Home office and leadership
Working in the home office has been on everyone’s lips since the beginning of the corona crisis in order to avoid the risk of infection – i.e. primarily from a health protection perspective. Achim Berg, President of the digital association Bitkom, states: “Corona is both an opportunity and a challenge to digitise business, administration and healthcare even more decisively and quickly, for example by introducing technologies for web conferences and making the home office the standard.” 1 And, the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) is currently working on a law that will allow anyone who wants to work in a home office and whose workplace allows it to do so. However, the proposal for a “right to a home office” is not new and was already brought to public attention by the BMAS in March 2019.
Reason enough to take a look behind the scenes of this form of work. It is explicitly not about how work in the home office under the conditions of the corona pandemic is assessed from the perspective of those who now work at home, 2 but rather about the requirements for good leadership of home office employees in “non-crisis times”.
Home office advantages
There is no uniform definition of work in the home office. In common parlance, home office is understood to mean “the occasional work at a workplace other than the employer’s building”. 3 This can be work from the home office as well as mobile telework, “in which the workplace moves with the employee”. 4
This must be distinguished from teleworking, which is defined in § 2 (7) of the Workplace Ordinance as “VDU workplaces permanently installed by the employer in the private sphere of the employees”. 5
The Institute for Employment Research (IAB) stated in its short report 11/2019: “In Germany, currently about a quarter of the companies offer the possibility of mobile working and about a tenth of the employees work from time to time in their home office ” 6 . According to estimates, however, up to 25 percent of employees in Germany currently work from their home office – about twice as many as before the Corona crisis. Scientists estimate that up to 40 percent of employees could theoretically work in a home office at least occasionally.
Among the advantages from the point of view of companies, the following in particular are mentioned on the basis of data from the IAB Company Panel
- flexibility for employees,
- reconciling work and family life, and
- better productivity.
Among the reasons that speak against home office from the point of view of companies and employees, the lack of suitability of the activity is clearly in first place. Interestingly, only 10% of those questioned believe that “leadership without control is not possible”. However, 66% of employees believe that “presence is important to the supervisor”, and this is the real reason why organisations have difficulties with home office.
Learning to trust
Former Telekom personnel director Thomas Sattelberger has “pointed out the military origin of his trade. Superiors who (…) are fashionably saladdled by agile teams, but who daily gather their employees around them like a colonel, fit in well with this.” 7
If one assumes that in Germany the culture of presence is still strongly anchored in many companies, because superiors see the possibility of assessing work performance through control when employees are present, this means that enabling work in the home office is a great challenge for many managers.
This is particularly due to the fact that the physical distance to the employees changes the requirements for coordination, communication and motivation of the managers and a high degree of trust is the most important basic requirement.
The first thing to do here is to turn the saying wrongly attributed to Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known under the pseudonym Lenin, “Trust is good, control is better” from head to toe.
But what does trust actually mean? Trust describes the belief that you can rely on someone or something. The Encyclopedia of Values goes on to say that “trust is a hopeful advance on certain expectations” 8 and includes confidence in a certain or anticipated reliability and ability.
Managers themselves are perceived as trustworthy if they succeed in open, transparent communication, lead them in a task-oriented manner, demonstrate integrity and authenticity and take responsibility. It is important that managers are trusted when they themselves place trust in their employees.
The basis for this is undoubtedly a positive view of human nature and a basic attitude of the manager, which is based on the respect of employees and the willingness to appreciate their achievements, and which focuses on recognising and promoting strengths. Employees are then seen as self-responsible actors who are willing to get involved and develop.
However, placing trust in employees neither releases managers from constructive criticism nor legitimises them to look the other way. Trust and control are therefore not mutually exclusive, “whereby external control is first replaced by trust control and then by self-control”. 9
Learning to trust means not only being able to let go but also developing indicators that are suitable for measuring and evaluating the performance of employees in the home office.
Task-oriented management behaviour (initiating structure) is geared to this, on the basis of concretely agreed objectives,
- to make priorities,
- to clearly structure the responsibilities and tasks of employees,
- to provide suggestions or support for the completion of tasks, if required,
- and to create the conditions for home office employees to network with each other in order to learn from and with each other.
Task-oriented management thus also always ensures that everyone knows what they have to do and when. This does not mean undermining the necessary autonomy and self-determination of employees in the home office, on which companies are absolutely dependent if they want to be successful in the market.
Of course, the second dimension of leadership behaviour, employee consideration, must not be neglected. This means taking into account the personal needs of the employees, which can be differentiated in a different way in the home office than at the workplace in the employer’s buildings. In addition to the employee’s concrete living situation, the employee’s family environment, for example, can also be decisive in this respect and should be taken into account as far as possible. The focus here is on both the well-being of each individual employee and job satisfaction within the team.
Such an understanding of leadership from a distance, based on trust towards home office employees, strengthens motivation and the willingness to perform.
An open exchange of information with the employees who work in the home office as well as with those in the office next door requires regular one-on-one meetings as well as group chats. Promoting team cohesion and the willingness to invest in relationships is becoming an important management task for home office employees. A fixed communication structure, e.g. with a Daily Virtual Meeting, can help to support employees in the home office, especially in the initial phase, in practicing self-responsibility and living independently. After all, a necessary prerequisite for self-control is “to give employees confidence in the form of decision-making leeway, autonomy and self-determination”. 10 This connection must be emphasised again and again by managers in their communications.
Stephan Pust was an IT executive for a long time. Today, as a freelance trainer and consultant, he supports managers in organisational change and as a driving force for change in the new world of work. He also benefits from his extensive experience as a process manager. In addition, he works as a lecturer for various universities in Niedersachen, Germany in order to pass on his professional and personal experience to future specialists and managers.