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WORKING IN GERMANY

Will working from home become the norm in Germany post coronavirus?

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the number of people working from home in Germany paled in comparison to other European countries. The coronavirus crisis changed that. Is there bound to be a permanent culture shift?

Will working from home become the norm in Germany post coronavirus?
Photo: DPA

Back in January, the term “Home Office” for most of us in Germany meant an infrequent bonus, offering us the chance to get a head start on the household chores before the weekend whilst keeping an eye on our work emails.

During the coronavirus pandemic, however, working from home has shifted to becoming the norm for those of us lucky enough to carry out our jobs from the comfort of our own dwellings.

As we tentatively step towards an end of lockdown restrictions, businesses, government and workers are weighing up the pros and cons of working from home as they consider making it a more permanent feature of our working lives.

A dramatic change

Dr. Anja Gerlmaier of the Institute for Work, Skills and Training at the University of Duisburg told The Local that before the corona crisis, only eight percent of people in regular employment in Germany worked from home.

This is lower than in most other European countries, which she attributed to a very strong “presence culture” in Germany. People who regularly work from home were considered more family oriented than career focused.

“Before corona, employers may have used excuses for not allowing staff to work from home, such as the costs involved in supplying their workers with the necessary equipment,” said Gerlmaier.

But since the corona crisis, the amount of people now working from home has risen to 35 percent. This sharp increase shows that Home Office is indeed possible and it will be very difficult for employers now to justify not letting their staff work from home.”

The Employment Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) even wants to make working from home a legal right and is currently drafting a law which would enable anyone who wants to (and is able to) to work in home office – even when the corona pandemic is over.

READ ALSO: German government set to introduce permanent 'Right to work from home'

Working from home can have its advantages. Photo: DPA

More or less productive at home?

The sudden and dramatic increase in people working from home has also seen a boom in programmes which enable us to communicate with our colleagues.

One such company is Mentimeter, an interactive presentation platform established in 2014, which has seen an increase in signups of between 150 and 200 percent throughout the pandemic, having already had 75 million global users at the start of 2020.

The company conducted a survey of 1,500 of its users – workers across all office-based sectors of the German workforce who found themselves working from home for the first time due to Covid-19.

Some of the eye-catching and light-hearted findings include 13 percent of respondents admitting to turning their camera off due to being naked or partially clothed and 42 percent of respondents reporting that their colleagues were the things they missed least about working in the office.

One of the more significant findings, however, was that 64 percent of respondents felt that they were less productive when working from home. Mentimeter’s CEO Johnny Warström, told us “as the respondents in our research were all new to remote working, this drop in productivity may simply be because of the period of adjustment to something new.

On the other hand, some elements of office life are difficult to recreate virtually. It could be as simple as not always being able to turn to a colleague to ask a question, or being able to instantly discuss a problem.”

Dr. Gerlmaier told us that, in her view, increased productivity can be one of the most important advantages of working from home, but this can only happen if one's time is managed effectively.

Combining childcare with home office doesn't help productivity. Source: DPA

“Studies have shown that working from home can significantly boost productivity. But this advantage does not come automatically, as workers need to regulate how they work.

“For example, when people work very hard at home, they don’t realise how often they need to take a break, where as in the office they would do this automatically, for example, to get up to talk to colleagues. Not taking breaks can lead to psychological strain and ideally, employers should give their workers training on how to work at home.”

Of course, the novel impact of the corona crisis has particularly impacted on the productivity of parents working from home, given that they have also had to home school their children during this time. 

READ ALSO: Germany considers tax advantages of working from home

Potential for the future

So, will the high numbers of workers in Home Office continue after the pandemic has left us?

Another of Mentimeter’s findings was that 28 percent of respondents cited internet or technology issues as the greatest impediment to productivity, but, as Warström pointed out: “I would be surprised if the Covid crisis did not result in a widespread investment in the tools necessary for employees to be able to work from home.”

Dr. Gerlmaier is of the opinion that the corona crisis has shown that digitalization could also make a considerable ecological impact.

“For workers who regularly drive 50 kilometres to work, this will surely largely cut emissions. Many workers will have realised that working from home offers big practical benefits and it will be harder for employers to deny them the right to work from home, when their staff have already seen that this is possible. But I don’t think we will get to 35 percent again.”

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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

Germany has regulations on working during a heatwave - but does that also apply to people who work remotely? We take a look.

Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

The number of people working from home shot up during the Covid pandemic, and though employees no longer have the right to work remotely by law, many have chosen to stick with more flexible arrangements and set up a home office at least part of the week.

This is great news for people who enjoy a lie-in more than a long commute, but there are some downsides. One major issue is that it’s not always clear how Germany’s strict employee protection rules actually apply in a home setting. The rules for working during a heatwave are a good example of this.

How does Germany regulate working in extreme heat? 

By law in Germany, employers are responsible for creating a safe environment for their workers. This means that they should try and keep the temperature below 26C at all times and are legally obliged to take action if the temperature goes above 30C. 

That could include putting blinds on the windows to prevent the glare of the sun, installing air conditioning systems or purchasing fans. In some cases – such as outdoor manual labour – it could also involve starting and finishing earlier in the day. 

And in really high temperatures, employers may simply decide to call the whole thing off and give their employees a ‘hitzefrei’ day – basically a heat-induced day off – to go and cool down in a lake. However, business owners are generally given free rein to decide how hot is too hot in this instance (except in the case of vulnerable workers). 

READ ALSO: Hitzefrei: Is it ever legally too hot to go to work or school in Germany?

Do the heat rules apply to ‘home office?’

Unfortunately not. In most cases in Germany, the company isn’t directly involved in setting up the workspace for an employee that works from home, aside from possibly providing a laptop or phone for remote use. 

“The occupational health and safety regulations regarding room temperature do not apply in this case,” labour law expert Meike Brecklinghaus told German business publication T3N. “This is because the employer does not have direct access to the employee’s workplace and in this respect cannot take remedial action.”

That means that on hot days, it’s the employee’s own responsibility to make sure the environment is suitable for working in. 

woman works from home in Germany

A woman works in her living room at home. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Naupold

One duty employers do have, however, is to instruct their workers about the best way to set up a healthy work environment at home, for example by giving guidance on how to regulate the temperature. 

“In the end, it is the employee’s responsibility to maintain his or her workplace in a condition in which he or she can perform his or her work without the threat of health impairments,” Brecklinghaus explained.

What can home office workers do in hot weather?

There are plenty of ways to keep flats cooler in the summer months, including purchasing your own fan, keeping curtains or blinds drawn and ventilating the rooms in the evening or early morning when the weather is cooler.

However, if heat is really becoming a problem, it’s a good idea to communicate this to your employer. This is especially important if you have a health condition that makes it more dangerous to work in hot weather. 

In some cases, you might be able to negotiate for the employer to pay for the purchase of a fan or mobile air conditioner as goodwill gesture. If possible, you could also arrange to travel to the office where the temperature should be better regulated.

Another option for early birds or night owls is to arrange more flexible working hours so you can avoid sweltering at your desk in the midday sun, although this of course depends on operational factors. 

READ ASO: Jobs in Germany: Should foreign workers join a union?

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