The End of Remote Work?

Not everyone by a long shot has the chance to work largely from home. However, those who do get that chance — on a temporary basis — are then reluctant to give it up. This is a controversial topic. “Nonetheless, there are good ways of preventing conflicts between employers and employees from arising in the first place,” says Dr. Wolfgang Freibichler, the author of this article and a partner at the Porsche Consulting management consultancy.


Is change in the making? Many people have come to prefer working from home. But businesses now have unused space. Managers are calling their employees back to the office, seeking greater presence. That can lead to conflicts.Porsche Consulting/Clara Nabi

Back to the office? Many peo­ple find work­ing from home so attrac­tive that they would be happy if they only rarely had to return to the office. Exec­u­tives and HR man­agers have been address­ing these pref­er­ences, and will need to con­tin­ue doing so in the future. But how, exact­ly? What makes sense here? Which mod­els can man­agers use to retain their employ­ees and how can they recruit new staff? Excep­tion­al lev­els of flex­i­bil­i­ty are called for — from com­pa­nies them­selves and from all man­agers, not just in HR. One major insur­ance com­pa­ny, which earns top reviews as an employ­er in busi­ness rank­ings, shows how this can be done.

Zurich Group Ger­many has been suc­cess­ful with its new “Flex­Work 2.0” model, which gives employ­ees a high degree of flex­i­bil­i­ty. The model ben­e­fit­ed from the expe­ri­ence Zurich gained dur­ing the peak of the COVID pan­dem­ic, when many work­ers were required to stay at home; and dur­ing the peri­od imme­di­ate­ly there­after, when employ­ees could choose whether to come to the office or remain home. Zurich announced a new goal: to achieve a “healthy bal­ance between sus­tain­able com­pa­ny suc­cess and indi­vid­ual needs.” Flex­Work 2.0 defines three cat­e­gories that give employ­ees dif­fer­ent lev­els of flex­i­bil­i­ty in select­ing their place of work. The “FixOf­fice” cat­e­go­ry requires its mem­bers to spend 100 per­cent of their con­trac­tu­al work­ing time at fixed work sta­tions on com­pa­ny premis­es. In the “Home­Of­fice” cat­e­go­ry, employ­ees may work from home up to three days a week, and spend the other two days at the company.

Of German companies with more than 500 employees, 94 percent offer the chance to work from home. The smaller the company, the lower the odds for flexible work models. That is one result of a 2023 survey of 540 HR directors commissioned by Randstad and conducted by the Munich-based ifo Institute. Some 59 percent of employees want to choose their place of work at least some of the time. Around 40 percent would not take a job without that option. Among young employees (18–24 years old), half insist on the possibility of remote work, according to the “Randstad Work Barometer” study.Randstad/ifo-Institut

The “Flex­Of­fice” cat­e­go­ry, which cov­ers most of Zurich’s work­force, offers the great­est flex­i­bil­i­ty. Under “Flex­Of­fice” rules, the place of work is sec­ondary to the task. In con­sul­ta­tion with their super­vi­sors, employ­ees can decide which loca­tion is most suit­able. That might be on com­pa­ny premis­es or some­where else. The “Flex­Of­fice” cat­e­go­ry does not require office pres­ence on spec­i­fied days — unless that serves the inter­est of the task at hand. Per quar­ter, these employ­ees may work out­side the com­pa­ny an aver­age of 50 per­cent of the time. This in turn low­ers the company’s space require­ments. Zurich has con­vert­ed the office space there­by freed up to other pur­pos­es such as con­fer­ence and cre­ativ­i­ty rooms.

Presence does not equal performance

Dr. Carsten Schild­knecht, CEO of Zurich Group Ger­many, describes his company’s inten­tions as fol­lows: “Flex­Work 2.0 is an expres­sion of the high level of trust we place in our employ­ees. We enable free­dom in choos­ing work loca­tions, yet we also make it clear that for us as a com­pa­ny, it’s impor­tant to ensure direct con­tact with cus­tomers and part­ners as well as inter­per­son­al rela­tions among co-work­ers and on teams.”

Dr. Carsten Schildknecht, CEO of Zurich Group Germany, enables freedom in the choice of working location: “We place a high level of trust in our employees.” Zurich/Richard Unger

Zurich’s exam­ple shows that new guide­lines on col­lab­o­ra­tive work also require new ways of think­ing. Roles, tasks, and actions are chang­ing for man­agers on all lev­els. Con­trol has given way to coor­di­na­tion. Mere pres­ence in an office is not the same as per­for­mance. How and where this per­for­mance is pro­vid­ed can now be a mat­ter of the employee’s dis­cre­tion. It is the supervisor’s job to ensure that over­all tar­gets are met. Mod­ern man­agers are plac­ing more trust in their team mem­bers’ abil­i­ty to work inde­pen­dent­ly. At the same time, they are con­tribut­ing to their com­pa­nies’ suc­cess by astute­ly coor­di­nat­ing the skills and capac­i­ties of their staff mem­bers. The main task here is to steer — with­in the guardrails or guide­lines that every com­pa­ny and every orga­ni­za­tion should be set­ting up with­in its mod­els for collaboration.

Freedom also means responsibility

These guide­lines serve an impor­tant ori­en­ta­tion­al pur­pose. Yet they are evi­dent­ly still in short sup­ply. Only 27 per­cent of Ger­man com­pa­nies sur­veyed by Porsche Con­sult­ing are devel­op­ing new guide­lines to gov­ern mod­ern types of col­lab­o­ra­tion. In order for the guide­lines to devel­op their full power, exist­ing tar­get and incen­tive sys­tems also need to be scru­ti­nized. For the more free­dom and respon­si­bil­i­ty employ­ees have, the more impor­tant it is to have sys­tems that mea­sure indi­vid­ual goal attain­ment and com­bine per­son­al­ized incen­tives with per­for­mance-based com­pen­sa­tion. After all, freer mod­els of work also require greater moti­va­tion­al mea­sures for employ­ees to assume more entre­pre­neur­ial respon­si­bil­i­ty. And for them to no longer view their job as “just doing what the boss says.”

Not every profession or occupation can be done remotely. Machine and equipment operators, tradespeople, and service providers, for example, generally have to be physically present at their sites. Here, too, companies should be developing alternative solutions for more flexible work models that benefit both their employees and themselves.Employee survey/Federal Statistical Office of Germany (Destatis)

As part of a Change Man­age­ment Com­pass analy­sis, Porsche Con­sult­ing sur­veyed top man­agers at Germany’s 100 largest com­pa­nies about the changes under­way in large parts of work­ing life. Around 90 per­cent of sur­vey par­tic­i­pants shared an impor­tant obser­va­tion: when peo­ple are given the chance to deter­mine tem­po­ral, loca­tion­al, and focus-based aspects of their pro­fes­sion­al lives, they are much more pro­duc­tive. How­ev­er, the sur­vey also showed that around half of man­agers in Ger­many do not find it easy to shift more respon­si­bil­i­ty to their employ­ees. This is also noted by Uwe Schöpe, the expe­ri­enced chief HR offi­cer and work direc­tor at Zurich Group Ger­many. In a tele­vised inter­view he observed, “There are man­agers who are skilled at han­dling remote work­ers, who grant their employ­ees free­dom, and whose teams are still pro­duc­tive. Other man­agers need some guid­ance in how to achieve that.”

