Workplace living room: Covid-19 and the home office

Life is shifting to monitors – work and free time are in a digital change. Will the future workplaces for employers be the living room? We have summarized the most important facts, interviewed people in home offices and dared to look into the digital future.

A research by Kilian Beck, Simon Müller, Moritz Thienen, Jan Wullimann

In March, the number of confirmed cases (end of March more than 60.000 people were infected) in Germany increased exponentially and when the restrictions were the strictest in the country, more than 75% of Germans could imagine being able to work from home. The transition to the home office was not equally feasible for everyone. We have interviewed two people who are currently working in home office. But a home office is not equally possible in all professions. While jobs in the service sector or an office can be implemented better in the home office, jobs that rely on social contact or transport routes have problems working from home.

Apart from the problem that different job groups cannot work equally well from home, there is also a problem in the infrastructural framework conditions. It makes a big difference where you live. Many people do not feel able to run a home office at all because of their technical equipment and the infrastructural requirements.  Especially in the Corona crisis, digital working is proving to be essential for survival.

But how does the digital infrastructure in Germany compare internationally?

Many economists like the German professor for Telecommunication Economics, Torsten Gerpott, complain that Germany is not using its digital potential. He calls for modernization in the expansion of Internet lines in rural areas, because in Germany „we are not even at the level of Burkina Faso, for example, in terms of expanding the digital infrastructure.“ We have summarized what politicians, unions and employers think about the legal framework conditions in Germany and what they would like to improve.

Despite many problems, the positive aspects must not be overlooked. There have been great, new projects and ingenious ideas, but also things of the past like the drive-in cinema have been revived. It was foreseeable that streaming services would experience a boom. But this list, which shows what many people used online for the first time during the Corona crisis, is remarkable.

The months during Corona were also the time, when people became more creative. Many companies had to rethink their concepts and try out new digital ways. We have brought together the best of these creative ideas in Germany.

How is the home office issue being addressed after the Corona crisis? German Labor Minister Hubertus Heil wants to commission a bill by autumn of this year that includes the “right for home office”. He said: “Everyone who wants to and whose workplace allows it should be able to work in a home office – even when the Corona pandemic is over”.We took a look into the future with a futurologist and show possible digital models for working from home.

How do people deal with working from home?

Covid-19 affects everyone and forces the society to make massive changes. One of these massive changes is that many people were or are still not able to carry out their work at their usual workplace. The alternative workstation then is mostly the home office. We want to answer the question of what work from home is like. To this end, we have conducted interviews with two people who share their experiences with us: Swantje Schindehütte from Germany and Raymond Micallef from Australia have spent several weeks in their home offices. Both work together with people, so the pandemic has faced them with big challenges. They told us about the transition to work at home, how productive working from home was and what role the home office could play in the future.

German Parliament discusses Right to work from Home

Government of Social Democrats and Conservatives clinches about Right to work from Home

In 2019 the German minister of work Hubertus Heil announced, his office will draft a law that introduces the right to work from home if the employee wants to. Since then, the discussion of the draft in the German federal parliament (Bundestag) was postponed twice. A motion by Beate Müller-Gemmeke a member of the Greens faction in the Bundestag sparked a broader discussion in March one week before the German government issued contact restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With her motion, she wanted to draw attention to the gap between the wishes of employees to work from home and the reality in the German labor market. In Germany, the Greens ran on a Social-democratic and environment protection platform. The German Institute for Economic Research found that about a third of the employees would like to work from home. Though their jobs would allow working from home, their employers are not.

Müller-Gemmekes Green Party wants to break this culture of presence in the German economy, she said in an interview with global journalism. “We want to change that in the benefit of the employees, but this would also bring benefits for the employers, as their employees would be more loyal.” This issue became more pressing when the contact restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic were enacted.

