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New Working Model

Balancing On-Site and Mobile Working

UZH has introduced guidelines on mobile working. What is the reasoning behind this step? We interviewed vice presidents Christian Schwarzenegger and Stefan Schnyder and professor of HR management Jochen Menges to find out.
Interview: David Werner; English translation by Philip Isler


Working together: Jochen Menges, professor of HR management and leadership, pictured here with his team during a workshop in the Digital Library Space at UZH.


Why has UZH decided to introduce guidelines for mobile working?

Christian Schwarzenegger: The world of work is changing as a result of digitalization, and the pandemic has accelerated this process. We’ve learned a lot in the past two years. Online meetings, for example, are now par for the course, and many communication processes have become much simpler. It would be incomprehensible not to continue taking advantage of these new opportunities.

Stefan Schnyder: UZH sees itself as an on-site university and a forward-looking employer. Mobile working in addition to work performed on-site can help us complete certain tasks more efficiently and make our everyday working lives easier, for example by not having to commute on shorter working days. The new guidelines on mobile working create the regulatory basis for this.

How is mobile work defined?

Schnyder: Mobile working refers to work that is carried out independent of any fixed location, in addition to the work performed at the employees’ usual on-site workplaces. Colloquially, many would probably refer to their situation as “working from home”. However, mobile working is to be understood in a somewhat broader sense.

Discussing UZH’s new working model: Jochen Menges, professor of HR management and leadership, Christian Schwarzenegger, Vice President Faculty Affairs and Scientific Information, and Stefan Schnyder, Vice President Finances and Human Resources.


Jochen Menges, as a professor of HR management, you follow developments in the world of work. What are the driving forces behind these changes?

Jochen Menges: The changes are happening at the level of technology as well as in people’s ideas and attitudes toward work. On the technological level, we now have completely new possibilities for mobile working that were unthinkable a few years ago - video conferencing is just one example. In terms of how we think about work, expectations have grown. Work should not only serve to earn us a living, but also increasingly meet our emotional needs. On the one hand, universities are affected by this change in values; on the other hand, they are also helping to shape it by educating the next generation of working people.

«The pandemic showed us that
mobile working is perfectly compatible
with UZH’s goals.»

Jochen Menges


How should UZH take account of the changing world of work?

Menges: We need to approach the technical possibilities with curiosity and make use of their advantages. And we need to listen to the needs of the employees. What is mostly required is a mixture of on-site collaboration and flexibility in choosing alternative work locations. In my role as professor, for example, direct contact with the students, my team and my colleagues on site is essential. But I also need quiet spaces where I can go if I need to write, for example. And I have to be able to work on the move too, so that I can maintain a dialogue with researchers outside of UZH. I think the ability to flexibly combine on-site and remote work is key, not only for professors, but also for many other employees at UZH.

What has the pandemic taught us about mobile working?

Menges: The pandemic showed us that mobile working is perfectly compatible with UZH’s goals. But it also showed us just how important the social dimension of work is and how lonely it can be to always be sitting at home in front of a screen.

Schwarzenegger: The pandemic has made us more aware of the advantages of an on-site university. Studying is not just about acquiring knowledge from books, podcasts and online meetings. Studying also includes discussions in groups, exchanges about successful learning and examination methods, contact with lecturers and other students and, last but not least, time spent together playing sports or in the canteen. Friendships and networks from our student days are central to personal development. All this is only possible if the university remains a meeting place in the physical sense. During the period of online teaching, these opportunities for social contact were lost. This lack of contact made some students feel lonely, and it also affected their mental health.

Science and scholarship thrive on interaction, and this goes for instructors and researchers, too. Put in exaggerated terms, you could say that the greater the number of people working close to a coffee machine, the greater a university’s creativity. These kinds of informal spaces where people can meet, chat and foster a sense of community aren’t available in a purely online world.

«Work is first and foremost
about working together with others.»

Stefan Schnyder


Is it also important for administrative staff to be on site?

Schnyder: Yes, absolutely. Their work is also first and foremost about working together with others. And good, trusting teamwork that gives rise to positive feelings requires a good team. Team spirit needs to be nurtured, and this can almost only be done on site and in person.

Jochen Menges, what do the latest research findings tell us about organizing work in a team?

Menges: First of all, it is important that teams organize themselves in such a way that they achieve the common goals. For this to work, the emotional needs of the team members must be taken into account and their differences valued. If a good atmosphere is created in teams because employees feel the way they want to feel at work, then this is positive in itself and also has a beneficial effect on performance. In order to accommodate different work demands and different emotional needs, a flexible working model is needed. It certainly makes sense to have a structure that allows both lively exchange and concentrated work. This basic structure is nothing new for universities, where it has existed for a long time. A very good example of this is the distinction between the lecture period and the lecture-free period. During the lecture period, the focus is on co-presence, whereas the lecture-free period is more about concentrated individual work.

