“Those who have refused so far have to follow suit now.”

Fraunhofer IAO Director Prof. Wilhelm Bauer shows how the pandemic is changing the world of work at the 5th TecTalk Digital Transformation.

Rarely has the well-worn saying “a crisis is always an opportunity” proven to be so true as in the Covid-19 pandemic. Even with the lockdown in March, the world of work has changed dramatically in a short period of time. That direction was long overdue. For example, there has been a massive push for digitization. Also working from home has finally been discovered as a full-fledged workplace. This was not necessarily to be expected, despite all the new beginnings of the digital economy. After all, regular video conferencing, the use of collaboration tools and agile team management had been rather underdeveloped in Germany until then.

What is changing in this respect as a result of Covid? And how it will continue? That was the topic at the 5th TecTalk Digital Transformation – this time as a digital event. Prof. Dr.-Ing Wilhelm Bauer, Managing Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (Fraunhofer IAO) in Stuttgart, has been researching the interaction between people, organization and technology for more than 30 years.

Working from home becomes fashionable

Bauer presented the results of studies and surveys that Fraunhofer IAO had conducted in the course of the pandemic. In particular, mobile working experienced an explosive surge. Before Covid, only a minority of office workers had the option of working from home. But by mid-March, it was already a good 70 percent, or more than 35 percent of employees in Germany. And at companies like IBM, more than 95 percent of employees now still work from home.

This shows just how much Covid has digitized the German economy in a very short time. The majority of German companies have invested heavily in digital tools during the pandemic. Video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, GoToMeeting and MS Teams experienced a real high. However, the trend towards working from home is currently on the decline, with many employers drawing up “roadmaps” for returning to the office. “But the experiences we’ve had have shown: it works,” says Bauer. Good to know when the next wave comes.

Companies suddenly question all the rules they’re used to

But regardless of whether 30, 40 or even 50 percent of employees work permanently from home in the future, the question for companies will then be what to do with the office space they no longer need. As a result, expiring leases are either terminated or extended for only a short period of time. Or parts of the existing offices are abandoned immediately. What this means for the development of the cities is a completely different question.

Saving costs is at the top of the agenda for companies today. This includes travel costs. In the future, there will be far fewer business trips. Video conferencing technology has proven itself for meetings that do not require an unconditional physical presence. Less travel has also contributed to the generally high level of satisfaction with working from home, as has the time saved by eliminating the daily commute. That’s what the ILO’s surveys show. A better work-life balance and being able to work undisturbed are also cited as advantages. In general, 80 to 90 percent are very satisfied with the way they perform their tasks. Overall, most of those surveyed want to continue working in a home office to a limited but still significant extent, even after Covid. “There is clearly more approval than criticism,” Bauer said.

The new normal

However, not only employees, but also employers are generally satisfied with the performance shown. Just under half of the companies surveyed therefore want to significantly expand the offering after Covid. To do this, however, the technical conditions must be further improved. They want to develop permanent arrangements from the provisional and transitional states that currently exist. However, companies are required to be vigilant, because bonding and a sense of community among the workforce should not be underestimated. Times of gathering at the workplace continue to be very important. And even daily video meetings are no substitute for that.

Where do we go from here? What developments can we expect in the coming months? Bauer and the Fraunhofer IAO assume that after the reaction or adjustment phase of a few weeks and a “recovery phase,” something like a “new normal” will set in. This will include

  • more work from home
  • managing employees at a distance using new methods such as OKR (Objectives and Key Results)
  • and, of course, there will be many more online meetings.

Probably even more than before. There will also be radical digitization in all areas, whether in production or communication. “Even companies that have so far resisted this development will now have to follow suit,” says Bauer.

Greater operational resilience and a re-localization of production are also to be expected. One example was the unavailability of medical masks at the beginning of the pandemic. That alone made it clear how dependent we are on production in other countries and parts of the world. An end to globalization is therefore certainly not to be expected immediately, but a clear adjustment. That means more autonomy and less international dependence. And: supply chains that still function in times of crisis.

Dealing with Covid gives courage for the challenge of climate change

In Prof. Bauer’s opinion, the very successful handling of the pandemic in Germany so far can and must give us courage for the challenges we still face. One of them is the fight against climate change as a far greater crisis. He sees a new sense of solidarity and a new determination as the main approaches to this. The motto is simple. If we can get a grip on the Covid 19 crisis together, then surely we can also get a grip on the climate crisis. So there is definitely hope that not only the climate issue, but sustainability as a whole will receive more attention and find its way more strongly into working life.

The discussion about the post-Covid era revolves around one question in particular: Will we “ramp up” everything we had? Or will the shock of the shutdown be remembered? As an experience that “business as usual” is by no means a law of nature. As a realization that our everyday behavior can make the difference between life and death. As an experience that our world can change. And also as an impetus to think about what really matters.

In response to a participant’s question about what Germany could learn from other countries in the Covid crisis, Bauer sees Germany as an example worth emulating. After all, production of goods in high demand almost returned to pre-Covid levels fairly quickly. Despite the many and sometimes massive restrictions and requirements in the factories. But the strategies of other countries, such as Sweden or China, are also worth observing.

Working life gets more flexible

A “right to work from home” is only a matter of time for Bauer. In terms of the support that is to be expected from IT solutions, some promising approaches can already be identified today. Namely an increase in both

  • the use of already existing tools and platforms
  • the number of innovations that are being launched

For example, trade show organizers will soon be able to hold their virtual exhibitions via hybrids of video conferencing and 3-D presentation software. Universities – in contrast to the disastrous situation with public education – already offer quite decent digital learning and testing options. They can now be expected to rapidly expand their digital learning and teaching offerings.

What applies to universities also applies to workplaces as a whole. Spatial independence from the employer’s headquarters will increase. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the much-described office on the beach, where all that’s needed is a notebook and the Internet. The “internationalization of the workplace” has already increased as a result of the numerous travel bans and will continue to do so. In response to the concluding question of whether and how we will prepare for future crises on the basis of the experience gained, Bauer sees above all an increased willingness to plan for the future and initial approaches to resilience.

About the format: The TecTalk Digital Transformation is aimed at executives of companies that are particularly challenged to process the effects of digitalization in their business model. The initiators of TecTalk Digital Transformation, the communications consultancy crossrelations, the Industry 4.0 specialist ITQ and the Friends of Engineering at the University of Duisburg-Essen e.V. want to use this format to provide a platform for the necessary cross-disciplinary exchange. Participants will be able to gain new knowledge through keynote speeches on the respective focal topics and exchange ideas directly among themselves. Knowledge growth and networking gains are inevitable.
The venue for the event is usually the Norman Foster-designed Tec-Center in Duisburg’s “Tectrum” technology park
. Today it is a campus of innovation and inspiration for both young and established growth companies. Among other things, LTE was also developed here years ago.