Back in the groove

For this blog post and as part of our efforts in the research group to reshape business education in the future to come, I decided to try to address some of the current concerns my international business students have and how the new (not so) normal is already playing out for them. If the future, as it is yet to unfold is unknown and therefore ‘un-manageable’ or not-yet manageable, what better moment would there be for them as international business management students to start shaping this new future? A large part of this group of students already hold positions in some very busy, at the moment, sectors of the economy (such as the supermarket sector). This newly becoming and growing workforce, speaks of the new realities the sports industry, the music industry, the retail industry, the automotive industry, the healthcare industry and the educational industry is waking up to. Importantly they discuss how all these changes might affect theirs and by extension our own changing attitudes and behaviours to work. Reshaping business education in this sense starts for what most of us teaching at THUAS is ‘close to home’ – our students and what they bring to the table.

As an initial focus point, I therefore chose to explore how the question of work in the new normal revolves, at least in part, around the question of working from home (Home-Office) versus working from the office (Office-Office) that came up in one of our recent online class discussions. As the distance or limit between the home and the office continues to shrink, it is already evident that one of the main ‘offices’, or ‘tasks’ that we need to take up is to learn or decide how and where we want to manage to live and work together in the new 1.5m society.

The prospect of working from home as our class discussion started, was not that negative to begin with. One student spoke of a friend who is currently doing her internship in an Amsterdam based company where the manager was actually very satisfied by the manner in which his workforce accomplished all the given tasks, even though everyone was forced to work from home in recent weeks. In that sense, working from home sounded like a promising opportunity in which time could be used more efficiently. People in the future therefore, would only need to work a couple of days in the office and the rest of the time they could work from home. Working in the office was not necessarily a guarantee of more efficient or productive work ,as also in the office people “get a coffee here, then have a chit-chat there”. By working from home, according to one student, you get more freedom, like in many modern companies such as Google, where they actually already have a more flexible weekly schedule as to when workers have to come in to the office, and people get more motivated through it. Another student heard from his sister that her workplace was already considering implementing alternating working days for the teams, so that one half of the workforce goes to the office half of the week and the other half of the workforce comes into the office in the other half of the week. Lastly the factor of having workers work from home could also, according to the students, reduce overhead costs for companies as a lot of the money which goes into electricity bills, rent, heating, travel, food, etc. would be spared.

This is also where the ideal of the home-office or ‘working from home dream’ slightly fades away. Other students raised the concern that while having workers work from home might reduce overhead costs, the question of how to manage your workers from a distance and monitor if they do actually work from home was raised as a point of concern. In other words, how do you ensure that your employees are actually doing their job as well as they do it in the office? According to the students, there was no way of enforcing what workers do at home, and that’s the whole point of going to an office where you can make sure that your employees are working. Another supporting point for the ‘office-office’ was the fact that workers are more efficient when they have other colleagues around them working together with them, face to face, which helps in brainstorming ideas in a more efficient way. Here, students also reflected on how their own motivation levels seemed to increase when they study together at the university building in The Hague rather than alone in their room at home. 

On the point of studying at home during the lockdown in rather limited material conditions, students pointed to the fact that they, in contrast to teachers who might have a generous home-office budget, currently need to study on their bed or on a small table that is right next to their bed in a small room. If a similar situation of lockdown continues in the future, then students agree it is important that they have a separate room where they can focus and somehow ’go to work’ in it. 

In any case, the overall impression students shared was that for some, the idea of working from home in a Home-Office would be a blessing and for others, if the necessary material and social needs are not met, then the Home-Office is rather a curse and they would rather go back to the Office-Office. Finally, students touched upon their motivation levels which were low due also to the fact of not having a consistent schedule and sticking to it in a disciplined manner. They were already weary of “being on vacation mode” for too long and were looking to regain a sense of momentum to get “back in the groove”.

To end this post, I would like to return to what I started this post with, which is that the situation as it is unfolding is unknown and therefore ‘un-manageable’ or not-yet manageable. From my experience of listening to the students it became clear that although no one yet knows how all of this will continue to play out, the realities the situation confronts us with are already playing out in many constantly changing and not so comfortable ways. In the attempt to reshape business education for the future, something of this uncomfortable feeling will surely accompany such an attempt. Learning to manage or stay with a troublesome situation for a longer period of time will require management capabilities or perhaps a new set of more choreographic skills from all of us to bring us back in the groove.

(Ohad Bensimon)

With the contribution of class 2B of the undergraduate Three-Year Program, International Business BA at The Hague University of Applied Sciences.