All big changes start with small ones. Sometimes it was the disinfectant that suddenly appeared at the reception, sometimes it was a canceled business trip. At the latest when the handshake disappeared from the offices – the epitome of business acumen, commitment and professional presence in this country – it became clear: Something is changing tremendously here.
It was not a year ago that a virus began to shake the pillars of office culture. According to a Bitcom survey in March 2002, a third of all employed people in Germany worked from their home office for the very first time. 60 percent of the companies tried working models such as flexitime, job sharing or the four-day week in the course of the pandemic. First out of necessity. Meanwhile, however, many say: some things will remain after Corona. Every day from 9 to 5 to work in the office? That was once.
What was valid for decades became of Corona and what it brought with it: distance rules, face masks, homeschooling, wiped away like a thick layer of dust that should have been taken care of long ago. In fact, the pandemic was the catalyst that the world of work needed to change. For a long time, developments in the labor market had been moving towards precisely the question that was posed with urgency, uncertainty and inevitability in 2020: How do we want and will we work in the future?
Above all, there are three developments in the labor market that experts name as defining: demographic change, the conquest of the job market by women, and digitization. Data from the Federal Statistical Office show that the proportion of people under 20 years of age, as well as that of 20-40 year olds, is falling steadily. While the economy grows and with it the need for qualified employees, the next generation of jobs is becoming rare. So the balance of power shifts – from the side of the employer to the side of the employee. Whoever is courted can ask for a lot. If the job doesn’t live up to expectations, it can be changed quickly. The next company is already waiting.
For employers, this means that they not only have to attract employees, but also retain them in the long term. In doing so, they cannot avoid their needs. The large surveys of young professionals show: A good salary is expected, in addition to motivating bosses, appreciation, freedom and flexible organization of work. Career? Gladly. But only if it can be reconciled with a fulfilling private life. In the past 30 years, for example, the number of people who work part-time has doubled – and a third of them do not choose it because of family obligations.
For women in particular, work-life balance is a key criterion when choosing an employer. And women are the climbers of the past decades when it comes to the job market. A long-term study by the Free University of Berlin shows that they have a significantly better education today than they used to, work more often and more and thus earn significantly more – even if the pay gap still exists. They and their partners often wanted flexible working hours and home office even before Corona. The only difference is that they have not been listened to too often or that their wishes have not been considered realizable.
With the digital transformation of the world of work, this excuse is no longer valid. Digitization not only solved technical challenges, it also changed the equipment, workflows and thought processes in companies. Digitization found its way into every corner of working life. How should one make digital natives understand that it is not possible to work independently of time and place? It was only a matter of time before someone or something shook the existing consensus of office culture.
So in the end it was a tiny virus. It answered the question that was already in the room, as Andrea Trapp from Dropbox put it. This and some other companies are now focusing on a primarily virtual strategy for individual work in the long term, but planning studios that enable collaborative work. Others, such as Telefónica / O2, rely on a hybrid model of presence and home office. Because it is also clear: People need people, in this case colleagues. Working alone shouldn’t mean working alone.
Many companies also let their employees plan their working hours. Being relatively independent of time and place enables employees to live and work wherever they want. You can move into a village and work with a view of the field. You can organize meetings in the coworking space in town and get the children next door out of daycare in good time. Or they go to the office, which is unlikely to be an open-plan office in the future. And it also makes companies more flexible. It gives them access to more employees who they urgently need – and who otherwise would literally not have been within reach.
Perhaps in the course of the coming year the disinfectant will disappear from the reception and a business trip will be planned again. Maybe even shaking hands will return to the German offices at some point. But it seems unthinkable that people will ever work again like they did before Corona. At Dropbox, 90 percent of employees said they were just as productive at home as they were in the office – and didn’t want a strict five-day week. The company has responded. It knows that people are more likely to open up to companies whose lived values, rules and convictions suit them well. And stay true to them.