Schwarzenegger: I’d like to give a small-level example of how this basic structure can be applied. A very simple work psychology experiment was conducted at UZH’s Department of Informatics, where employees were given a lamp. If you needed to focus and work on your own, you could set the lamp to red, or green if you were open to conversation. This simple measure significantly increased both the productivity and the precision of the work results.

«Our aim is to seize the opportunities
of mobile working while also developing
UZH’s role as an on-site university.»

Christian Schwarzenegger

What did UZH use as a basis for developing its new guidelines on mobile working?

Schwarzenegger: Our aim was to seize the opportunities of mobile working while also developing UZH’s role as an on-site university. Our approach was guided by evidence and scientific findings, including those of Jochen Menges. Together with Lauren C. Howe (UZH) and Ashley Whillans (Harvard Business School), he developed what is known as the 3-2-2 model, where employees work on site for three days and remotely for two days, with two days off. Their model has received widespread international attention among experts.

What was the biggest challenge in developing mobile working guidelines for UZH?

Schwarzenegger: Depending on the work area, the conditions for mobile work vary greatly at UZH. In a lab or in facility management, for example, it’s simply not possible to work remotely, while for employees in other areas it has become a matter of course. In areas where mobile working is possible, UZH believes it is important for the relevant organizational units and teams to find the right balance between working on site and working remotely.

Schnyder: Our version of the 3-2-2 model is more flexible and also provides employees working part-time with attractive conditions. The share of at least 60% on-site presence refers to the employees’ respective employment level. The conditions apply for all employees in that mobile working is voluntary. So if an employee wants to work on site all the time, they may certainly do so. However, employees are not entitled to mobile working. Mobile working arrangements are available if they are compatible with UZH’s operational interests and the personal prerequisites are met.

«Most current studies indicate
that a combinationof on-site work
and the flexibility to work remotely
is ideal.»

Jochen Mengens


What is the science behind requiring employees to work on site for at least 60% of their employment levels?

Menges: Most current studies indicate that a combination of on-site work and the flexibility to work remotely is ideal, both for individual employees and the team as a whole. For individual employees, being on site is important for developing a sense of connection with work, for their social inclusion, and for their work to be adequately assessed by their line managers. For a team to function properly, having all members of a team on site at the same time, i.e. co-presence, is crucial. Co-presence promotes knowledge exchange and creativity. It gives rise to the spontaneous encounters and interactions that are rarely possible during a meeting on Zoom.


«Mobile working brings
additional tasks
for line managers at UZH.»

Stefan Schnyder


Mobile working requires line managers to systematically coordinate their employees’ on-site presence. Does that make managing a team more challenging?

Schnyder: Yes, mobile working brings additional tasks for line managers at UZH. They have to assess whether mobile working is compatible with the university’s operational interests and the needs of the team. They’re responsible for organizing mobile working arrangements in their units in line with the requirements of an on-site university, while also taking into account their employees’ needs. They also need to keep in mind that not all employees are in the same position when it comes to mobile working opportunities. This means that line managers have to make appropriate individual decisions and to make the rules within the team transparent and fair. The challenge is to take suitable measures to strike a balance within the team between working on site and mobile working. This balance won’t develop on its own. It takes smart and forward-looking coordination from line managers who know when and where their employees will be working.

Are there any risks when it comes to mobile working?

Schnyder: For me mobile working is an opportunity. But there may be risks when it is used excessively, for non-operational reasons.

I am convinced that supervisors and employees will be able to handle the new freedoms elegantly and responsibly and make wise use of the opportunities they bring. It is important to consider accompanying measures from the outset. If, for example, many employees in a team regularly work remotely, it’s up to the line manager to ensure that team cohesion is maintained through specific measures, for example, by introducing regular team lunches or organizing information events.

Schwarzenegger: Line managers also bore considerable responsibility during the pandemic, for example when they had to get their teams through the various stages, from full lockdown to returning on site. They generally did an excellent job, and their teams quickly adapted to the changing circumstances. When it comes to the long-term development of working culture, we will continue to bank on UZH’s collective learning abilities.

«We continue to bank on UZH’s
collective learning abilities.»

Christian Schwarzenegger


Which measures are being taken to follow this learning process?

Schnyder: Human Resources is offering advisory and coaching services for leaders and managers on dealing with mobile working models. In June 2022, we will also carry out a survey among employees to find out about their mobile working experiences and preferences. And finally, the Executive Board of the University will soon launch a pilot project for interested professors to strengthen the campus leadership idea according to the 3-2-2 model adapted to our conditions.

What’s the objective of this pilot project?

Schwarzenegger: We want to use positive incentives to promote a direct exchange between professors, researchers and students, and at the same time integrate mobile working experiences in academic research areas. How can we use digital technologies to renew our campus culture? We want to collect, share and try out ideas, and in this way promote innovative forms of academic exchange. We know that our non-professorial academic staff and students are very interested in a lively exchange. In the end, we want the entire university to benefit from the project’s findings.

Have you already set a date for drawing initial conclusions?

Schwarzenegger: We’ll take stock in a year. If the evaluation of the pilot phase yields positive results, we’ll continue with the project.