Sharp learning curve for bosses as WFH goes global
By Mark John
LONDON (Reuters) - Two weeks after the Corona virus was blocked, Sergei Holmeckis, head of the Czech branch of Deutsche Telekom in Brno, was disappointed with video calls from employees. His team didn't like to turn on the cameras and the discussion was stagnant.
"I started showing them my cat," said Holmeckis. "It showed the human side of me more and really changed the perception. It made people turn on their cameras and get more involved."
Such tactics will obviously not appeal to everyone. However, they show how the world's largest home-based experiment is forcing managers to rethink their methods, especially as surveys predict a higher level of remote work after the pandemic.
Before the spread of the new corona virus, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), a UN agency based in Geneva, only 2.9% of employees worldwide worked exclusively or mainly from home.
This number exploded within a few weeks when social distancing forced companies to launch telework programs. An Argentine study found that 93% of large companies had turned to teleworking. In the UK, half of all employers indicated that the majority of their employees worked from home at the end of April.
The exercise was often chaotic, with little regard for what tasks could be done at home. Many workers were confronted with cramped living conditions or had to juggle the job with children who were grounded by school closings. Others felt isolated.
Overall, however, the reactions were largely positive. Surveys in the US and the UK have shown that more than three quarters of companies offer more homework after the pandemic. Employees cite benefits such as better work-life balance and claim that they felt as productive as in the office.
Twitter was one of the first to say that working from home was a permanent option, while the head of Barclays Bank suggested "bringing 7,000 people into a building could be a thing of the past".
"This is a revolution here and we don't know what the end result will be," said Jon Messenger, an ILO working conditions expert who has been tracking the history of teleworking since its inception in the mid-1970s with the "Teleworking" label. .
"Managers have been very reluctant to do this in the past because direct control over subordinates has been lost. This requires a completely different management approach."
TRUST THE WORKER
Messenger argues that the new approach primarily implies a shift towards a better results-based performance appraisal and gives employees more leeway to organize their working hours.
While various studies link the so-called "time sovereignty" with productivity advantages, some companies find it difficult to take this into account. Employee tracking software developers, such as sending manager screenshots of their employees' computer screens, are currently reporting an increase in sales.
Organizations in which tasks are difficult to quantify argue that some form of surveillance is essential. However, experts in the workplace warn that excessive monitoring can be counterproductive.
"Employers risk damaging the relationship if they treat employees like children," said Ben Willmott, chief public officer of the CIPD panel of human resources professionals.
The rise of collaborative software in the past decade has made teamwork from different locations easier and the argument of the former Yahoo! Boss Marissa Mayer that teleworkers were seen as "resistance" for office colleagues.
However, such tools still leave many employees with a feeling of separation and a lack of structure in their working life. Just like Holmeckis from Deutsche Telekom, who used his cat as an icebreaker, managers have to learn how to bridge the distance.
"There is a risk of people loosening up. Many of the conversations are operational and involve tasks: little empathy, little personal support," said Octavius Black, whose company offers Mind Gym workshops on remote management skills.
At the moment, the world is not far enough into the mass telework experiment to know how it will change work patterns or what the actual effects on productivity have been.
It is also unlikely to be representative of how companies and employees use telework when the health crisis subsides.
Assuming that locks do not need to be reapplied to prevent a second wave of the virus, the ILO messenger suggests that telework be more widespread, but in a watered-down form - optional and not for the entire week.
"The sweet spot is about two or three days a week," he said. "Then you won't have so many disadvantages."
Graphic: Search trends for "working from home" are increasing in the UK: https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/WFH/oakveqkazvr/
(Additional reporting by Michael Kahn in Prague; editing by Giles Elgood)
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