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Is COVID-19 showing us how we’ll work in the future?

A discussion with Prof. Dr. Werner Eichhorst, team leader at the Institute of Labor Economics in Bonn, Germany, and professor of labor market policy at the University of Bremen.

Photo: Aurubis: Prof. Dr. Werner Eichhorst

Prof. Dr. Werner Eichhorst has worked at the Institute of Labor Economics (IZA) since July 2005, since January 2017 as Coordinator of Labor Market and Social Policy in Europe. Since November 2017, he has been an honorary professor for European and international labor market policy at the University of Bremen, affiliated with the Research Center on Inequality and Social Policy (SOCIUM). The main focuses of his work include the international comparative analysis of institutions and the development of labor markets, the comparison of labor market policy strategies and reform processes, the future of labor, and the transformation of the world of work.

What’s behind the term “new work”?

The term describes companies’ attempts to become more innovative and productive, together with an enhanced group autonomy and self-fulfillment among employees. In practice, this usually means agile work that’s more flexible than the classic understanding of work when it comes to structures and hierarchies, work times and locations, but in some cases also forms of compensation and participation.

Has the Covid-19 pandemic pushed this development?

There was of course a trend toward remote work and digitalization of communication. This was necessary to ensure continuity in employment in the first place.

Our surveys also show that both companies and employees handled this well for the most part. Nevertheless, it’s still too early to make a sweeping statement about whether the pandemic will have a permanent effect on business models and forms of employment, or even cause a structural shift.

Will the changes in work conditions stick around?

The intensity of remote work will increase in the long term, but it won’t lead to teams only being connected digitally. Companies and employees have given a clear signal that a considerable amount of work should happen in the same place, together, due in part to the informal, creative interactions this fosters. So in the future, there will be a frequent option for remote work, together with periods for meeting in a company environment.

In the future, traditional blue
collar workers will be ‘light blue’ 
at the most.

Prof. Dr. Werner Eichhorst 

What is required to ensure that this type of collaboration works?

The coronavirus crisis has intensified existing trends. This is why it’s important for teams to know each other personally in the analog world if digital collaboration is supposed to work. It’s especially difficult for new employees during this time. Furthermore, work should be clearly delineated at home, in terms of both time and space. That requires self-discipline. And in the long term, there needs to be a solution for childcare during working hours because this means additional stress for everyone involved, and in the end, both of these responsibilities suffer for it.

What demands will be placed on supervisors?

When it comes to managing employees, it’s also important for relationships to exist at a personal level. In this unique situation, it’s more important than usual for supervisors to take employees’ individual, in some cases personal, circumstances into account and to communicate well and frequently – as well as bilaterally. This requires learning processes on both sides. A management style based purely on control reaches its limits in this particular model. A leap of faith is required instead, which can improve the relationship between employer and employee. Our surveys indicate that this is working well for many companies and that the employees feel well informed.

Are there special things to consider for companies with international locations?

The number of live meetings involving business trips and conferences has of course dropped sharply recently, being replaced by digital dialogue. Digital communication has shifted to a higher level, which has made this dialogue easier and more intensive. Especially from an international standpoint, this can substantially improve relationships between colleagues if the communication accommodates the employees’ individual circumstances.

Nevertheless, purely digital collaboration won’t work – particularly across national and cultural borders. In some situations, personal meetings are indispensable, most notably for new employees or when employees have changed positions, because personal dialogue allows for an additional level of communication, for instance when spending breaks together.

In a production company, not everyone can work from home ...

Remote work is a feasible alternative for about one-fourth to one-third of employees. But the work situation for production workers is also changing. Their job profiles will change as automation advances, so the amount of routine work will decrease and be replaced by control, monitoring, and innovation tasks. In Germany especially, skilled workers have the qualifications to take on these more complex responsibilities. In the future, traditional blue collar workers will be “light blue” at the most.

Skilled workers therefore have to move into these employment sectors. In the same vein, companies have to be able to provide the corresponding training and transform their business models. Over the long haul, it won’t be enough to handle this development by offering working models with reduced hours. This calls for creative solutions.