This is how a boss establishes a good home office culture in times of Corona

San Francisco, Dusseldorf Katharina Borchert is sitting in a conference room in Mozilla’s headquarters in Mountain View. On the back wall is a large video conferencing screen. It is the end of February, one of the last days before the fear of the corona virus finally reaches Silicon Valley. A day before Facebook Thousands of employees on his campus in nearby Menlo Park “strongly recommended” to only work in their home office.

For Mozilla, which offers Firefox, the third most widely used Internet browser in the world, this is hardly anything new. Founded in 1998 as a foundation company on the ruins of the browser pioneer Netscape, it has its origins in the voluntary open source movement, whose headquarters have always been the Internet. Many employees started from anywhere in the world as programmers on individual projects and did not move to California when they got a permanent job at Mozilla.

The 50-person team that heads innovation chief Borchert writes codes for Firefox and has developed “Common Voice”, the second largest open source database for voice recordings, which can be used, for example, to train smart assistants.

The 47-year-old is the only one who comes to the Mountain View office. She likes to do that. She holds video conferences with the others, sometimes due to the time difference from walking in the morning until late at night. “The phone is extremely unsuitable,” she says. A video conference helps to avoid misunderstandings and confusion – if it works properly.

The employees work in nine time zones, in offices, coworking spaces or at home. Her former “Chief of Staff” called his office a forest hut in northern Sweden, others are based in Mumbai or Munich. Even her personal assistant works in nearby San Francisco, but saves the commute down to Silicon Valley.

A few weeks later, many companies around the world are Mozilla – forcibly. Because of the corona pandemic, companies in which stamping has just taken place must make friends with conference calls and trust-based working hours.

Bosses, who otherwise measure productivity by the office chair occupancy rate in their aisle, are now sitting in the home office themselves. Work routines, working hours, informal hierarchies, coffee gossip – everything has to be rearranged.

Home work par ordre du virus – it is a gigantic social experiment that could change the work culture far beyond the corona crisis. If companies succeed in integrating telework productively into their processes, employees who want it could stay at home most days. Workers with children could save themselves the triangulation of the house – daycare center – office in the morning. And city centers could be cleared of gray office complexes and commuter traffic in the long term.

If it fails, the looming economic crisis also creates a productivity crisis for millions of companies and employees who lose their minds between Slack news, zoom conference and changing diapers.

Many bosses distrust the employees in the home office

Borchert knows German offices – the ex-journalist was editor-in-chief of the news portal “Der Westen” in the Funke media group and managing director of Spiegel Online. In Germany there is a mistrust of whether employees in the home office really work. Even in the companies that Borchert was running at the time, she was never able to establish another culture. “I got my team to teach me what good remote leadership is,” she says.

And what makes it special? “You have to document a lot more – team norms, processes and conferences,” notes Borchert. If she writes an email at the weekend, she points out that she doesn’t have to answer until Monday. Borchert is only allowed to hold conferences with Europe until 10 a.m. – if the employees do not allow an exception. If someone sends a message in the Office Messenger Slack to all members of a channel, a bot will automatically inform them of the different time zones in which the members are and who may therefore no longer read them.

In general, Slack-Bots do a lot at Mozilla: Every Monday morning, one of the employees asks what important projects they did last week, what they want to do this week and whether there is anything personal that they want to share – the latter to get the gossip out of the Transfer coffee break to the virtual office.

When many new members joined Borchert’s team, the “donut bot” chose a different colleague every two weeks, with whom they could go for a coffee via video conference.

These are not just emergency nails, Borchert insists. Nor are they ideas that only work in the software industry or in a non-profit company. On the contrary, this culture brings advantages that have nothing to do with homework. For example, new employees could be integrated more easily because they know where to find important information or who is responsible for what – because the otherwise unspoken laws of a team are pronounced.

“In the office, the team norms wobble implicitly through the room,” says Borchert. “If you can no longer just go down the aisle, you have to make it much more explicit.” And honestly, how many companies organize coffee dates between old and new employees – whether by bot or on the bulletin board?

