Work after the coronavirus crisis: “The Wild West is over”

Christian von Schirach, Senior Manager at zeb, in an interview on the subject of new ways of working.


The Wild West is over – order is coming to the working world of tomorrow

It is no longer a question of whether a new working world will be created, but rather of what it will look like. Christian von Schirach is sure of that. The debate is often focused on the topic of working from home – but it goes much further than that. It includes leadership, knowledge management, social capital and identification with the company, to name but a few aspects. 

At present, many companies are busy sorting out the new ways of working that have developed under coronavirus conditions, and defining new rules and new processes. “The Wild West is over, companies are trying to create order”, says von Schirach. He has identified four major trends and expects to see a very different working world in about three years time – in some sectors sooner, in others later.

Remote work opens up new dimensions

Including remote concepts in ways of thinking literally opens up new dimensions. Previously, when a company in Munich was looking for an employee, for example, the focus was firmly on the region. Alternatively, it was at least expected that the employee would be in Munich during the week – often combined with moving house, giving up the previous center of life or commuting. This limited the number of potential candidates. If you look at it the other way around: remote work expands the pool of potential employees.

In addition, according to von Schirach, an employer will become unattractive in the future if it does not allow its employees to work from home or mobile. “If you can’t offer any remote work models, you’re in danger of losing good people”

Home office quota a step in the wrong direction

For renting offices as well as planning and operating IT infrastructure, a valid estimate of the home office quota is ultimately required. “But fixating on a quota is the wrong way. It is not a goal – it is the result of other considerations,” warns von Schirach. “The real question to start from is how and not where we want to work in the future.”

Depending on the type of work, there will be different setups – specifically: “For employees working mostly on projects, working from home 60 percent of the time is quite realistic,” says the zeb Senior Manager. This rate could be higher for jobs more focused on administration. “Presence in the office is generally not necessary for processing contracts.” 

There is a threat that intangible capital is eroded

According to von Schirach, “far too little attention has so far been paid to intangible capital.” Every company also consists of networks, informal stores of knowledge, relationships. “How do we onboard new employees in the future? How can we continue to create identification with the company when everyone works from home?”

Von Schirach is sure that a certain amount of presence in the office is unavoidable: “You need to bring people together to establish team spirit.” Ties to a company are created through people. If they are missing, loyalty to the employer erodes. The zeb consultant considers the often followed method of creating A and B groups that meet at least occasionally to be insufficient. “Networks will eventually dry up.” 

Remote working requires new modes of leadership

Conventional personal distance between supervisors and employees, as a means of leadership, is disappearing – even though the physical distance is increasing: “When employees can see their boss’s cuckoo clock in the background during a video meeting, that distance is gone.” Remote work has upped the pressure to act in other areas too, for example regarding transparency – this trend was visible even before coronavirus emerged, but has since accelerated. 

A second conventional leadership method was that of looking over an employee’s shoulder or Management by Walking Around. This is also no longer possible. And while some methods have become unusable, “there is a lack of suitable new instruments”.

Many things are being tested, digital Kanban boards for example. In daily calls, it is discussed who takes over which tasks. Weekly video meetings are then held to go over the results. “This creates much more transparency – and also puts more pressure on the employees. There is still a lot that needs clarification with the works councils,” von Schirach points out.

The world will be very different in three years

The expert estimates that the transformation of medium-sized and large companies away from management lines and cascading information to new ways of working will take about three years – maybe less, maybe more, depending on the industry. Heavily regulated industries, such as financial services, will have to allow more time due to these regulations. After all, for them it is not only about changing the organization of work, but also about taking full account of the requirements of the legislator and the supervisory authorities. On their side, too, there will have to be one or two adjustments, considering cloud hosting, integration of service providers or data protection issues, to name but a few.

A major factor for the success of such a project is the unity of the board. “Board members mustn’t have different ideas in their heads.” A uniform target vision shared by the co-determination bodies is another success factor – but this is all the more difficult because many new questions arise for this side as well. And ultimately, a high level of employee participation is important for success. In general, the younger the workforce, the more open it is to change. And the more open and permeable an industry is for new hires from other industries, the more it can benefit from impulses from outside. Financial service providers, however, are characterized by long lengths of service, a relatively high average age and little permeability to other industries.

Von Schirach: “The financial services industry has higher demands for change processes. At the same time, there is a tendency for the workforce to be less willing to change. The industry is facing considerable challenges, to put it mildly.” However, the zeb manager knows one thing from experience: “If a third of the workforce gets behind a new idea, the odds are good. If not, it will take longer, but new ways of working are definitely coming.”

“The financial services industry is facing considerable challenges, to put it mildly.”

Christian von Schirach, Senior Manager zeb