After the COVID-19 pandemic, what teleworking strategies should companies choose?


Sarah Spiekermann, head of the Institute for Institute for Information Systems and Society

Since the start of the pandemic, about one in three Europeans have been working from home. Many companies are now considering plans for downsizing their downtown offices and having more employees work from home permanently. Is this a good idea?

The advantage of physical presence: Coworkers as a source of inspiration

Experiences from the IT industry show that teleworking can be a risky human resources strategy. In 2017, IBM for example ended a long-standing teleworking test run that covered 40% of its employees. The reason was that IBM expected employees to be more creative and effective when working together in the same physical environment. Good ideas born from spontaneous conversations are practically only possible when people meet each other face-to-face.

Teleworking: Higher efficiency, but lower creativity

This creativity boost comes at a price, however: As a consequence, the meetings tended to become longer and longer. This trend seems to be reversed in COVID-19 teleworking. Microsoft saw the number of meetings with a duration of over one hour decrease by 11% during the period of COVID-19 teleworking. Extended video meetings simply aren’t as attractive as talking to someone face-to-face. The efficiency of the meetings increases during teleworking, but creativity suffers.

Teleworking strategies

This means that when it comes to planning a teleworking strategy, it is important for companies to decide which of these two factors is more important for their operations. At WU’s Institute for Information Systems and Society, we compared the results of 48 studies on losses versus gains of energy due to digitalization. We found 18 studies that had observed employee fatigue due to workplace digitalization. In 47% of the observations reported in these studies, the researchers found that digital workplaces can lead to employee fatigue. 22% of the observations reported neutral effects, and 31% even reported positive effects of digital media. Common problems include excessive workload and pressure, the omnipresence of ICT (information and communication technologies), constant interruptions, and the pressure to be constantly available. Conflicts created by the overlap of private and work contexts also have negative effects. The degree of autonomy a company gives to employees working from home is crucial. The more autonomy employees have, the better their teleworking experience. If they are free to decide when to answer emails, when to sit down in front of the computer, and when to be available, the effects of teleworking are positive. But if employees lack this autonomy – as is for example the case when companies use certain software solutions for personnel management – teleworking can quickly lead to negative consequences for employee motivation and team spirit.

From these insights, we can derive some recommendations for teleworking strategies:

  • Make agreements on periods and channels where employees are available, providing for generous periods of free time, and make sure that these agreements are respected.

  • Refrain from using software that monitors and assesses employee performance. Instead, trust your employees and give them the freedom they need to organize their work independently without being monitored.

  • Keep enough office spaces available and agree on appropriate commuting distances to allow employees to come to the office on a regular basis, so that a healthy balance between physical presence and teleworking can be achieved.

Sarah Spiekermann, head of the Institute for Institute for Information Systems and Society

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