Mozilla is known worldwide, but a fairly small fish in Silicon Valley. A much larger campus also has its Mountain View campus and is courting employees similar to Mozilla. “I don’t have to go with Google compete to find the best machine learning talent from Stanford, ”says Borchert. “There are equally good people in Bulgaria or India.”

Google and Facebook are also popular

In the valley of inventors and developers, all factors for a strong homework culture seem to come together: a young, digitally educated workforce. Jobs where output counts instead of hours spent. And the tough talent competition, the gigantic property prices and salaries reward a globally distributed colleague.

But a strong homework culture is not a question of geography: Google, Apple or Facebook are digital companies, but they are by no means purely digital companies. With its gigantic headquarters such as the Googleplex, the U-shaped Apple Park or the Salesforce Towers have just built the Silicon Valley giants of the culture of the Cathedrals bulk office.

Before Corona, even Facebook employees with children who often wanted to work from home could often only stay in the home office for one day. In a telephone press conference, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that working at home with his wife and two children was also a major change for him.

This applies to his company, which even offers a platform for distributed teams with Facebook Workplace, all the more: After the home office order, Facebook employees got into a dispute as to whether discussions about which weekly market sells the best seeds belong in the internal work forums or Not. A kind of discussion that not only Facebook is currently experiencing.

“The big corporations here are just that: big corporations,” says Aaron Levie. The 34-year-old founded the cloud service provider Box in 2005 as a student, he knows Silicon Valley and its culture very well. “The companies here have all digital tools, but they face many questions of the same kind: How do we guarantee IT security if thousands of employees suddenly access our network from outside?” He says. Many people in the area around San Francisco have emergency plans for earthquakes, but not for a pandemic.

For the video call, the founder sits in his living room under an abstract drawing. It is the end of March, in the boxing center in Redwood City, right next to the railway line between San Francisco and Palo Alto, has only been an emergency occupation for fourteen working days.

Why does a company like Box need a head office? Levie speaks of spontaneous collaboration, of flipcharts that you can quickly stand up to. But he also says, “We’ll think about it very differently after Corona.”

He is currently learning in real time how telework is changing culture for the better. The weekly general meetings, in which most employees took part personally, now take place virtually. “More questions come from more different people. It’s more collaborative than it used to be, ”says Levie.

Perhaps it is Californian optimism to want to wrest positive things out of the crisis. Perhaps it is the business opportunities that a cloud entrepreneur like Levie sees through a trend towards remote work. But even if it is primarily software companies that promote a stronger remote culture, few of the reasons are limited to their industry. It is not only developers who prefer to put their children to bed than to be stuck in the commuter train at this time.

The result is more important than the hours worked

Of course, like many things, Silicon Valley companies are more keen to experiment. There are companies, like the developer network Gitlab, of three Ukrainian entrepreneurs who ended up in San Francisco through the start-up academy “Y Combinator”, but still call themselves “Remote Company” as companies without headquarters.

And there are corporations like Facebook that have to get used to the diaspora enforced by Corona just like some medium-sized companies or Dax companies.

At the same time, there are companies with a strong culture of remote working not only in the Laissez-faire state of California, but also in Germany. This includes, for example, the cloud provider Nextcloud. The company’s open source software is used, among other things, by the federal government for data exchange between authorities.

“We have an office in Stuttgart and one in Berlin, but our employees mainly work from home – sometimes across several time zones,” says Nextcloud founder Frank Karlitschek. For example, a colleague lives in Hawaii.

The 55 employees are used to agreeing on digital channels. “Home office requires that a company think results-oriented. I cannot check how long an employee works or how long breaks they take, ”says Karlitschek. In the end, the results counted and not the hours worked. “We don’t care who works where, when and for how long.”

In addition, the company relies on a way of working that can also be delayed. “Our processes also run asynchronously. We have few classic meetings. That’s why we work with chats. ”Agreements or tasks could be shared there, which an employee then takes up as soon as he has time – for example because he lives in a different time zone and is therefore awake at different times.

However, the Nextcloud team cannot do without personal contact either, emphasizes Karlitschek. “We meet several times a year for a week.” This would allow personal contacts to be established and deepened, which would later facilitate agreements. Actually, all employees should come together in Berlin soon, but that won’t work because of the corona pandemic. The meeting is now taking place as a video conference.

