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Personal Insights

Unreal

On a hot August morning I arrived at the Walldorf IT building. It’s been almost six months since I visited our headquarters. A poster on the glass door reminded me that I had to crap my face mask out of the pocket. When the beep confirmed that my access card still worked I was happy. Then I made myself comfortable at an empty desk on the ground floor. The stale office air contained a hint of solvent from the painter’s shop next door. The free wireless network from this workshop saved my day, since my computer refused to connect with any of the corporate networks. Although I would have never expected that I miss this workplace it felt a bit like coming home.

Over the last months I discovered and started to enjoy the advantages of home office. From my makeshift desk in our bedroom I hear the church bells chime and the birds sing. I can watch the sky and the trees. My school teachers always thought I am not listening as I constantly looked out of the classroom window. However, this is how I can concentrate best. Apart from the obvious zero commuting time I believe it might be one of the reasons why I have been quite productive recently.

We have magnificent tools to stay connected with our colleagues. Now that most of us can’t meet in physical space it’s even more normal to work across timezones and cultures. Seen from this perspective it doesn’t make a difference where colleagues are located. What counts is that we understand each other and team up to get something done. Over time I formed a habit to switch on my camera. It’s also a reminder to me that I can’t just check my email or distract myself with other things. Looking at the grid of talking heads in Teams or Zoom makes me feel that I am working together with other people.

Sipping at my office coffee after an intense kickoff meeting in the basement of the IT building I was wondering about how important real connectedness. For our conversations and exchanges of thoughts we didn’t even use the whiteboard. Still something would have missed if we had decided to go virtual. Was it the calm and serene tone in the voices of my colleagues, or their body language that made me believe our project will be a success? A few hours in a conference room, sharing some gossip over lunch in the canteen, going for a walk in the nearby forest? I can’t state exactly what, but something reassured me that we are a group of people who care for each other. And this gave me tremendous confidence and joy.

Back home and a few days later someone who knows me well called me sarcastic and urged me to return to my Munich office to mingle with normal people. Being the person concerned it’s of course not easy to judge if home office is having an effect on my ability to interact with real people. An indicator that the hypothesis is not too far fetched is to look at older people, who have a tendency of getting strange in social isolation. I don’t know why it’s so much easier to create trust and empathy when you meet people in the real world. But what I know for sure is that real connectedness requires physical interaction – see also my previous Unreal musings.

Further evidence comes from Ricardo Hausman, who recently explained Why Zoom Can’t Save the World. According to his research companies’ growth of productivity depends on the transfer of knowhow, which is the type of knowledge we carry in our heads rather than embodying it in tools or encoding it in algorithms. Knowhow moves very slowly from brain to brain through a long process of imitation, repetition, and feedback, as when learning to speak a new language or to play a musical instrument. Hausman argues that the negative consequences of shutting down business travel would be long-lived. My conclusion is that working from home has many advantages, but also risks. To meet my colleagues in the real world once in a while could be necessary to create trust and transfer knowhow. Business travel might not only be beneficial to our social and mental well being but also important to our company’s growth.

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