Dr. Josephine Hofmann leads the joint “Partnership and Leadership” team at the Head of the Institute of Human Factors and Technology Management (IAT) at the University of Stuttgart and the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (IAO). She carries out research into management concepts and flexible forms of working, and has been dealing with the issue of working from home as part of her job for a number of years. We asked her what people need to be aware of when working from home.
How do I develop a structure for working from home?
You should create your own space for it as far as is feasible. Not everybody has their own office, but having your own space, for example an empty corner which also meets data protection requirements is important. Admittedly, this isn’t easy at the moment when people are having to educate their children at home as well as working from home.
It is also important to arrange set working hours between your team and management during which you will be available. At the same time, you also need to talk with your family about setting aside certain times of day when you should be left to work without being disturbed.
A lot of people find it helpful to make a note of the jobs that need to be done on each day. This helps you stay on top of things during the day. What’s more, at the end of the day you know what you have got done.
It’s important to make a distinction between working time and free time, and you shouldn’t forget to take breaks and eat lunch. You also need to be able to switch off and relax.
In principle, try and continue the rituals you would have in the office while working at home. A lot of rituals depend a lot on the person, everybody has to find out for themselves what is important for their working environment and what they find helpful. For example, greeting colleagues in the morning – now by e-mail or telephone. Or wearing the same clothes as you would wear to the office.
What is important when dealing with colleagues and management?
Reliability is very important. We have to be able to rely on one other. When are people accessible, and how? The freedom of working from home should not come at the expense of your colleagues. The more flexible the arrangement, the more reliable you should be in your dealings with colleagues. For example, it can be helpful to let colleagues know how you are getting on with tasks that take a little longer, so that they know you are working on it and know when it is expected to be completed.
Fundamentally, we should develop a sense of mutual understanding. People often believe that others do things the same way as they do, but that’s not the case. Therefore, discuss how you will get things done as a team and which ways of working should be chosen. It must be constantly re-examined whether these arrangements still work, because the team and its requirements may change. Addressing this costs time and will perhaps be inconvenient, but it is important so that everything works well in the long run.
What communication channels are suitable for working in a team? How can I make up for not being able to speak to colleagues in person?
First and foremost, it’s important to find out how people want to communicate. The team should decide together what forms of communication are suitable and then try them out. If something doesn’t work any more after a while and it’s getting on people’s nerves, the channels can be reconsidered and something new tried out.
A lot of non-verbal cues which can otherwise be sensed in an office environment are no longer obvious. I can’t see that a colleague is having to answer one phone call after another, or that there might be a bad atmosphere within the team. You need to make sure not to forget the value of informal chats, even though they take up your colleagues’ time. This is why it is important to find new ways of communicating. Things need to be discussed and questions need to be asked. Giving one another a call, chatting, or having video or phone conferences together can be solutions – it is very important to establish active communication.