Editor’s note: Co-author Alexander Demling worked at Spiegel Online when Katharina Borchert was managing director.

More: Despite home office and contactless payment, the pandemic is only pseudo-digitizing. But it also offers the chance to change course.

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The corona shock becomes a stress test for coworking

New York, London, Dusseldorf WeWork for a good cause – with this initiative, the New York office rental company wants to collect sympathy points these days. Non-profit organizations and companies that actively help fight the corona crisis can use WeWork offices free of charge for up to three months. “We live in unprecedented times and know that we can only move forward together,” the company said this week.

However, the offensive cannot hide the problems of the ailing start-up: Almost all of its locations in the USA and Europe are still open. However, the corridors have been swept empty in many places because of the exit restrictions.

WeWork pays its employees in the United States a bonus of $ 100 a day if they come to work despite the risk of infection and keep the buildings running.

The corona crisis brought the boom in coworking providers to an abrupt end. The recession will now show how resilient the business model is. Countless young companies have followed the pioneer WeWork and turned office floors in metropolises such as New York, London and Berlin into hip hang-outs, in order to then sublet them at an additional cost.

Now coworking providers are faced with a potentially existential problem: their tenants can terminate their contracts at short notice, but they themselves cannot get out of their long-term contracts for years.

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Industry insiders expect high rental losses. “Surely the short-term contracts are currently mostly terminated or in the process of termination,” says Andreas Schulten, board member of the real estate analysis company Bulwiengesa.

At WeWork, around 30 percent of customers are estimated to have leases with one month’s notice. Brokers in New York expect that there will also be default and default among larger customers.

WeWork’s own leases for the prestigious buildings in the best locations, on the other hand, run for an average of 15 years. According to the prospectus published last June, the company had long-term rental liabilities of $ 47 billion at the time.

For WeWork, the corona shock comes at an extremely unfavorable time. Since the burst IPO in the fall, the once most valuable start-up in the United States has already been in an extremely difficult financial situation.

The major Japanese investor saved Soft bench the company in October with loans in the amount of five billion before bankruptcy. But the group does not want to fulfill the promise to buy back additional WeWork shares worth three billion dollars from existing investors.

On the night of Thursday, Softbank announced that it was refraining from the buyback. This was also linked to loans of a further $ 1.1 billion, which WeWork now has to do without.

S&P Global Ratings downgraded the company’s credit rating to risky junk last week. WeWork is “facing ever increasing cash flow and liquidity problems in the face of interrupted economic activity and a global recession,” the rating agency justified the move. And it could go further down.

The outlook is negative. “WeWork’s business model has always been very risky,” says Sven Wingerter. The head of Eurocres advises industrial companies, but also banks, insurance companies and the public sector in the conception and planning of their office space. “The high level of debt does not make it easier to master the crisis.”

Companies heavily in debt

WeWork is an extreme case, but the completely surprising corona pandemic has hit the entire industry hard. Many have recently expanded and are now sitting on large liabilities.

Chains such as design offices, spaces or Rent24 occupy many floors of high-rise buildings in some places in order to sublet them to their customers. After the start-up phase with high investments, the time of stable income should now begin for many. Corona has destroyed that for the time being.

Mark Dixon, head of global market leader IWG, admitted that the crisis will affect sales when the annual figures are presented in March. However, it was still too early to quantify the effects.

Andrew Brooke, analyst at RBC Capital Markets, expects IWG to drop 20 percent in sales in two quarters. With 3388 locations, the company has the largest network worldwide, it owns brands such as Regus and Spaces. The IWG share has plummeted by around 70 percent since the beginning of the year.

The company now has to cut costs and save cash. The dividend for 2019 has already been canceled. The plan to open 150 new locations this year must be abandoned. The company did not want to comment on the situation when asked by Handelsblatt.

In contrast to WeWork, IWG is comparatively well equipped. The company made a record £ 428 million profit in 2019. Observers are therefore confident that she will weather the crisis. “The necessary liquidity is available,” says Berenberg analyst Calum Battersby. IWG has a £ 950 million line of credit. The additional loan requirement would probably only be £ 500 million.

