The Story So Far
Topics such as working from home and flexible work hours are nothing new in the field of HR and People Ops. A short internet research already provided a plethora of articles discussing why the option of working from home is important and generally a good idea especially in regard to employee engagement, notably this article by Cynthia Johnson. This already reflects the popularity of this topic and also shows that today’s employees are increasingly embracing ideas that are linked to the concept of new work. The benefits of working from home have been discussed since the concept was developed about 20 years ago. Since then we have witnessed immense technological progress, which has changed our personal as well as our professional lives and, among other things, created the possibility of working remotely. Due to this, employees have increasingly demanded for a better work-life balance and thus also demanded for the option of working from home.
But what has become of these employee demands? What has happened so far?
The Current Situation
When it comes to the option of working from home, it is especially the multinational companies that are leading the way in Germany. As an example, SAP introduced a custom tailored remote working model for 22,000 of its employees. This model is enabled through chat tools, video telephony, an obligatory amount of time that employees must spend in the office in order to maintain social contact with their colleagues, and a very high level of trust between managers and employees. Siemens has implemented this concept in similar fashion, allowing employees to do 20% of their annual workload from home. Microsoft Germany began implementing the concept of remote work in 2014. Since then, of the 2700 Microsoft employees working in Germany, 90% work from home or from a different location of their choosing.
The large corporations mentioned above are not the only ones in Germany to deal with the topic of remote working. The German legislator recently developed a legal claim to remote work, which has however been linked to a large number of provisions of occupational health and safety and data protection law, the violation of which can quickly lead to a fine for either the employer or the employee.
But the mere fact that the German legislator has dealt with this issue and has come to the conclusion that such a claim (albeit under strict conditions) can exist, tells us one thing: The concept of remote work, or “Homeoffice” as we call it in Germany, has now become a valid work model and is continuing to expand.
One should nevertheless question the concept. Above all, one should ask oneself whether remote working makes sense in one’s own company or not. It is one thing to implement the concept in a large corporation with over 1000 employees and another to do the same in a small company.
Let’s focus on the positive aspects first though.
The Benefits Of Working From Home
“Being stuck in rush hour was really cool today”
An exhausting trip to your place of work can immediately take the air out of your sails before you have even had the chance to sit down at your desk. This applies in particular to employees with a long commute, but also to all others, since even a relatively short commute to work can be nerve-wrecking, for example when the train is jam-packed, or you get stuck in the middle of rush hour traffic. Working from home eliminates this potential stress factor and allows employees to begin working directly without previous distraction.
A Quite Working Environment
Anyone who has ever worked in an open-plan office knows the added value of a quiet workplace. In situations where you have to work in a concentrated manner, a noisy workplace is rather unfavourable. Even noise-cancelling headphones are sometimes no longer a solution, for example if you are constantly actively approached by colleagues who have a question or require your help with something. Remote work, when implemented correctly, allows you to concentrate on your work in an environment which suits you best and will thereby optimize your efficiency.
One of the most popular arguments brought forward by enthusiasts of remote work is that it’s easier to reconcile your private life with your professional life, resulting in a heightened work life balance. One often mentioned example in this case is that remote workers are able to knock off a couple of to-do’s in their break-time during the week, which would normally take up their time during the weekend (grocery shopping, lawn mowing etc.). The ability to work from home is also of particular benefit to people who, for example, look after a person in need of special care or have similar reasons for why they have to be at home a lot.
Reduced Costs When Working From Home
Another factor that is often mentioned is the reduction of costs when you work from home. For example, daily travel costs in form of a train ticket or gas for your car are struck completely, and costs that occur due to eating outside or in a restaurant are minimized by having the possibility to eat at home.
The company also often saves costs through remote workers, because it does not have to set up workstations on site for them and many employees that work from home choose to work on their private devices.
So far so good, yet there are still issues that remain controversial and many disadvantages that need to be considered.
Main Disadvantages Of Working From Home
Reduced To No Social Contact
Lack of privacy and noisy workplaces are a big problem for many employees who are tied to the office. But the exact opposite, having no one to talk to, is often cited as the biggest disadvantage of remote working. This involves both the general sociability that most remote employees miss, as well as team cohesion and the creation and maintenance of a dynamic office culture. The latter is much easier to achieve through physical attendance and also a reason why many small businesses do not offer remote work. Further benefits of coming to work are increased and closer contact to your colleagues, increased possibilities of expanding of your professional network and possibly building one or the other friendship at work.
Blending Of Work And Private Life
A high compatibility of private and professional life is, in itself, a positive thing, but in some situations this can also lead to disadvantages. On the one hand, it should be emphasized that many home office employees do not succeed well in separating their private and professional lives. This can have two different disadvantages; On the one hand, the quality of the employee’s work might come to suffer, because someone who, for example, interrupts his work flow to mow the lawn, will not continue to work in the same concentrated manner as someone who is physically and mentally completely fixated on the task before him. The second disadvantage is that work hours are likely to blend with an employee’s leisure time, should that employee fail to make a clean mental break of when to stop working, as is normally the case when you physically leave your place of work. In Germany, this failure to separate work from leisure time has often resulted in employees working a lot of unpaid overtime.
Higher Legal Requirements
The following paragraph shows examples of the the German legal system and may not apply to your place of work. Working from home naturally does not release the employee and employer from their mutual legal obligations. As a matter of fact, it often requires even more effort to implement. For example, the employer must determine which occupational health and safety measures are required and must therefore also carry out a risk assessment for remote workers. This can be done by a detailed survey of the employee, whereby an inspection of the office at home is more effective. In addition, both parties must take appropriate precautions in the area of GDPR. For the employer this usually means the provision of a VPN connection as well as the provision of further necessary software for the employee. The employee must in turn ensure that no one else has access to the work PC and/or mobile phone and that no passwords are stored negligently. There is also an increased liability for accidents at work for the employee. As an example, statutory accident insurance does not apply if work is interrupted for private reasons, this includes going t the bathroom or the kitchen. Detailed information on this can be found in Claudia Knuth’s article, “Arbeiten an der langen Leine”, personal magazin, issue 03/2019.
The juxtaposition of positive and negative aspects shows why the subject is so controversial. Against this background, the question now arises as to what the future of remote work in Germany might look like?
Working From Home: To Be Continued?
According to a study by the DIW, in terms of remote workers Germany is below the EU average and lags considerably behind other countries such as France, the UK, or the Scandinavian countries. Only twelve percent of all employees in Germany work primarily or occasionally from home, although this would theoretically be possible for 40 percent of jobs. In most cases, an employee’s desire to work from home is not recognized by employers. If these were to reconsider their position, however, the share of people working from home could rise to over 30 percent.
It is difficult to say whether this is a purely positive outlook. In the age of the new work movement, it is easy to criticize the old structures and present all modern initiatives as positive and dynamic.
But just as the open space office is a very unpleasant working environment for some employees due to a lack of peace and privacy, the home office concept is not necessarily conducive to every company either.
Especially smaller companies that are characterized by a dynamic culture and employee coherence have to consider carefully whether they should offer their employees remote work and risk that one of the abovementioned aspects will be negatively affected.
Working from home remains a controversial issue and at the end of the day, each company must decide for itself how to deal with it. However, the fact remains that the issue is becoming more and more relevant and we can expect a lot to happen in the years to come.