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Working from home in a pandemic – an involuntary experiment

Professor Arjan Kozica is developing instruments for companies on their way to the world of digital work

Many people hope they will be able to continue working from home once the coronavirus crisis is over. There may soon be a legal right to a minimum number of ‘home office’ days; yet are the models used out of necessity during the pandemic feasible in the long term? “If the corporate culture isn’t right, we will quickly return to the old patterns or become unproductive,” says Professor Arjan Kozica of Reutlingen University’s ESB Business School. Kozica is Professor of Organisation and Leadership; his research looks at how small and mid-sized enterprises can successfully run their business and work models electronically.

More and more work processes are changing due to new technologies; knowledge is created via digital and interactive collaboration; intelligent algorithms are even making personnel decisions. The changes for companies and their employees are immense. Working from home is one issue showing how complex such a change is - You need more than just new rules and laptops for everyone. The corporate culture is also important; above all, managers need to have enough trust in their employees. These in turn must be competent enough to get themselves organized in their home office and to work efficiently. Team dynamics are particularly tricky. What happens in a team when a person is not in the office? Is he or she excluded from the informal flow of information? Is the work distributed differently? “These are all questions that companies have to deal with if they want to make the transition to the home office or, more generally, to new technology-based work models, successfully and for the benefit of all,” Kozica explains.

In the DigiTrain 4.0 project, funded by Germany’s Ministry of Education and Research, Kozica has collaborated with LMU Munich and partners from the health care sector to develop instruments to help small and medium-sized companies find out how far they have come with digitization (Digitalisierungsatlas). They can work out their goals (Digitalisierungsindex) and find ways to get there (Digitalisierungskompass). After three years of work, the project is now almost complete and the methods and tools developed have been published and are available online to all companies.

In another project with the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (IAO) in Stuttgart, Kozica is pursuing a very different, less systematic approach. In a commission for public health insurer AOK Baden-Württemberg, Kozica is focusing on the scientific monitoring and evaluation of what are being called experimental spaces. Within a given experimental framework, employees and managers can jointly try out new working models. The research group “Managing Transformations in Organizations, Work and Society” at the ESB Business School and the Fraunhofer IAO is on hand to provide advice. For example, AOK employees are testing various self-organisational methods and innovations such as the 5-hour day. Can we be just as productive in five hours as in eight - without damaging our health - by avoiding unnecessary distractions? The jury is still out.

In view of the coronavirus crisis and the involuntary, abrupt switch to working at home, Kozica offers the following advice: “Companies should approach this like scientists - a chemist pours chemicals together and observes the reactions in a targeted, conscious way. If we adopt this same experimental attitude in the current situation, if we observe, ask critical questions, and draw conclusions, we can learn a lot for the future.”