“The pandemic was like pressing fast-forward”

An interview with Prof. Wilhelm Bauer on the changing world of work

Prof. Wilhelm Bauer, Institute Director of Fraunhofer IAO and deputy director of Institute of Human Factors and Technology Management IAT at the University of Stuttgart, is not just Commissioner for Technology for the state of Baden-Württemberg. He also participates in numerous committees, associations, advisory boards, steering groups and expert commissions.

The pandemic is hitting the economy and society hard. But as a someone who researches work and innovation, is this a particularly exciting time for you in spite of everything?

Bauer: As the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” This is exactly what we are seeing now. The crisis has led to an unprecedented rate of innovation with regards to reinventing products and services. People are very willing to use digital platforms, to enter into collaborations, to work together across sectors and to quickly find new solutions. We are now recognizing the ability of many of our companies to act with speed and agility, in particular the small- and medium-sized companies. What’s more, in terms of administration and other bureaucratic structures, we are now seeing things being completed within days, where they would have otherwise taken months or years. When we look back on this crisis in the future, we will certainly say: There has rarely been a time of such creativity, where so many new things were tried and so much of the status quo was challenged. At the moment, a lot of experimentation is arising from necessity. Not all of it will be sustainable in the long-term. And not all organizations and companies are doing things the way I have described them – unfortunately, there is a lot of shadow mixed in with the light.

Speaking of long-term sustainability, people across Germany are having predominantly positive experiences with working from home. To what extent will we work from home in the future?

Bauer: The coronavirus will stay with us for the next few years. Although we will hopefully be able to bring the virus under control with vaccines, we must also learn to live with it. If we are not successful, this could result in a requirement for higher rates of working from home. In any case, I think it will remain higher than it was before the lockdown. In Germany as a whole and beyond, the pandemic has created room for experimentation, which has given many employees and managers completely new experiences with working from home. However, at the moment I am also noticing that the length of the lockdown is getting on people’s nerves and many of them want to return to some form of normality, such as company offices, as quickly as possible.

Is the current situation with so many people working from home likely to make a lasting change on the world of work?

Bauer: I don’t know yet, but presumably yes. The lessons learned during the months of the pandemic will stay with us. Many companies and employees have overcome their reservations not only against working from home, but also against video conferences and other forms of communication, virtually overnight. The “new normal” of the future will be something different, indeed. But we have yet to see exactly how it will be different. However, what has already been demonstrated is that the willingness to change is there, and it is technologically feasible. What is still lacking is an intensive examination of existing company cultures, in this case even extending to making necessary changes to the overall social conditions. So the question is still open as to whether there will be a real paradigm shift in terms of how work is structured. But I believe the answer is: yes!

Digital solutions for working from home, such as video conferencing tools, did already exist before the crisis. Why had they not yet been widely used? Why are we only starting now?

Bauer: There are several reasons for that. For one, the technical conditions were not optimal until this point. Even now, we still have real infrastructural challenges, for example with respect to nationwide broadband expansion. During video conferences, I still often see that cameras have to be turned off because people’s connections are overloaded.

On the other hand, we have a cultural understanding of work and leisure that has been passed down through centuries, as well as our own individual behavior patterns. It is a ritual to go to work in the morning and come home in the evening. Once evening comes around, work finishes and it’s time for your private life. Now that everyone has no choice but to stay at home, we have been forced to use new communication channels. In doing so, we have had good experiences and seen that it works. The technical features of the video tools have also been greatly improved. And it’s also very pleasant to not have to wake up at 4:00 a.m. to fly to a meeting. We haven’t had these experiences up until now. We only became flexible out of necessity. The pandemic was like pressing fast-forward: it took the working world from a state of emergency to the next level. It has enormously accelerated transformations that were already underway – in the field of technology, in society and throughout the entire economy.

What changes will the pandemic bring about in the economy?

Bauer: I am certain that we will continue to have an interconnected global economy. But it is also clear to me that in some respects we have relied too much on other countries. This is where we need to rethink. Single sourcing has always been a dangerous strategy. We unfortunately had to find that out the hard way and we have hopefully learned our lesson. We will give this a lot more thought and run simulations of possible eventualities. Technology such as artificial intelligence will help us here. Developments in areas such as learning systems, i.e. artificial intelligence, as well as robotics, rapid process automation and the virtualization of processes will lead us to a point where work statuses and company processes will be transparent and mostly automated, and where it will be possible to map them in real time and conduct them at heretofore unseen speeds. Quantum technologies also show enormous potential; in the future, they could surpass the technology solutions of today by a significant margin. Human-robot collaborations or the use of digital assistants in knowledge work will change the way we work and live in a substantial and lasting way.

The institute has been researching resilient and flexible models of work for many years. Fraunhofer even conducted a study in 2012 that included scenarios and recommended actions in the case of a pandemic influenza in Germany. Why is it that we often only become aware of and implement research findings when the pressure is on?

Bauer: The aim of a study is always to clarify complex relationships, to advise the client on future action and to make recommendations from a scientific point of view. The extent to which this ultimately has an impact on the client and what consequences are drawn from the results of a study are beyond our control. As an independent, non-profit research institution, we consider the future from all possible perspectives. But we can only suggest solutions. I think that every company that underwent digitalization projects with us before the pandemic was comparatively well-prepared. It is necessary to prepare at an early stage, which is why we are so keen for companies to approach us sooner – not when an emergency has already begun. However, you can use the principles of an emergency to drive innovation, taking “trial and error” as your motto. Many companies have experimented with new models of work or set up a task force to implement things in a quick and agile manner. The works council agreements for these models weren’t drafted until later. Our society is too stuck in its own excellent organizational structure: plan first, then make laws and, finally, implement them. Now it is the exact opposite. There is a greater willingness to experiment in Germany; the company has become a kind of “living laboratory” overnight. Now, implementation comes first. This is the reason why we at the institute are working a great deal with living laboratories and experimental spaces, to put new themes or ideas directly into practice and evaluate them. If we maintain this spirit and apply it proactively, then the future will be bright.

To finish, we’d like to ask a personal question: How has your daily working life changed during the pandemic?

Bauer: Like others, I had to start working from home between one day and the next. This certainly had its advantages for me, since I no longer had to get up early in the morning to catch a flight to a meeting. I’m not an early riser by any means, and now I can get up according to my own rhythm. However, as a manager, I noticed that I had to organize myself differently. With the many communication channels that are available to us today, you have to clearly arrange who you are speaking with and through which channels. I also quickly became aware that I was feeling the loss of personal contact – I miss that a lot. So I am already very much looking forward to the day when we all scurry back to the office and I can bump into people in the hallways again. And I am most certainly looking forward to our first real “Fest,” as we say in Germany!