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'Blindly continuing': Are too many workers in Germany going into the office amid pandemic?

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected]
'Blindly continuing': Are too many workers in Germany going into the office amid pandemic?
A woman working at home office.picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Strauch

Experts estimated that more than half of Germany's workforce is able to work from home - but recent figures show that, in March this year, less than a third of employees did so, despite the country's rising Covid-19 infection rates.


Since Easter, new lockdown measures have been in place across most of Germany, dictating when, where, and for how long households are allowed to socialise with non-household members.

But in spite of efforts to reduce contact with others in our private lives, recent figures suggest that many people's working lives are continuing as normal.

Germany has tried to incentivise working from home amid the coronavirus crisis through offering tax incentives, and making it mandatory for employers to allow employees to work remotely whenever possible. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Germany plans to give people working from home more rights and benefits

But while experts believe that around more than half of the country's workforce would be able to work from home during the pandemic, new figures have emerged showing that less than a third of employees are currently doing so.

In March, research by the Munich-based Ifo Institute found that only 31.7 percent of the German workforce was currently working from home on a part-time or full-time basis. This is up slightly from February, when the Ifo found that 30.3 percent of the labour force who were doing either full or partial home office.

Commenting on the figures, Oliver Falck, Head of the Ifo Centre for Industrial Economics and New Technologies, said there was "a lot of room for improvement." 

"We estimate that around 56 percent of employees could work from home," he added. 


To make matters worse, mobility data gathered from Google showed that movement to and from work actually increased from February to March, suggesting that, while some people have started to work from home, others are now spending less time in home office and more time on-site.

This is in spite of an upsurge in coronavirus infections in March, which saw more than 10,000 new infections being recorded per day and the 7-day incidence rate more than doubling in the four weeks from March 2nd to March 30th.

A factory working in Schwedt, Brandenburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christian Charisius

“In the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, home office could be used much more as a means of social distancing while at the same time maintaining the economy,” said Falck. “At the same time, the comparatively low number [of home office workers] shows just how important consistent tests in the workplace are.”

‘Strongly encouraged’ is not a rule

Joe, a software developer who lives in Berlin, has been working in a crowded office four days a week since he started a new job earlier this year, with no obligation to wear masks. So far, he hasn’t been offered a coronavirus test by his employer – in spite of the risks posed by his working environment.


“I think it's crazy that employers are blindly continuing what they've always done,” he said. “And it's the government’s fault for not actually making the rules clear – ‘strongly encouraged’ is not a rule. They need to be firmer with business owners, especially when people are being fired or put on Kurzarbeit left and right, and workers’ power is being degraded.”

However, some people have felt more comfortable to set boundaries with their employers – even when asked to come into their place of work.

READ ALSO: German president urges firms to allow workers to work from home 'wherever possible'

Alex, 32, who teaches at a university in Berlin, says he has been running his classes online since the first lockdown in March 2020. University administrators have asked him and his colleagues to offer a few in-person classes per semester, but wary of the risks involved, he told them he would prefer to continue teaching from home.

“We have the means to work at home, and when I run a class online, I don’t think there’s a massive detriment to students’ learning and experience,” he explained. “So why run the risk of infection?"

Warnings, but no fines

In February, an investigation by Buzzfeed and Report Mainz found that regulators were struggling to ensure that that companies had put in place adequate coronavirus measures such as masks, hand sanitiser and social distancing.

Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Patrick Pleul

Of the 50 employment safety authorities surveyed, 90 percent said they had issued written or verbal warnings to firms that had fallen afoul of the rules.

In spite of the warnings, however, these companies had rarely been fined, and only a handful had been asked to close their offices entirely.

According to the employment authorities, this is largely due to staffing issues, with around three-quarters of authorities saying they didn’t have enough staff to enforce the rules.


There are signs that the federal government could soon take a tougher line on businesses if the situation continues, however.

Speaking on the Anne Wille talk show at the end of March, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that, if companies didn’t comply with the government’s suggestions, they would impose new laws mandating wider home office working and free-of-charge tests for employees at least twice a week.  


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