Working during Corona: five theses on how our working world is changing

by Dr. Jörg Herbers
Young happy worker and manager giving each other manly greet at steel mill.
(c) skynesher - Getty Images

The pandemic is changing the working environment - but how exactly?

If you take a look at current newspapers and magazines, it is noticeable that two major themes form a common thread through the newspaper industry. On one side Corona itself: infection rates, contagiousness, risk areas. On the other side: the world of work. With the direct effects of the pandemic: reduced hours, economic forecasts, and home office. And then we look ahead: how will we work in the future? What is the pandemic doing to the world of work? (Let’s ignore the daily politics for a moment.)

Corona and the world of work keep us busy - for good reasons. If you’re worried that I’m going to open another of the many oracles about how we will continue home office in the future, let me reassure you. I am concerned with a few aspects that have received little public attention. Let’s raise the curtain on my five theses on the future of work.

Thesis 1: Part of the work-life blending will remain

Or in other words: office workers get a taste for home office. A matter of course? I don't think so. Like many of you, I first started regular home office in March. Like me, did you have to learn this way of working first? It's not like we didn't already know Skype, Zoom, and Teams. But now, these tools suddenly became the central focus of life, the place of social contacts "at work". It’s fascinating that the work continued well. That was "phase 1." Then came "phase 2": one recognized the limits of on-screen communication. Attended webinars, after which one wondered about this new word "over-communication". And then "phase 3": the longing for personal meetings. And when you have one, you somehow swear to the advantages of working on site.

But with all this, you may have forgotten that there has also been a positive adjustment to the new (office) working world. That you have just had lunch with your partner, ordered in lunch, or went out to eat. That you could just pick up the children from school and help out without having to drive half an hour. My thesis for "phase 4" post-Corona: we will try out what it is like to work primarily in the office again. And then realize how many advantages the "mixed life" at home had. To make clear to us that work-life blending is not only "dissolving boundaries" but can also mean quality of life. Which, after Corona, we probably do not want to give up completely but rather partially preserve. For example, by continuing to work from home a few days a week - and combining the best of both worlds.

Thesis 2: Our skill in the use of working time will increase

Our what? Yes, I would describe our ability to organize our own working time as a special skill. By the way, at times a very demanding one. Or have you not yet caught yourself working directly on something that you had in your mailbox in the morning. And then the next one and the next one until in the evening, you asked yourself why you spent all day ignoring the really important topics? Avoiding this is the ability to prioritize your own tasks.

A further (work organization) skill: the ability to identify which means are most effective in achieving a goal and in which situation. That happened pre-Corona, too. Do I continue to work on the topic alone, do I ask a colleague for advice, or do I call a meeting? My thesis: in the long term, there will be an extra dimension to this methodological skill. Namely around this question: do I go to the office today, clarify a few things personally, have a few (physical) meetings, and "socialize"? Or do I stay at home, maybe attend a meeting or two, take time to concentrate on some tasks, and use the flexibility of work-life blending (see above)? How much do I switch between these two modes? It is this skill that can be put to good use - and that is necessary to make the much-cited "brave new home office world" a win-win situation for both employees and companies.

Thesis 3: The flexibility gap between office work and industrial work is getting wider

A wide gap has already opened up in the world of work. On the one hand, office work - for decades with flexitime and trust-based working hours as standard. With new-work, creative work on unusual chairs, table football, sabbaticals, star chefs in the company restaurant, and whatever else the heart desires. (Okay, I'm exaggerating, but you know what I mean.) On the other hand, the commercial sector. With shift work, possibly night shifts, work on public holidays and weekends, dictated working hours, and the possibility to calculate today which shift I will work on my last working day.

According to the German Working Time Report BAUA in 2016, flexible working hours are almost completely ignored in the industrial sector. And now this: Corona also allows the new-work hipsters to work from home, from any (of course, impeccably cleanly run) café, at any time, not just once in a while, but every day. While employees in production, logistics, and services are exposed to a (hopefully limited) risk of infection in factory and warehouse buildings and continue to slave away. Something’s wrong? Sort of. Let's move swiftly on to the next thesis.

Thesis 4: The pressure for flexible weekly working hours in shift work is increasing

Okay, not really a new topic. A recurring element in collective bargaining agreements in the chemical, metal, and electrical industries is the possibility of reducing weekly working hours. Which makes these industries more attractive to workers. So it's a relic from pre-Corona times? Not really. The short-time working situation in many companies is stimulating the trade unions' imagination as to whether working hours could be reduced under normal circumstances – permanently or temporarily, for everyone or for individual employees.

So which scenario is likely - in terms of Corona, the economy, and the world of work? Concerning Corona, that we have a sufficiently effective vaccine in the foreseeable future. For the economy, that under favorable circumstances, it will recover to the old level as quickly as it crashed in March (the so-called "V-Curve"). And for the world of work, that the issues of flexibilization should regain, or even exceed, a relevance at least as quickly as the pre-Corona relevance. So it's time to think about how to deal with it – incidentally, this is a topic that many companies are indeed still dealing with, despite the pandemic.

Thesis 5: Classical shift work is put to the test even more

And now for my most challenging thesis. Admittedly one that has the highest hypothetical portion. Because it requires us to systematically rethink a few things in shift work. And who likes doing that? A word of warning - I will now take you on a little mathematical/logical digression. And ask: why do we actually have shift work?

First of all, because there are areas where we have to plan working hours in advance. In production, for example, because machines and plants should be used to their fullest possible capacity. So far, so good. Nevertheless, here’s my challenge. Let's say you need an extra shift on Saturday – not an uncommon situation in production plants. Is there a reason why all employees are called in at 6 a.m. and then the machines are started up? Or would it be just as good to start at 7 or 8 a.m. if, despite everything, the same working hours and production volume were to remain the same? And what if you were to leave it up to the employees to decide whether to start at 6, 7 or 8 a.m. on Saturday - to introduce "coordinated flexitime" for Saturday, so to speak?

Another example, this time from logistics: many distribution centers have target figures for the daily distribution volumes that have to be achieved. And plan with a personnel availability that allows them to achieve the target quantity in the daily flow of goods via goods received, order picking, goods issued, etc. This is done by enlisting employees for shifts. For example, the early shift with fixed starting times (e.g. 6 a.m.), or even staggered but predefined starting times. In my experience, an approach that is hardly ever questioned. But how about leaving it up to the employees to decide who starts work at what time? I mean within guidelines, of course. For example, that certain minimum staffing levels must be met from 6 a.m. onwards, that the start of work is coordinated by the employees themselves, and that a specified minimum work capacity is maintained. However, none of these stipulations is a real argument against a minimum degree of working time autonomy.

You see the basic principle: sometimes a little "flexitime in shift work" is possible after all. You just have to take the trouble to look more closely and be prepared to grant some degrees of freedom.

How do you challenge shift work?



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About the author

  • Dr. Jörg Herbers

    Jörg Herbers is Senior Vice President Workforce Management at Inform GmbH. He specializes in all topics related to staff planning and optimization.

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