybrid model, the advantages of digitization in the New Work should also be intelligently exploited and traditional work should be meaningfully supplemented by the new points. After all, customers and business partners have also gone through the same transformation process.

 

Thank you for your insights, Axel.

 

You can also get more concrete recommendations for action on the topics of "distance leadership" in the interview "Leadership in the Crisis" with Bessie Fischer-Bohn. As a blogpost to read or directly into your ear in the enomyc Podcast.

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