Social Democrats to draft the law

Martin Rosemann is the Social Democrat responsible for the right to work from home among the Bundestag Social Democrats. His fellow party member Minister Heil is expected to draft the law on the issue. They prefer the Dutch model for the right to work from home which would allow the employee to ask his employer, whether he or she could work from home. The employer then must accept or reasonably deny the employee’s wish for example within four weeks. If the company does not respond, the employee has a legal claim to work from home, Rosemann explained towards global journalism. Compared to the alternative which would shift the burden of proof from the employee to the employer, this model makes it impossible to sue an employer if the employees wish to work from home is denied unreasonably. In European comparison, the Netherlands had the biggest part of their workforce working from home in 2017. According to the statistic of the European Agency for Statistics (Eurostat), almost 14 percent of Dutch employees usually worked from home. The European average was five percent. In Germany, it used to be slightly less.

Rosemann argues for the Dutch model: “The shift of the burden of proof would have the downside that every decision in every case would have to be scrutinized by a court.” So, companies could sue employees to forbid them to work from home. According to Rosemann, this could lead to a division of the employees’ right to work from home by the scale of the company they are employed in. “Big companies armed to their teeth with good lawyers find ways to deny working from home easier than smaller ones”, he said.

Germany is governed by a coalition of Social Democrats and Conservative Christian Democrats. The partners are constantly in sagging negotiations, also on the right to work from home. Peter Weiß oversees labor market politics among Bundestag Conservatives. “There won’t be an all-in legal claim to work from home with me”, he said. But he acknowledges the fact that many employees in Germany lack a proper legal framework to work from home for employers as well as employees. While no one in the Bundestag argues for craftspersons or nurses to work from home, Weiß argues that these groups cannot work from home, so no one should have a legal claim to do so. “Agreements between employees and the company they work for are better to cope with the issue”, he said. Further, he thinks that working from home is not an issue to be addressed in general laws: “The Legislation cannot keep up, with the increasing differentiation of the labor market.”

Employee Protection from Exploitation

The protection of employees is an important concern of Rosemann. He wants to defuse the constant risk of a fusion of private and professional life. “It must be clear that there is a right to be offline”, he said. This is part of the already existing law on working hours. “For example it is the case that, if the employer calls and the employee answers, it is work time”, said Rosemann. Further, he wants to basically keep the current laws on off-times, which ensure an off-time of nine to eleven hours between two workdays. The only exception he refers to are collective labor agreements between trade unions and employers. Some of these already allow exceptions.

Johannes Vogel Member of the Bundestag Free Democrats called for flexibilization of the law on working hours in an opinion piece for the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit” published in 2018. He is the Free Democrat in charge of labor market politics. Back then demanded to abolish the strict eight-hour workday in favor of a regulation of weekly working hours. He argued that in an increasingly flexible work environment no one obeys the current law on working hours, so it should be abolished. Vogel was not available for comment before the end of the research.

The right to work at home will be discussed in Parliament in the coming months.

On employee protection, Weiß stated, that work at home must be treated like every other work. He views the current legislation as “fully sufficient” to protect employees from exploitation and does not see a necessity for a right to be offline.

Müller-Gemmeke expands the protection for employees on a right to return to the office workspace, whenever the employees want to. As Rosemann, Müller-Gemmeke stresses that the decision to work from home must be voluntary by the employee. She would delegate the arrangement of the right to be offline after the workday to collective labor agreements. For the employees without a workers’ council she would give a legal directive: “Where employees have no representation, I would give a legal claim that a right to be offline must be formulated in written form between employer and employee”, she said. As her green and social democratic colleagues, Jessica Tatti Member of the Bundestag leftists highlights that working from home must be a voluntary decision by the employee. She also stresses the social factor of the workspace as a place where employees can organize and form staff associations to defend their rights. As her colleagues, she speaks up to the long-term risks of working from home. “Isolation, exploitation by the employer and self-exploitation from the employment into the private life are the main risks, I see”, she said. Against all calls for flexibilization of working hours, she said: “The eight-hour workday is a modern achievement for which the worker’s movement fought hard. It must be defended.”

