Commentary, 29.07.2019

Home Office: The way to freedom?

Will home office soon be a universal right for all? It sure seems like we are evolving in this direction. However, one crucial question remains: “What does it actually mean for companies, employees and supervisors?”.

No matter with whom I talk about this, everyone has their own idea of what their office should look like and what home office can mean. A common theme is that it’s about working outside of the office, replaying the fixed workstation with a desk at home, the co-working space in the neighbourhood, or a spot in the coffee shop around the corner. Everything and anyplace is possible. Sounds easy enough. Nevertheless, companies and employees are struggling with the topic of how free home office can or should be to maintain productivity and a sense of belonging, while also allowing employees real freedom and self-determination.

Home office can be practiced in different ways. I observe two possibilities:

1. The democratic way in which I decide and act collectively

2. The autonomous way in which I decide and act independently

Both ways are not universally applicable at every business – the key to the right path is the status quo in terms of work practices, corporate culture, and technical capabilities.

Planned absence. The democratic way.

If home office takes place democratically, the employees are in close contact with colleagues and managers. When aligning on home office days, the team coordinates both workload and the time and location work will take place. In many companies you can find detailed long-term plans, giving everyone a clear overview of who is working from home when. This avoids a suddenly empty office or people being absent when physical presence is necessary. In addition, job-sharing models can be better coordinated, and the sharing of workstations can be planned. It also considers the social dimension. When home office is planned and transparent, feeling of jealousy or a sense of unfairness are scarce and statements like “…is not there again…” or “…is he even still working with us?” are avoided.

See you the day after tomorrow. The autonomous way.

If home office takes place autonomously, employees decide independently when to do their work and where – whether it’s a freely chosen place in the office, their home office or a third space. Schedules and fixed plans are necessary, as the place of work can be changed at any time. No one restricts the employees or scrutinizes their every move – everyone has the same rights and feelings of resentment are rare. Yet, even such a freedom-oriented way needs some rules. Employees should be reachable and spontaneously available for exchanges and online meetings with colleagues. When this works, it is no longer crucial where one works and how many hours flow into one activity, but that one can realize agreed upon goals and deliver results.

Absolute freedom – the right working culture is key

What sounds tempting is only possible when working culture first paves the way. Freedom follows culture one might say. Supervisors and employees need a common understanding of how to work and communicate for the autonomous way to work. Self-responsibility, trust and respect are the basis, allowing a presence-based approach to be replaced by a goal-oriented way of working.

When I was first confronted with this liberal way of working, it was a bit strange to me, and it left me feeling insecure: “Should I first inform my manager and let him know where I will be working today? What will my colleagues think of me, when I spontaneously stay at home? Will I be perceived as unreliable because I do not plan my day in advance? Am I considered lazy because I don’t come to the office?”

After a period of acclimatization, which took me several weeks, this was not an issue anymore. Today I am no longer limited by the concept of ‘one fixed office’. When work or my personal environment changes, I adjust with it and choose my location accordingly. This way I allow myself flexibility, both when it comes to the time and the place of work. In order to do this effectively, I find the following rule useful: My place of work, which can be outside of the office, is always visibly for all colleagues in a shared calendar. This is important for socialization in the team – I know where I can find my colleagues and how to reach them, which helps me more than just knowing whether someone is physically absent or present. This way we can spontaneously meet in person, if we are both in the office, or in a virtual space. The technical possibilities to work independently of workstations are wide-ranging and easy for everyone to use.

 

Why home office?

I am free. What initially sounds a tad profane actually has many advantages for both employees and companies. Not every day is plannable. For example, if my children are sick and they need to be cared for, I immediately experience a conflict. When my business requires physical presence and the technological capabilities for home office are limited or non-existent, I am forced to take the day off – no matter if there is an urgent deadline or an important meeting. A lose-lose situation for everyone.

In my opinion, home office only works in a result-oriented company culture. One which enables freedom for employees on the one hand and on the other hand demands a high degree of personal responsibility and motivation. By now, the possibility to organise myself and my work in a place of my choice has become the new normal for me – no matter if I need to supervise the chimney sweeper at home or simply want to be inspired by a different context.

I think it does not matter which approach a company decides to take in terms of home office, as long as they let the lived company culture be the compass that points the way.

Commentary by Julian Geier, workingwell