Home office: “Many employees were left on their own”

9 Aug 2021

Since 1 July, employers are no longer obliged to allow staff to work at home. In this interview, LMUs Martin Högl discusses the challenges of remote working and the imminent return to the real office.

Female entrepreneur using laptop while working during night seen through window model released

"We have no idea as yet what long-term effects remote working might have," says Professor Martin Högl. | © IMAGO / Westend61

Professor Martin Högl, Director of the Institute for Leadership and Organization in the LMU Munich School of Management, discusses teamwork at a distance, and why some teams manage it better than others.

Owing to the coronavirus pandemic, many teams have switched to working at home. What challenges does remote working present?

Martin Högl: Spatial distance can have an adverse effect on teamwork, for many reasons. One of them is that casual encounters in the corridor or on the way to the canteen are no longer possible. This means that the spontaneous conversations they can trigger cannot take place, and there are no informal discussions in between times or during the mid-day meal. In addition, interactions become more intensive as the number of the opportunities for communication rises. If we are restricted to telephone calls or video chats, these opportunities are correspondingly limited. – Nothing can beat direct personal interactions.

Scope for experimentation

In your research, you collaborate with businesses. Based on your own observations, what effects have these difficult and unusual working conditions had on the workforce over the past year?

Martin Högl: I cannot cite any systematic studies in this context. I can only draw on what my contacts have told me. My impression is that perceptions of remote working – like those of the pandemic itself – have fluctuated in waves.

To begin with, people were excited about the possibilities that suddenly opened up. Many firms recognized that there was more scope for experimentation than previously thought. Only as the pandemic developed did executives begin to think seriously about the questions raised by remote working.

At first, the focus was on the possibilities rather than the costs – the factors that could negatively affect teamwork. Only over the course of time did it become clear that certain processes were not working as well as before. We’ll have to wait and see whether things return to the pre-pandemic state or firms try to make the best of both worlds. I expect that a broad spectrum of models will emerge. – But it’s too early to guess what these might look like, because we have no idea as yet what long-term effects remote working might have.

What are the main issues that need to be studied?

Martin Högl: There’s a whole series of issues to be investigated, even though spatially distributed collaborations are in principle nothing new. We have become accustomed to teams located in Singapore, London, Shanghai and Munich, who work together on the same project. We know, based on research findings, how difficult it can be for teams that are geographically separated. Intercultural diversity also plays a role – and the effects of differences in time zones should not be underestimated either. But when the contexts in which team members work differ widely, the situation is quite different. During the coronavirus pandemic, people were not working at their office desks, they were working from home. So the nature of the working environment itself varied widely – and that poses an entirely new challenge for teamwork. It makes a big difference whether you are working at home, with young children to keep an eye on, or working alone in a well-organized home office. – It’s the degree of variation in the set-up that is novel. In terms of their layout and facilities, offices in Shanghai, Singapore or Sydney are very similar to each other.

Is working in a familiar environment not more likely to increase job satisfaction?

Martin Högl: That’s quite possible. But firms and their leadership need to learn more about what makes working in such a context more rewarding and successful. Many employees were left on their own at home. Studies have shown that the ability to devote one’s time to different domains of one’s life – the switch between work and weekend, for instance – is important for regeneration. It’s much more difficult to distinguish between one‘s professional life and other spheres of activity when one is working at home, because the boundaries are blurred. Starting work at 5 in the morning before the kids are awake might seem like a good idea, but whether it’s sensible in the longer term is doubtful.

What other unpleasant surprises can remote working have in store?

Martin Högl: There’s one thing one shouldn’t lose sight of here: Mobile working means working anywhere. If firms were to adopt this concept in order to reduce the costs of renting offices, these jobs might well be distributed internationally. If the job can be done in Pullach, why not let it be done Cairo? For businesses, it would probably be cheaper – but I‘m not sure that they have considered the longer-term consequences. Certainly, initiating another massive wave of offshoring of jobs is not in anybody’s interest – especially when one considers the practical difficulties that this can entail in the long term.

How have teams coped with the virus, and with working from home?

Martin Högl: I think teams that had already been collaborating successfully for some time under effective leadership have probably done best. They can negotiate a bumpy stretch of road without incurring any major damage. They may even have profited from the new experience and the potential advantages – more flexibility, fewer bureaucratic procedures. For teams that were not very efficient or poorly led before the pandemic, the risk of a downward spiral is higher. In my judgment, the gap between teams will have widened.

What distinguishes teams that have collaborated well with those whose performance has been less impressive?

Martin Högl: The first point is open communication: Do people share information directly with each other? The second is effective coordination of the tasks at hand: Are these tasks clearly defined, and closely aligned? – And the third factor is the level of team spirit and the degree of mutual assistance. But these are only some of the relevant indicators.

Leading at a distance

How have business executives reacted to the fact that many of their staff are working from home?

Martin Högl: It’s very interesting to observe how executives have approached the problem of how to lead people who aren’t there, and who suddenly adopt very different work schedules. If one defines effective leadership as the ability to induce employees to do what is required to meet a given goal, that task certainly becomes more difficult when all communication takes place at a distance. The capacity to take note of the staff’s perspective, and recognize why they take this position, is a major factor in effective leadership. And that’s easier to do in the office, where the interaction density is high. In this context, personal proximity is the heart of the matter.

Do the better-led teams outnumber those that have done less well?

Martin Högl: That’s a very difficult question to answer, because it depends on where one places the dividing line. But research has revealed one thing: The more dispersed the team is – in geographical terms – the higher the proportion of lower-quality teamwork.

How have you and the members of your team coped with the unusual conditions during the pandemic?

Martin Högl: I don’t have the impression that the pandemic has had a positive impact on the work of the Institute. I believe we were in pretty good shape as a team before the virus appeared, but I couldn’t claim that the pandemic has in any way helped us to improve.

So you are looking forward to seeing your team back in the office?

Martin Högl: I think we’ll all be happy to have direct contact with one another again – and I‘m sure that being able to work together in one place will be a relief for us all.

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