Cooperation in times of Covid-19

Publish Date

02 MAR 2020


Kai Beckmann


The spread of the coronavirus is going to sustainably change the way companies work. Working from home or on the road is suddenly no longer just a welcome option, but a necessity – for many companies this is a major challenge that requires flexible solutions.

The spread of the coronavirus is going to sustainably change the way companies work. Working from home or on the road is suddenly no longer just a welcome option, but a necessity – for many companies this is a major challenge that requires flexible solutions. After all, working without being tied to a set workstation will continue to gain in importance in the course of the digital transformation, regardless of global crises like the one we are facing right now.

New solutions are needed

The worldwide spread of the coronavirus is turning the global business world upside down. Containers are remaining in the ports, tradeshows are being canceled, employees are being sent into quarantine. Global stock markets have crashed in light of the current crisis. Also, business trips are hardly possible anymore, partly because companies are prohibiting them to protect the health of their employees, and partly because more and more countries have imposed entry bans. At the same time, however, for business continuity reasons it is essential for companies that their employees stay in close contact with each other. Companies around the globe are currently radically changing the way their employees work together. In many affected countries, governments or the companies themselves have recommended that their employees work from home, and in some cases this has even been made compulsory. The closing of schools and child care centers also forces many parents to work from home. In the current situation, digital communication and collaboration tools that enable virtual and thus location-independent collaboration are playing a key role.

Mobile working from home or on the road has increased dramatically since the virus outbreak. In a recent survey of HR executives in the Asia-Pacific region conducted by consulting and market research firm Gartner, 91% of respondents said they had implemented home office policies since the outbreak. This is clear evidence that the opportunities are being used in practice: The video conferencing software Zoom recorded more active users in the first two months of 2020 than in the entire previous year.

Virtual, decentralized working has also long been standard practice at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. For several years now, we have been offering our employees the working model mywork, which gives them the freedom to independently choose their working location and hours within the limits of what is possible. The days of an exclusively physical presence culture are over. Why? Because working from home offers many advantages regardless of the current coronavirus epidemic.

Today, it is easily possible to put together interdisciplinary teams regardless of where the employees are located and, depending on the project, to connect the relevant experts as well as customers, suppliers and other external partners. In addition, working from home and remotely promote a better work-life balance by offering greater flexibility. And from a sustainability perspective, companies should also promote virtual collaboration. If we can hold business meetings just as well via video conference, we save ourselves the journey by car, train or plane. I myself have been working exclusively from home for more than a week now and am using video conferencing and other digital aids – and it’s working. 

However, it is also a fact that working remotely is simply not possible in many areas, especially in the manufacturing industry. A production worker cannot simply take an industrial machine weighing tons home with him. In view of the coronavirus, companies face much greater challenges here than for employees who work in an office or on a computer. This does not mean, however, that the work in production cannot be controlled independently of location. Thanks to IoT, robotics and 5G, more and more machines can now be operated remotely.

A question of trust

However, when it comes to working remotely, the right technology is only half the story. At least as important is the cultural factor. The successful implementation of remote working always depends on whether companies trust their employees even if they can look over their shoulder less often than in the office. According to the Gartner survey, executives still often worry about the lack of control when their employees work from home or on the road. 

In my experience, in order to overcome these mindsets, we need to rethink the way we measure performance. In my view, work must no longer be measured in terms of time spent at the workplace, but rather in terms of the results delivered. In return, remote working demands more self-organization and personal responsibility from employees.

As dramatic as the consequences of the coronavirus are – there is a positive side to the current situation. It means that companies have to prepare for the future of work even more intensively than before. The coronavirus is already serving as a catalyst for the introduction and spread of modern forms of collaboration, including the corresponding technologies, and could have a lasting impact on company culture. In the future, managing a global organization virtually will no longer be a question of “if” for companies, but of “how”. And this not only to be prepared for possible future pandemics, but also to remain attractive for young talent and agile enough for global competition. 

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