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Comment: Is working from home the future? Success depends on proximity and real encounters (Author: Volker Gruhn)

We not only excel at being thorough and exact – we can also act spontaneously and quickly. That is one of the lessons of the coronavirus pandemic, which remains acute. When the need arose, project teams and entire companies rapidly switched to working at a distance. While the change was not always seamless, the right attitude and the right technology made it possible.

Technologies such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Slack facilitate working from remote locations. The consequences of a lockdown would have been far more serious a decade ago, simply because we lacked those tools and the infrastructure required to take projects out of the office and into our homes at the drop of a hat. Our current ability to do so is a digital success story, one that we are currently living through and shaping.

However – and I say this as a person who loves being a software developer – some things cannot be transmitted digitally. Microsoft Teams does not have a team spirit function. Zoom lacks a cohesion button. As important and powerful as these tools are, and as seamlessly as they fit into our working processes, they cannot replace personal contact without something being lost. Human relationships, the wait by the coffee maker and impromptu exchanges are very difficult to digitalise, yet they are essential to individual projects and to a company’s overall spirit.

In the current situation, we should be grateful that our projects can continue at a distance. However, one day scientists will find a way to tackle the virus. On the horizon, we see what work may be like in the post-coronavirus world. Right now companies and experts are trying to outdo each other with the most drastic scenarios imaginable. We have seen headlines like “100 % remote working” and “The end of the office”. There is no doubt that our working practices are changing radically. They are becoming more flexible, more distributed and more virtual. Still, I am convinced that this path does not lead to companies and projects being exclusively or almost exclusively confined to screens. There are fewer and fewer reasons for people to be in a certain place. But sometimes that will be exactly what is required, whether it is to build resilient relationships, to make abstract elements of a project tangible or to celebrate successes and commiserate over defeats.

In individual projects and at companies as a whole, shaping our future working lives will require more sensitivity than ever. Routine tasks, regular coordination meetings and similar activities will increasingly be carried out in virtual environments. Yet we should not forget the importance of face-to-face contact. Leaders must be aware of the different needs and ensure that they maintain an effective balance. They must set priorities and make it clear why the journey is sometimes worthwhile.

We will meet less in person. But that will make our time together even more valuable and important. After all, proximity gives us the feeling that we are part of a team. And I do not know of any company or project that is successful without that feeling.

Prof. Dr. Volker Gruhn is founder and chairman of the executive board of adesso SE (Copyright: Julia Hermann)

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