Coronavirus drives companies to experiment with remote working


Companies around the world have been reluctant to allow employees to work from home, even as programs like Slack and Skype make remote work easier. Now, as the pandemic forces companies into an open-ended experiment, is corporate culture about to change?

Without lengthy commutes by car or train, and with a couch instead of an office chair, remote working seems more like a win than a bad thing for many forced to stay home because of the coronavirus.

Businesses focussed on the digital world hope that many people’s fears about working from home will be replaced by positive experiences during the virus crisis.

“Corona is an opportunity as well as a challenge to digitize business, the public sector and healthcare,” says Achim Berg, president of the digital association Bitkom. For him, that means making technologies for web conferences and remote working part of everyday life.

But before the pandemic broke out, many managers and employees alike were sceptical about the benefits of mobile working.

Last year, just four out of 10 employees said that although they were allowed to work remotely, they preferred not to, according to a survey in Germany last year.

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“Of those employees who are allowed to work remotely, 62% said they hadn’t taken up the opportunity, while 38% were happy working from home,” digital association Bitkom said.

The sceptics said they needed to be in contact with people and some feared that their careers would suffer if they weren’t in the office all the time. Another study found that around half of working people did not want their personal and professional lives to be more integrated, a separation which is much more difficult to maintain when working remotely.

Many of these concerns have been swept away by the current crisis, although in Germany, only a minority of people are able to work at home or away from their desks.

“Some companies in the production sector don’t offer managers the chance to work at home to avoid creating envy among the broader staff in production,” says Oliver Stettes, an economist specialising in corporate culture.

The current crisis is now forcing many companies to rethink their assumptions and test a new work environment, despite niggling worries among many bosses.

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Employers will wonder whether employees can still reach their targets without being in constant contact with the office, while employees will want to know if they can now work when it suits them or if they have to all be on the clock at the same time.

The current scale of teleworking has already grown far beyond the usual levels as, until now, the majority of employees in many countries rarely do a whole day’s work at home. In Germany, two thirds of those working remotely tend to do just a couple of hours outside the office, according to an IAB study.

Likewise, so far, employers have not had to spend much time thinking about the regulations that govern teleworking, even though these are sometimes quite strict.

As companies rush to enable remote working, many are focusing less on regulations than on technical issues. Worries range from whether a firm has enough laptops for its staff, if employees can otherwise use their own computers, and whether the office Internet infrastructure can serve everyone working at home. Around the world, IT staff are currently scrambling to address these practical questions.

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Many companies do not want their employees to use their own personal computers, fearing computer viruses would cause further upset beyond the coronavirus.

Case in point: A Berlin judge working remotely on a computer without sufficient protection is believed to have been the source of a recent malware attack on the court’s computer network.

An additional concern is whether Internet capacities might be overstretched if teleworkers are constantly using video conferencing tools and others requiring masses of data.

Internet providers are registering ever increasing usage of data, although that is mostly because people are streaming videos from platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Switzerland’s biggest Internet and phone provider Swisscom said it was unable to cope on March 16 as increasing numbers of Swiss employees started working from home to avoid coronavirus infections. – dpa