Coworking in the “Krämerloft” in Erfurt

The completely surprising corona pandemic has hit the coworking industry hard.

(Photo: Krämerloft)

It all depends on how severe the recession is and how long it is going to last. If many small companies go bankrupt, the occupancy rates in the office towers could drop rapidly. In order not to give tenants reason to cut contracts, many coworking providers have so far kept their buildings open – despite the initial restrictions and the infection risks for the employees.

Few tenants still come to the office. The demand for space for meetings or conferences has completely disappeared, says Stephan Leimbach, coworking specialist at the real estate consultancy JLL in Frankfurt.

Even at the beginning of the virus epidemic, these areas were often converted into office space. Because many companies had split their teams as a precaution and outsourced some of them to other premises, the need for fully equipped and ready-to-use office workplaces had even temporarily increased. But that’s over now. The vast majority of service employees currently work from their home desks.

Tough negotiations

A small consolation for coworking providers in Germany is that the tenant protection of the Corona Exception Act does not extend to their customers. Customers with current contracts are therefore not allowed to simply stop making payments.

Because the users of the coworking areas generally do not have tenant rights. The general terms and conditions of the provider Design Offices clearly state: “This contract is economically comparable to a contract for accommodation in a hotel. (…) The customer accepts that this contract does not give rise to any rental rights (…). “

In order to reduce their costs, however, the coworking providers in turn demand better conditions from the house owners: In Germany, they can defer their payments under the Corona Exception Act for three months.

In Great Britain and the USA, on the other hand, they have to conduct tough negotiations with their landlords. The CEO of London’s coworking provider The Brew, Andrew Clough, is currently in talks. Some landlords are open to postponing payments, others are not.

Experts are skeptical in New York. “The chances of this are not particularly good right now,” says Ruth Colp-Haber from broker Wharton Property Advisor. After all, practically every office tenant would just want to renegotiate contracts, especially in cities where rents are particularly high.

WeWork had organized large leases in individual special purpose vehicles years ago. In principle, they can go bankrupt without the company having to declare bankruptcy itself. So far, WeWork has not used it. “This would be an alarm signal for future and other existing landlords,” says Colp-Haber. But in the current exceptional situation, this could be an option.

After more and more co-working providers have been pushed onto the market in recent years, a selection will take place in the coming months. “The crisis will accelerate consolidation,” says Clough, whose company The Brew has been part of Rent24 in Germany since last year. “Some will not survive the shock.”

In Germany, too, it is expected that many smaller providers will go under. Among the more than 400 coworking companies are many who only offer one or two properties with shared offices for freelancers or small businesses. “There will be a thinning,” says Leimbach. “Economically weak coworking providers will have a hard time.”

In contrast, the sector as a whole is seen as a growth market in the medium term. The long-term structural trend towards flexible offices is not changing, says RBC analyst Brooke. The crisis could even lead companies to increasingly rely on flexible offices.

Consultant Wingerter is also convinced that the work experience from the corona crisis tends to increase the demand for flexible office solutions. He questions whether coworking providers benefit from this: “Corporate customers prefer the direct route to the owner – not the detour via an intermediate rental company.”

Rather, he expects conventional owners to adopt the idea of ​​short-term, service-oriented office rentals and tailor them to their and their customers’ needs.

More: The economic consequences of the Covid 19 pandemic are also affecting Germany’s real estate market.

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Softbank waives billions deal with WeWork

Soft bench

The Japanese investor originally wanted to increase its stake in WeWork.


(Photo: Reuters)

Bangalore Japan’s technology investor Softbank will not meet its $ 3 billion offer of additional WeWork shares that was agreed with its shareholders last year. “The WeWork Board of Directors Special Committee was created by Soft bench, the majority shareholder of WeWork, advised that he will not complete the offer that he approved in October 2019, ”said a statement from the US-based office rental company. WeWork is “disappointed” with the development. A Softbank spokeswoman initially declined to comment.

The Reuters news agency reported last month that Softbank was considering withdrawing from the $ 3 billion offer because the company believed WeWork did not meet the terms of the deal. The WeWork Board special committee later said he was preparing to fight the Japanese company.

