Working from home has an impact on career opportunities

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The corona pandemic ushered in the era of the home office. While working from home was still a taboo topic for some employers last year, according to a survey by the Institute for Economic Research (ifo) around a third of all employees worked from their home desk in April.

A more relaxed work-life balance, no annoying commute, better compatibility of family and career: the list of advantages of flexible work models is long. The disadvantage: You are less present in the home office. To have a career, you need a good network and the trust of your superior – and that is usually achieved through personal contact. Those who work a lot from home, on the other hand, tend to communicate virtually. So is working from home bad for your career?

The American researcher Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University carried out a comprehensive study on this topic in 2014. For nine months he accompanied employees in a Chinese call center. One part worked in the home office – the rest in the office. The result: even though employees did more at home and were less sick, they were promoted less often.

Anyone who wants to make a career should be present

“The study suggests that the home office limits a career somewhat,” says Susanne Steffes, junior professor at the University of Cologne and deputy head of the market design research department at the Center for European Economic Research (ZEW).

Studies by scientists from the University of California Santa Barbara underline this thesis. The authors conclude that employees who are physically present are often perceived as more committed, productive, and harder than their colleagues who are away from the office. “Anyone who wants to make a career should be present and show commitment to work,” says Steffes. Good networking can play an important role. The question, however, is whether this also works in the home office.

It all depends on the setting

The decisive factor is the context in which someone works from home. “If the whole company is working from home, there are no disadvantages,” says Katharina Wolff. She is the owner of D-Level, a personnel strategy consultancy for the digital economy. Because then the managers are also convinced that their employees work just as well there as in the office. However, if you are the only one who maxes out the home office regulation and the executive floor does not like it, a disadvantage could arise. “Not necessarily because the work result is worse, but because the mindset doesn’t fit,” says Wolff.

Junior professor Steffes also sees an important factor in the setting. For example, the Chinese call center agents who accompanied Nicholas Bloom for his study stayed in the home office for four days. “At the moment that wouldn’t be anything special because of the corona pandemic,” says Steffes. Six years ago, however, that was quite a lot.

If someone always stays at home while their colleagues are on site, that could be limiting. “But that always depends on the individual case,” says the junior professor. There are also studies that show exactly the opposite. For example, with mothers who can offer more work management thanks to the option of working from home. “That then sends another signal,” says Steffes. Therefore, it is difficult to make a general statement.

ZEW regularly conducts surveys on working from home. Less than ten percent of respondents say that if they are not always present in the office, it has an impact on their career. “However, this is a subjective perception,” says the junior professor.

Companies are becoming more flexible in the corona crisis

The corona pandemic is changing the situation. Suddenly there is not only a lot of time working in the home office, but also in the whole team. The organization was completely restructured within many companies. Personal conversations over lunch or in the coffee kitchen are now a thing of the past for everyone. “We have to learn how to send the right signals from the home office,” says Steffes.

And how does it work? According to HR consultant Wolff, just like in the office: through good performance, strong ideas and a proactive manner. “The most important thing is good communication,” she says. So speak up if something bothers you. Also develop virtual empathy for your counterpart. “A feeling for how the other is doing and the ability to empathize with them,” says Wolff. “Even from a distance.”

Classic networking events such as trade fairs are currently taboo. The working world reacts to this. There are digital meetings, panels, conferences. “What Corona showed us: In many cases, physical presence is less important than we have long assumed,” says Wolff.

How the Corona crisis affects the way we work will certainly be the subject of several studies in the future. According to Steffes, what exactly will change and to what extent cannot yet be reliably assessed. “We’ll see that in a year or two.”


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