European Court Decision on working hours record to be implemented

Currently, the German Concept on the record of working hours conflicts with European law the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg ruled in May 2019. The supranational court ruled that the current German legislation by which only over-time hours must be registered is insufficient. Within the European Union legislation of all member states is controlled by the court, regarding the compliance with European legislation. The court’s decision became an even more pressing issue especially during the Covid-19 pandemic when the sudden move to work from home further expanded the flexibility of working hours. Due to this, the risk of unpaid overtime hours increased. Rosemann stated that the law will be aligned with the decision of the court until the right to work from home takes effect. To follow the court’s ruling the German law on working hours must be changed to register every single hour of work. This would further protect employees working from home.

Agreements between Unions and Employers will be necessary

At the beginning of July, the President of the German Association of Employers Ingo Kramer argued against a right to work from home in an interview with the “Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland” a network of German Newspapers. Kramer called Minister Heil’s Plan “downright nonsense”, arguing that this would lead to an outsourcing of jobs to contractors. Kramer did not provide any arguments for that claim in that interview. His association was not available for comment.

As a representative of the employees speaks David Schmitt Head of social and labor market politics at the German Federation of Trade Unions in Bavaria. “Our goal is to expand the time sovereignty of employees”, he said. Working from home is only one component, which could allow employees to choose time and place for their working hours increasingly independent. Despite all freedoms working from home can bring to an employee, he warns about the dangers: “Self-exploitation, overload, unpaid overtime and permanent availability are serious long-term threats to health and work protection.” Therefore, he calls for protective legislation for employees, to control these threats he examined. According to him, this starts with the voluntary basis on which employees should decide to work from home. Schmitt supports the ruling of the European Court of Justice, as Unions have criticized the German Model to keep only records of overtime hours for a long time. He claimed this leads to about a billion unpaid overtime working hours. “We think this is only the tip of the iceberg”, Schmitt denounces the situation, referring to a study by his union. “Further we need a basic right to be offline”, Schmitt demanded. The specifics of this right should then be formulated in collective agreements between unions and employers: “The legislation should be the lowest red line, our task as unions is to negotiate further agreements”

Minister Heil is expected to draft a law until autumn of this year. It is expected to be discussed after the summer break of the Bundestag.

Digital Leisure Activities in Germany

Due to Covid-19, leisure activities in Germany have also shifted to digital, at least in the short term. Due to the restrictions on access and contact, many things that would otherwise have been fun in leisure time could no longer be done. And so, the providers of leisure activities also had to become creative and try to switch to the Internet. We put together various offers from all over Germany in a map for you, which shows that exciting leisure activities can be easily organised from home even in times of a pandemic. And the best thing about it is that the offers, although they are actually from certain cities, are digitally accessible for all people in Germany without any problems. So now, people from the south can also admire the animals from the zoo in Schwerin. The map shows a total of 15 different offers for digital leisure activities. To find out more, simply click on the symbols. Afterwards a box will appear where you can find the most important information about the offers. The black marked places are offers especially for adults, the yellow marked places are offers for children and the blue marked places are offers for the whole family.  Most of the things you will find on the map are timeless and can still be used now that the regulations have been reduced in many places.

A Digital Leap – here to stay?

The Home Office has become a place of comfort for many people. A study conducted by the Fraunhofer Institute (FIT) revealed that over 80% of the 500 questionees are content with working from home. Some enjoy not having to wake up as early, others feel they work more efficiently due to reduced distractions like meetings and chats with coworkers. Many want to keep this privilege long-term and independent of the pandemic. And it is not unlikely, since a study carried out by the ifo-Institute revealed that 54% of companies in Germany want to permanently expand home office jobs. Microblogging giant Twitter has recently announced that it is allowing its employees to work from home indefinitely, meaning they can decide themselves if and when they want to return to the office.  “[…] if our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen”, says Jennifer Christie, Head of Human Resources. As a multibillion-dollar company, Twitter is in a unique position. Therefore, it is unlikely that this will become a trend with smaller companies in the foreseeable future.

Where do we go from here?

The reason for the rapid rise in people working from home in the first place, was the forced leap in digitalization induced by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it is just one of the many changes that were brought about by this global crisis. Futurologists predict that the pandemic will change the digital landscape for years to come. Karlheinz Steinmüller is one of them. We asked the renowned scientist and science fiction author what must be done in order to build upon the progress that has been made.