Probably, this is a question most companies are currently pondering: To what extent should we as a company re-emphasize physical presence and ask our employees to return to the office or offer the possibility to continue working remotely in an increasingly post-pandemic world?

As Baloise, in any case, that's what we are trying to figure out. After the onset of the Corona crisis in 2020, we were, as an Insurance, able to quite swiftly switch to remote work. During peak times, up to 95 percent of our employees were working from home. This agility was strongly appreciated by our employees as a caring proof of our employee-centric culture. Now, let's fast forward to 2022: After 2 years of largely remote work by default, our Baloise home countries like Switzerland, Germany or Belgium are lifting their Corona restrictions. As a result, we like many companies now for the first time face a real choice how to position ourselves with regards to the evolving world of work.

Building on our employee-centric culture, the starting point for our Baloise answer is completely clear: Trusting our employees and giving them the leeway to choose is the best way to make employees happy and foster individual ownership. After all, employees have learned over the last 2 years that desk work and standard meetings can often be done more effectively at home, whereas creative work and informal exchange are (as of today at least “ the race to the Metaverse might change that soon) still easier in the office.

Letting employees chose freely however triggers two main concerns: Will employees working remotely self-optimize at the expense of customers or colleagues? And, if employees continue to spend the majority of their working time at home, will they over time lose identification with the company and its culture?

My answer to both is clearly no. In an ownership culture, employees will honor the trust given to them and, in their vast majority, act responsibly, putting customers, teams and productivity before self-interest. Identity in turn is a matter of shared values and norms which are transmitted through trustful relationships with high quality contacts and conversations. And, especially younger employees Generation Y and beyond naturally have these conversations virtually just as well as physically. Similarly, cultural development, e.g. through storytelling or joint rituals, works just as well in a virtual like in a physical town hall.

Also, why not simply ask employees what they like? According to a large German study 1), who did just that, ~65 percent of employees today prefer a 3+2 model: 3 days in the office, 2 at home, or the opposite. As the authors put it themselves: 3+2 is the new Remote. Humans simply are social beings and will by themselves naturally balance proximity and distance when given the choice.

That's why we at Baloise have gone for a hybrid approach: We expect employees to be in the office on average 2 days out of 5 per week. The other 3 days our employees are free to choose for themselves, based on the impact their choice has on their customers, their colleagues and their productivity. This way, employees have the possibility to work from home the majority of the time. At the same time however, we expect that on average more than half of the employees will work from the office.

”Remote work today needs to be treated as an equivalent alternative to the office, with its own set of advantages and disadvantages."

Now, how to make sure that we do not, despite best intentions, fall back in our former patterns when employees return to the office? Here are some exemplary measures which we have identified:

Communicate the new policy explicitly and have senior leaders role model it,

Include New work case studies in leadership development programmes focusing on empowerment,

Invite meetings as hybrid by default to make it easy and normal for employees to join virtually,

Invest in appropriate videoconferencing infrastructure, so that remote workers have a similar meeting experience to those physically present,

Introduce norms like monthly Focus Fridays where disturbance from meetings is reduced to a max to the benefit of focused individual work,

Bundle team meetings and communications on fixed days to align employees physical presence to the same days.

 So, there is no either-or. Office work is far from outdated and remote work is no panacea. But, the Corona crisis has served as an accelerator for new ways of working: Employees digital literacy has increased, working norms have changed and the positive effects of remote work on both employee engagement and productivity have become clear. Just returning to the former normal is therefore a backward-, not a forward-looking strategy. Instead, remote work today needs to be treated as an equivalent alternative to the office, with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Here at Baloise, we see this best of both worlds approach as the ideal way forward: It allows us to live our employee-centric culture, to stay attractive for new employees in the labour market, to maximize productivity and to foster our employees digital savviness in a business in full digital transformation.