Expert interview: THE FUTURE OF WORK IS NOW
Ann Sophie Lauterbach has been a research associate at the Future of Work Lab Konstanz since October 2020 and is also working on the project “Digitalization, automation and the future of work in post-industrial welfare states” at the Cluster of Excellence “The Politics of Inequality”. In the Talenthelden interview, she shares insights and expert knowledge and also makes recommendations on how organizations should position themselves to be fit for the future.
DIGITALIZATION, DIVERSITY AND DEMOGRAPHICS
Talenthelden: Ann Sophie, what you are doing sounds super-exciting, but what does it actually mean? What do you specifically and what does the Future of Work Lab deal with? What drives you?
Ann Sophie: Actually, the practical component of my scientific position was what convinced me at the time, because I really wanted to dedicate myself to real cases. The focus is not only on performance-related factors, but also on psychological mechanisms and actual well-being of employees:as individuals with different backgrounds. This was possible at the Future of Work Lab Konstanz, because we deal with three major thematic blocks there: Digitalization, Diversity and Demography. My research questions are at the intersection of digitalized, flexible work environments and how different groups of employees react to them.
Digitalized here means how our working world is changing from shelves full of paper files picked out by people in a traditional office to a paperless, flexible environment. This now often includes the option to work completely mobile or hybrid. For some companies, this has been the reality for a long time, while others are still struggling with it. In the diversity topic area, I look particularly at how different genders and age groups react to such a change in the work environment. This allows my team and I to learn exciting insights about the health and mental well-being of employees based on subjective survey data and objective HR metrics.
NEW WORK = HYbrid work?!
Talenthelden: Can you share some of your findings with us? Which employee groups are particularly/very positively, but also particularly/very negatively impacted by new work or hybrid working environments?
Ann Sophie: Yes, we currently have several exciting surveys and interview series up and running. One of the main topics at the moment is that it is extremely important to many employees to continue to be able to make flexible decisions about where they work. The majority of respondents find the idea of hybrid working, i.e. having both options and also coming in from time to time for certain team meetings and events, important and good. At the same time, it is emphasized that general attendance rules do not fit into this century. After all, every job is based on an individual profile between interaction and concentration and thus has different needs for the respective work environment.
In addition, our home office study also showed that frequent switching between work locations can lead to exhaustion. Understandably, resentment arises when some now have to take on another two-hour commute only to have a virtual meeting in the office. At the same time, it becomes more difficult to reconcile work and family life, as the time gained from the pandemic home office now has to be used in a different way. Hybrid working therefore also requires more planning. Nevertheless, we also see how much the direct exchange on site in the office continues to be valued. There are significantly more informal discussions there and team members can get to know each other better. This is particularly important for the onboarding of new colleagues.
During the pandemic, we studied what happens when companies order their employees to return to the office completely from their flexible setting. The group that was forced to sit in the office saw their self-assessed productivity drop by 12 percent, while their emotional exhaustion increased by 5 percent. So I don’t need to explain further here that a strict arrangement like Elon Musk’s is unlikely to be crowned with success. Among other things, the lack of competitiveness and thoughts of leaving the company themselves are mentioned by employees who are forced to be present.
Talenthelden: What happens if employees continue to opt for 100% remote?
Ann Sophie: I think the challenge is to get the right mix for both employees and employers to ensure a high level of well-being with functioning and productive processes at the same time. Our practice projects show that you need to include both the individual level of individual employees and the team or organizational level to achieve this goal. So while it might be particularly charming for me as an individual employee to have 100% work from anywhere, it also means that more emotional and strategic work needs to flow into a functioning team and organization. During the pandemic, we have seen how virtual team building can work – however, a company also needs the right resources to do this, such as trained HR professionals, user-friendly platforms, and also the understanding to let employees connect and get to know each other during working hours. These resources would have to be released first. In addition, it is essential that no class society of employees is created – between those who manage to work on-site and those who prefer to stay completely remote for various reasons. And if we are already talking about inequality at this point, the social consequences of an office working world that is becoming more and more flexible versus a working world that remains static and is forced to be carried out on site should of course also be discussed more strongly.
FUTure workforce − FIT for future
Talenthelden: What are your recommendations for companies? How do you think companies should position themselves to be fit for the future? And what do you recommend to employees?