More: Softbank puts € 38 billion package against the stock collapse

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Corona virus: How home office can work

Dusseldorf In many offices, it is currently as empty as it is shortly after New Year: Numerous companies send employees to their home office for fear of the corona virus. So had SAP After an infection, a location in Saarland with 800 jobs was closed indefinitely.

Axel too Springer tightened the precautionary measures on Thursday after a confirmed coronavirus case at the Berlin location and will send its employees to the home office from Monday. BMW, Per seven Sat 1 and Vodafone in the meantime resorted to similar measures. Communication is largely digital.

Some providers of video conferencing and collaboration software use this exceptional situation to advertise themselves: They offer their solutions at reduced prices or even free of charge – in the hope of persuading customers beyond the corona crisis. It can be heard in the IT industry that interest and usage are increasing significantly.

The change is not so easy. In addition to the right technology, a different corporate culture is also required. “This is a forced test for the home office,” says Oliver Stettes from the Institute of German Business (IW) in Cologne.

It is not yet clear to the economist whether the corona crisis will later be reflected in the use of mobile working methods. However, companies can do a lot to ensure that the work also succeeds virtually.

Work-life balance meets sustainability

Home office is already part of the working world, at least for some of the working population. Four out of ten companies in Germany make it possible to work outside of traditional offices, as the IT association Bitkom has determined.

And while many employees are on their way because they want to separate work and leisure or seek contact with colleagues, almost half (45 percent) demand a legal right to work remotely.

“Usually the wish comes from the employees,” says economist Oliver Stettes. “Flexibility is the most important factor.” With regulations for home offices and mobile work, companies position themselves in the competition for the bright minds, which is why large corporations have prepared themselves for this in recent years.

In the course of the discussion about climate change, they can also book sustainability points when video conferences replace business trips. However, not all jobs offer such flexibility – the assembly line, for example, is not without presence.

At least the office work can be largely depicted virtually. There are solutions for video calls and virtual meetings that play presentations in parallel or allow documents to be edited together, almost as if you were sitting next to each other on the notebook. Microsoft and Cisco are even working on transcribing the conversations directly. As soon as the speech recognition in German is mature, a protocol could be available immediately after completion.

Just go to your private study and get started – in the experience of Computacenter manager Marc Herzmann, that doesn’t work. He is responsible for the digital workplace at the IT service provider in Germany and works regularly at various locations, including his own study.

“It is our practice to interconnect via video conferencing,” he says. But that has to be practiced. “If an employee has to go to the home office ad hoc, it is questionable whether this works.”

Good camera, proper lighting

On the one hand there is the technology: The employees need a powerful notebook and a reasonable camera, which small and medium-sized companies in particular cannot guarantee for everyone. A stable internet connection is also essential, which is not the case everywhere in Germany.

In addition, the right work environment is needed, says Computacenter manager Herzmann – including good lighting so that you can be seen. This also includes a tidy background: All conversation partners can see it in video conferences.

In the best case, as Herzmann emphasizes, video conferencing can certainly create proximity, especially with modern systems that, for example, automatically enlarge the image of the speaker and focus on the person. “A customer recently told me: It feels like we can toast with our coffee.”

On the other hand there are the work processes. “The best technology doesn’t work if there is no acceptance,” says Herzmann. “That’s why change management is needed.” The IT service provider provides instructions and videos on a portal that prepare employees for handling the technology.

It is only used if it is easy to start or find a virtual meeting. “You have to do it one time or another to make it work,” sums up the expert.

And last but not least, it is the corporate culture that counts. For example, while it is frowned upon to shuffle too late in a meeting, telephone or video conferencing can often only start with a delay because colleagues are late, the technology is not up to date or the children call between them. The video conferencing provider Zoom that skewers in a satirical advertisementwhich is probably not that far from reality.

“What is often underestimated: There are processes and routines in teams that cannot be changed easily,” says IW economist Stettes. He therefore does not yet believe that the corona crisis will lead to a permanent boom.

More: “Too many managers in a state of shock” – This is how managers master the corona crisis

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