How will the pandemic change the way we work?

The future of work after the pandemic: You can find out why the future of telework is uncertain and what organisations can do to create positive working conditions for their employees in the years ahead in our interview with Heiko Breitsohl.

In 2020, people were fairly certain that the pandemic would totally transform our working world. During the first wave of the pandemic, many organisations were very quick to switch to teleworking, only to restrict these patterns of work again quite soon. By the end of 2021, significantly fewer people were working remotely compared to 2020. Why is that? 

Many organisations exhibit a certain inertia in the face of change. It simply takes time for change to take hold in organisations. And the bigger a change is, the greater the effort required to ensure that it is firmly anchored in the organisation. We know this from our research. So it’s all the more interesting that got this a bit wrong. We should have known better. Clearly, even a pandemic, which has triggered major social changes in other respects, is not able to overwrite behavioural patterns that have been ingrained over decades. At the organisational level, there are structures and cultures that are notoriously resistant to change. Besides – especially at the management level – the individuals taking action are still the same as before. Their need for control has not simply vanished.

Why is it so difficult for managers to trust their employees? After all, there are studies that show that people who work remotely actually tend to work more.

They do indeed work more, in some cases they actually work too much. The real difficulty that comes with teleworking is not that people simply sit on their sofas at home and stop working altogether. It is the opposite, namely that many individuals find it difficult to cope with the flexibility, as teleworking erases the boundary between work and non-work. Initial studies from the pandemic phase highlight the importance of boundaries between work and relaxation. People need a rest from work. At home, this boundary setting is much trickier, as work and leisure time blur into one another. This is where employers and managers are called upon to curb this process of dissolution. We have to move away from the fundamental assumption that employers can pretend that their employees simply do not exist outside of work. Employers need to learn to consider their employees in a broader context.

Is it possible to develop mechanisms to strengthen this foundation of trust?

They already exist – both at the level of managers and at the level of employees. Managers have a largely underestimated task, namely to support the people they manage in doing their work. And one way of doing that is by establishing good working conditions for them, but also by acting as a role model. A manager must model appropriate behaviour. This also implies that leaders must always take the first step. In the case of trust, this means: Managers must trust first, as they are in the more superior, more powerful position. Then, once those being managed realise that they are trusted, they are usually more willing to behave in a trustworthy manner. In general, we have to abandon the assumption that control is a useful instrument for generating motivation. Control can sometimes be necessary, for example, to uphold a certain level of safety in a production facility. But as far as motivation is concerned, control is not an effective mechanism. But other things are important: Good working conditions, a degree of autonomy in how work is organised and the clear message that what people do is important. The aim must be to create working conditions that eliminate the need for control.

How do you see the future?

Most likely, the greatest change will happen where things are very tricky right now. Those employers experiencing major difficulties in recruiting and hiring new staff are under the greatest pressure to change. In other words, the greatest advantages will go to those who are best at anticipating where the problems lie and proposing good solutions. In the case of remote working, we‘re talking about two very different problems: One problem is that telework is now being scaled back again and many have failed to realise that more flexible working conditions can make a lot of sense in many areas. On the other hand, employers also need to properly anchor remote work within the organisation to make it effective. Not everything will work out by itself, you need structures here as well. These have to allow employees to use the flexibility in a meaningful way without resulting in self-exploitation. If telework isn’t working, it’s being done badly. Good teleworking means providing good conditions for people to work effectively.

What is needed for this to happen?

The first step is to have the right equipment. Besides the equipment, the working conditions also matter. As telework involves a greater fusion with peoples private lives, the needs of individual employees can vary, as their private lives are also distinct. A corporate office can look the same for everyone – that is not the case when it comes to working remotely. Each person has to find an individual solution here, which is a challenge. In addition to the workspace and time management, it is important to equip people with individual strategies on how to master the work-life divide. Where work and private life are physically separated, this works quite simply by leaving the place of work. We can’t do that at home. It is a part of the employer’s duties to help with this as well. While all these aspects are challenges, they are well worth tackling.


for ad astra: Annegret Landes

About Heiko Breitsohl

Heiko Breitsohl joined the Department of Organization, Human Resources, and Service Management as university professor for Human Resources Management and Organizational Behaviour in February 2017. His research focuses on presenteeism (attending work despite being ill), employee retention, employer support for volunteer work, and quantitative empirical research methods.

Heiko Breitsohl | Foto: aau/photo riccio