Ann Sophie: I definitely see a future in a flexible, personalized hybrid model. An important development point for companies definitely lies in the appropriate preparation of managers for conscious and communicative leadership of hybrid teams. More coaching of employees by managers is needed, not less. This does not mean that more control needs to be exercised. Instead, leaders should be trained in clarity, conflict resolution, self-management guidance and good feedback. In addition, step by step, previous physical work environments need to be rethought. If our office is to become a meeting place for collaborative, creative and informal work, then space must be available for this. At the same time, there is the challenge that concentrated on-site work should still be possible – even if only on an hourly basis. Activity-based spaces with acoustic spatial separation can be helpful here. Employees now have the opportunity to actively shape their new working environment, for example by organizing themselves as an interest group within the company and actively advising the process. As an employee, I would also now take the opportunity to renegotiate my own working conditions. In addition, each of us is now learning how to better deal with flexibility and a touch of uncertainty and make the best of it – both extremely important qualities for coping with the rapidly changing world of work.
Talenthelden: What experiences have you had in your personal working life? Before, during and after Corona? What physical work environment has had what impact on your well-being?
Ann Sophie: Fascinating question. Actually, I’ve gotten really comfortable at home, in my own personal “Office Jungle.” It’s easy for me to concentrate there, and I really appreciate the fact that I can work completely visually and acoustically undisturbed at home now that I’m back working part-time in the office. The little breaks in between and a short nap now and then after lunch also do me a lot of good. However, it didn’t go well without moral support, so I have a Zoom group together with other PhD students, which starts working together at 8:30 am. In addition, I would like to emphasize that I am allowed to work in a privileged situation. Many have neither the detachment nor the rest periods in their home work situation and have to master significantly more roles at the same time.
Talenthelden: Where do you think the journey is heading now? On the one hand with regard to hybrid work environments, but also in general with a view to the need for transformation and the still great inequalities? What are the topics that should be addressed in research, but also in practice?
Ann Sophie: Of course, I can think of hundreds of exciting fields. What I am currently very interested in is the extent to which our sickness and presence behavior will change. At home, it’s relatively easy for me to check my e-mails despite a cold and maybe even take that one meeting in the afternoon. So-called presenteeism, i.e. working despite feeling unwell, can be functional in the short term and serve to maintain processes. In the long term, however, it shows that we should actually recover instead of still somehow getting things done at half throttle. This is where I would like to see both a greater awareness in practice of “it’s okay to call in sick” and for us to continue to scientifically monitor the development of this phenomenon in different work environments.
Talenthelden: If you could wish for a research project, what would it be and why?
Ann Sophie: Currently, I would like to see companies encouraged to have their promotion behavior studied. Preferably several organizations from different industries so we can get generalizable results. Specific questions might be “To what extent are there differences in the promotion opportunity of mobile versus on-site workers?” or more intersectional “To what extent are there differences in the promotion opportunity of people with versus without caregiving responsibilities or with versus without an immigrant background?” I have a hunch that we’ll find distinctly different realities there for parents, care responsibilities, and people who want to work remotely to spend more time with their family abroad, for example. If companies are interested in these issues, please feel free to contact me!
Ann Sophie Lauterbach is a research associate and doctoral candidate at the Chair of Organizational Behavior and in the Cluster of Excellence “The Politics of Inequality” at the University of Konstanz. In the project “Digitalization, Automation and the Future of Work in Post-Industrial Welfare States”, she is primarily investigating the physical and mental health of employees before, during and after organizational change processes.
10 Rapid fire questions 4 Ann Sophie
- When you think of “New Work”, you first think of… work from anywhere.
- When you think of “transformation”, you first think of… my current practical projects.
- When you think of “network”, you think first of… Lean In, of course.
- Email or phone call? Zoom/Teams!
- Street food or restaurant? Preferably cooking my own food.
- Hiking or beach? Mountains, always.
- Favorite subject in school? History
- Last google search: bikepacking packing list
- Book you’re reading right now… Dare to lead, Brené Brown
- Favorite quote? “They’ll tell you that you’re too loud, that you need to wait your turn and ask the right people for permission. Do it anyways.” – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez