Home office doesn’t work. Here’s what we’re learning from startups during the pandemic.

Tobias Schirmer
Feb 11 · 5 min read

By Tobias Schirmer, Founding Partner of Join Capital, and Thijs van der Burgt, Founder of Office App

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Photo by Alex Kulikov on Unsplash

It’s no secret that the corona crisis is presenting challenges that not only severely restrict activity across industries, but also turn their working atmospheres upside-down. Lockdowns have forced many employers to turn to home office setups. New work is the new normal.

But this doesn’t come without problems. A new workplace in your own four walls isn’t just a challenge for productivity. It has consequences for team structure — especially in the case of startups — and it’s foreshadowing what large companies can expect in the future.

Especially in times like these, when a crisis puts both economic and social structures to the test, two important factors are needed above all: connectivity and innovation. Is home office making these readily available? Not exactly.

Welcome to the jungle: Is home office a ‘knockout round’ for employees?

As much as some employees might like a mish-mash of work, laundry and other errands in their home office life, working in this way is detrimental to employee development. Let’s consider newcomers to a company, who are often left without key guidance. Complete onboarding via Zoom? Hard to imagine without causing some level of cognitive overload — not to mention the lack of non-verbal communication.

Playbooks or manuals can help here, but they don’t replace competent training and the exchange of experiences with colleagues. Under-performance or negligent errors often go undetected for a long time due to the lack of continuous communication and connectivity within these remote teams. This also applies to established employees and it permanently weakens the entire company’s performance.

Cultural or team-building events like lunches or happy hours get completely lost; the Zoom version just isn’t the same. Physical distancing becomes social distancing. When you consider that our coexistence is based on collaboration and social environments, this has long term detrimental effects. Social capital in the form of creativity or team spirit is irrevocably lost.

“A permanent home office creates one thing, above all: a company that is not performing as well as it could,” says Tobias Schirmer of Join Capital.

“Employee potential isn’t encouraged to its maximum. New colleagues are left to fend for themselves. In the fast-moving startup scene especially, this leads to uncontrollable employee turnover. It’s important to break this cycle with stability and proactive management. Balancing the situation includes employees working in small teams vs. in total isolation. Clear communication guidelines are essential.”

Companies that don’t manage to convey their own corporate culture and values ​​in this situation shouldn’t be surprised if turnover skyrockets. The fact is, skilled workers in the startup scene are in great demand. They’re courted. An employee who isn’t passionately tied to the company after onboarding isn’t likely to stick around.

Technology enabling new office settlement

Real innovations often arise in exceptional situations. The pandemic is certainly one such situation, and new technologies can be used to bring employees out from their home office and into safe, effective office environments. Because businesses thrive on person-to-person exchange and offices are where this magic happens, they shouldn’t disappear — but instead, become smarter. More flexible. Safer.

A solid security concept is essential for achieving this goal. In addition to masks and safe distance, visitor and employee management systems should be implemented in order to be able to track and organize movements. A simple tally sheet isn’t enough here. For example, multinational computer manufacturer Dell currently uses Office App to regulate the interaction of its employees on a large scale.

“Entire city centers are collapsing due to lockdown and the ongoing home office. It seems inevitable that the urban ecosystem will change, but it’s important to minimize this economic damage in centers like Amsterdam, New York and London,” says Office App Founder, Thijs van der Burgt.

“We’re certainly noticing a trend toward a major technology offensive. The permanent home office isn’t prevailing, especially with startups. This time period is showing us where work is headed: office spaces are used again and again, and thanks to technology, are designed securely.”

The keys to success: Leadership and office management.

Companies can’t afford the potential reduction in knowledge transfer, energy, innovation and team coordination that comes with permanent home office. With a set of best practices that rely on technology, companies can get through this transition phase and enter the new office settlement.

Seamless onboarding, coaching and effective crisis management are essential. In addition, hybrid coordination of individual teams should be enabled, as well as working in small groups. It’s also important to implement rules and tools to cope with the cognitive load and to help balance individual and organizational needs. Finally, metrics should include quantity and adjustment of quality based on supervisor observations and team collaboration skills.

The bottom line is that the covid crisis should not be used as an opportunity to reduce company costs and “outsource” employees. The expected performance losses exceed any surface-level savings. As some political voices push for the allotment of more days per year of home office for employees — including several German political parties advocating for up to 24 days — we see that not every company is ready to meet this demand without facing economic losses. While we’re certainly not against home office and employee flexibility — especially during such uncertain times — we believe in taking the right steps to ensure a happy medium for both employee and company health in the long term.

It’s paramount to recognize the structural change in our workplaces and respond to it with the right tools: technology and management. In our current situation — and if internal structure allows it — companies would do well with a hybrid model to guarantee both safety of employees and the long-term stability of company work structure.

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