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Home office and free work in practice: How do you break out of the hamster wheel?

New forms of work such as home office, remote work and virtual management are hotly debated as trend topics, but in practice the beautiful new home office world often looks different: How do you deal with work without limits and long-term availability?

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The limits of labor productivity

Everyone talks about working freely, wherever and how you want. I confess: As great as it sounds and as much as I myself represent this lifestyle, I am skeptical whether it can all be implemented in exactly the same way. Because there are limits! An important aspect of this is that our brains cannot deal with unfinished business. Constant availability therefore disturbs concentration and productivity.

For ZEIT ONLINE I was interviewed on this topic some time ago. My thesis: You don't always have to be reachable, but can switch off your cell phone or laptop with a clear conscience.

Always available but not available?

Now a reader made me aware of an interesting aspect in his comments: In his opinion, there is a subtle difference between availability and accessibility. He wrote:

“A common problem with time management is the lack of distinction between accessibility and availability. This is a very central question for your own time sovereignty. I am always available, either by eMail or on my AB. And if someone leaves a message that I consider to be very urgent, I will get back to you quickly. But I'm not always available. Nobody can expect me to jump immediately if they whistle. I like to decide the same place on my list of priorities that concerns someone else. ”

The brain wants to end things

I basically agreed with him in my answer - after all, we are actually free not to react. And yet, for many people, this distinction is purely theoretical. Unfortunately, the practice looks like this: If we have one eMail we want to answer. When the phone rings, we want to answer it. But why is it like that?

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One reason is that people tend to want to end things. A eMailthat we receive or a call is an unresolved problem that we want to end. A loose end in the head, so to speak. And only when we have done the thing can we switch off.

Getting Things Done - why we cannot switch off

If you want to deal more closely with this topic, you should read “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. Because David Allen gives us a good explanation for this behavior:

Because our brain is not made to just leave things there. On the contrary, it literally ensures that we always keep in mind everything we still have to do, what we have planned or what we should still respond to. Unfortunately, our thinking apparatus makes no distinction between what's important and what's not. Blogger Johannes Kleske once summarized the resulting dilemma as follows:

“When the subconscious constantly reminds you of a thousand things while trying to focus on one thing, it causes stress and disrupts the productivity you need so badly. You're sitting in front of a task and wondering if there isn't something more important to do. ”

Time sovereignty can only work to a limited extent

And that is exactly why it is so difficult for many people to simply not react when, for example, the next one eMail from the boss or customer - even if it is in the middle of the night. Because the brain is put on alert by such messages and only relaxes once the thing is done.

The thesis of time sovereignty may sound logical, but will only work to a limited extent. Because you tend to want to react to get the job done and get it out of your head. Even if it's not particularly smart, for example because the boss learns that you are always available. If you want to sleep in peace, switch off your cell phone and laptop in the evening.

Pros and Cons free work?

The experts are divided on digital work: some design the beautiful utopia of decentralized work thanks to modern technology, away from the open-plan offices (I always wonder how one should be able to work there anyway) to the “cozy” home office. The others show the problems that can arise: psychological stress and the risk of becoming completely unproductive thanks to a lack of self-organization and constant interruptions.

To this I agree without reservation: Exactly this freedom in the working time and in the time division, which is necessary for me, in order to be able to work creatively, is what I particularly value in my profession. This is exactly why I see the problems with this work form and wonder if it can actually be implemented.

Virtual leadership: trust is good, control is better!

First of all, I have the impression that many companies, especially in the creative sector, are increasingly turning to hiring people again - because they have noticed that you can then control your employees better. Companies such as Yahoo and IBM have also made a name for themselves with home office return campaigns, and even after the corona crisis, many employers responded with panicked return campaigns instead of continuing the experiment home office.

It is often like this: When we talk about flexible working hours, it usually means that the employees have to be flexible when the boss wants. This is exactly where the limits of decentralized work lie. And something that we somehow have to do better in this society.

Home office as a career obstacle

Even the digital workers at home have a crucial disadvantage: the lack of communication. Because obviously human beings are simply not made for digital communication, more and more people are coming back to meeting themselves personally instead of only on the Internet.

Moreover, the immediate communication channels are in the Company much more direct, the on-site employee snaps faster on a landfill and receives information earlier than this per eMail or telephone would be possible. And local employees are simply much more present to your bosses.

Constant communication constraint

This condition makes many digital workers uneasy: One tries to communicate incessantly, either by eMail, Telephone or in social networks - maybe also out of the fear of a certain loneliness.

And you quickly have the feeling that you have to be constantly ready. This unrest can push one to the limits of mental stress and blur the boundaries between private life and leisure.

Conclusion: break out of the hamster wheel of your own constraints

I don't want to paint anything black with it. On the contrary: In principle, this form of work is absolutely welcome as it frees up a lot of space for creative productivity. You just have to do it organizationally.

What can help, for example, is to adhere to certain regularities in working hours, also so that you set yourself and other limits of constant accessibility. Set spatial boundaries between work and private life. In addition, a stable social environment and a good professional network that helps to reduce fear and loneliness. This can prevent you from soon finding yourself in the hamster wheel of your own constraints instead of in the free creative home office.

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2 responses to “Home office and free work in practice: How do you break out of the hamster wheel?”

  1. Daniel Winnenfeld says:

    If all bloggers put similarly good content on the web, the internet would be much more useful.

  2. Louis Speiden says:

    With everything that goes wrong in Germany, it is no wonder that more and more highly qualified people are leaving. Nevertheless, I find your efforts to inform your readers admirable.

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