Uwe Schöpe, Member of the Executive Board for Human Resources at Zurich Group Germany, speaks from experience: “There are managers who are skilled at handling remote workers, who grant their employees freedom, and whose teams are still productive.” Zurich/Jörg Sänger

Balance and discernment

Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, every com­pa­ny — in con­junc­tion with their employ­ees — should find the right bal­ance between work­ing from home and com­ing to the office. Reg­u­lar on-site meet­ings are rel­e­vant for a sense of com­mu­ni­ty and impor­tant for a good work­ing atmos­phere. Sixty-three per­cent of man­agers sur­veyed by Porsche Con­sult­ing for the Change Man­age­ment Com­pass are con­vinced that poten­tial con­cerns on the part of employ­ees work­ing remote­ly are less vis­i­ble and there­fore less apt to be rec­og­nized and under­stood. It is impor­tant to work togeth­er on a team with phys­i­cal pres­ence, but that does not have to be every day. The com­bi­na­tion is what leads to success.

Stud­ies by Porsche Con­sult­ing in dif­fer­ent sec­tors have yield­ed the rec­om­men­da­tion that team mem­bers should meet at their place of work at least once a week. Among other things, this fos­ters infor­mal dia­logue among col­leagues and mutu­al learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties by virtue of direct con­tact, nei­ther of which should be under­es­ti­mat­ed. Zurich Group Ger­many’s HR head Uwe Schöpe, agrees. “We’re sure that reg­u­lar in-per­son con­tact is impor­tant for a cor­po­rate cul­ture to work well. We at Zurich want to keep devel­op­ing our shared identity.”

Flexibility for everyone

The direc­tion is clear: a strict “No more remote work” pol­i­cy is no longer com­pat­i­ble with the changes tak­ing place in the work­ing world. Flex­i­ble and more nuanced solu­tions are need­ed. Fur­ther­more, there are good chances that this will raise the abil­i­ty to rec­on­cile pro­fes­sion­al life with a fam­i­ly and pri­vate life to new lev­els. The option of work­ing from home also relieves pres­sure on peo­ple with respon­si­bil­i­ties such as car­ing for fam­i­ly members.

In 2022, 24.2 percent of employees in Germany worked from home, and 14.7 percent worked from home every day or at least half the time. That is twice the level of pre-COVID figures. Self-employed persons with their own employees work remotely much more frequently than people in dependent employment relations (38.7 versus 22.1 percent).Employee survey/Federal Statistical Office of Germany (Destatis)

One point should not be for­got­ten in dis­cus­sions of remote work, name­ly that only some groups of employ­ees are in fact able to enjoy more flex­i­ble con­di­tions. Accord­ing to the Fed­er­al Sta­tis­ti­cal Office of Ger­many, that was the case for 24.2 per­cent of the country’s employ­ees in 2022. Con­verse­ly, how­ev­er, that means three-quar­ters of employ­ees in Ger­many con­tin­ue to work on site every day at their com­pa­nies. Many occu­pa­tions, such as machine and equip­ment oper­a­tors, trades­peo­ple, and retail sales staff, have strict on-site pres­ence require­ments. But here too, with­in the realm of pos­si­bil­i­ty, employ­ers should be devel­op­ing more flex­i­ble mod­els and incen­tives if they want to retain their per­son­nel and design attrac­tive options for the next generation.

Dr. Wolfgang Freibichler is a partner at Porsche Consulting and an expert in new types of collaboration. As a consultant for top-level managers, he has spent many years studying the roles and needs of people in professional life. Porsche Consulting/Jörg Eberl
Dr. Wolfgang Freibichler is an expert in business management and a partner at Porsche Consulting. His counsel is followed by top managers from the automotive, mechanical engineering, electronics, and construction supply industries as well as the banking and insurance sectors. His experience derives from strategic consulting for more than 1,000 leadership personnel in 14 countries. The author of numerous books, studies, and technical articles on business management, he plays key roles in research projects to identify crucial factors for success, conducted with institutions such as the University of Cambridge and Harvard University. His own education as an industrial engineer at the Technical Universities of Darmstadt and Karlsruhe was supplemented by a French Grande École degree from a dual program with the Grenoble Institute of Technology. During early years of professional work in Germany and China, he earned a doctorate in strategic management consultancy from the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart.
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