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28. April 2020

‘Basic trust’ is the key

Mobile and remote work is more than a modern corporate must-have

Illustration Dorothee Mahnkopf © WISTA Management GmbH

Mobile and remote work is more than modern corporate must-have. In today’s world of work, it is also an issue of employer branding. However, it also requires some preliminary work, trust, and special management skills if this way of working is to succeed. We put an ear to the ground to find out how Adlershof-based companies and research institutes organise working remotely.

Seen from a distance, it seems as though the science and business community discovered remote forms of working in March. For many, it will take some getting used to, but, for some, it has been part of their daily routine. Take Frank Lindner, a business consultant and strategic advisor, who tends to his customers wherever he may be – sometimes including the co-working space of WISTA Management GmbH.

The coronavirus pandemic did not force the degree-level engineer and IHK-trained realtor to re-organise everything: ‘The situation hardly changed for me,’ says Lindner. It also hardly changed for his customers. ‘Globally acting companies engage in mobile work anyway,’ says the consultant. To them, using Skype, videoconferencing and online collaboration tools are business as usual.

‘Most job interviews are digital now,’ says Lindner, because ‘international companies have a different mentality: rather than looking for local employees to work with the company, they look for talent, no matter where they come from or where they work from.’

Nevertheless, the consultant expects the remote working trend to be amplified by the pandemic. For one, because employees and employers will come to appreciate its benefits. While employees become more flexible and can better balance work and family, for example, by spending more time with their children, companies benefit from cutting costs: ‘They require less fully-equipped desks, less travelling, and, more generally, can become leaner as an organisation,’ says Lindner. However, employees still require good equipment: high-performance notebooks with large displays, or large external screens, up-to-date (collaborative) software, smartphone-based internet telephony, and a fast broadband connection on all sides.

Naturally, this should also include secure ways of transmitting data. Outside their labs and offices, the 1,900 employees at Forschungsverbund Berlin (FVB), a Berlin-based research association, communicate using a virtual private network (VPN), says Manuela Urban. She is the managing director of FVB, where she oversees eight research institutes. Researchers and administrative staff working remotely are fitted out with high-performance hard and software, including tools like electronic lab notebooks that help hydro-ecological researchers to document measurement data, or wildlife researchers working in Africa and Asia. These data can be shared via the company cloud and easily accessed on-site in Berlin. ‘As a research association with international collaborative networks, it is imperative to tap into remote work,’ says Urban. While scientists tend to manage their own time, administrative staff must track their work hours while working from home. Moreover, they must be available for meetings during core hours. According to Urban, though, this does not hamper productivity. Quite the contrary: ‘When researchers and other staff are on the road, they don’t have to go back to the office but can save time by working remotely between appointments,’ explains Urban.

Working-from-home is a good option for people giving care or watching children. However, in such cases, Urban sees little room for movement. ‘My view is that it’s an illusion to think that only remote work can reconcile family and caregiving.’ Working remotely can help, but the double burden is still demanding for all those involved. For many, it means working at night when the children are sleeping. Urban: ‘Here, working remotely doesn’t make life simpler and easier. People going down this road must be lenient as well as resilient.’

The staff at WISTA Management GmbH is also making a similar experience. Based on an agreement struck with the company’s work council, employees can apply for working off-site on 30 days every year. According to HR manager Bessie Fischer-Bohn, we are now experiencing a ‘transition period’. Many executives and fellow co-workers doubt that those working off-site are as productive. ‘It is important to build trust and foster changing work cultures in people’s minds.’ So far, the cultural change is going well. ‘To be sure, more coordination, transparency, and scrutiny are required, because these things are harder to achieve when you’re not sitting next to each other at the office,’ says the HR executive, ‘but in a company with some level of basic trust, this is not a problem.’ Measuring performance then depends on the situation and on coordination efforts: this can include short daily reports, weekly consultations, or task status updates. ‘All these issues require good leadership skills,’ Fischer-Bohn points out. ‘Executives must learn to lead with clarity and engagement.’ For her as a HR executive, remote working is an important asset in the search for smart minds: ‘It enhances your employer brand; it’s simply how the modern work world works nowadays.’

By Chris Löwer for Adlershof Journal