End of home office: Are employees in Germany ready to return to the workplace?

Germany's rules that force companies to allow working from home in the pandemic will be lifted from July. What happens next?

End of home office: Are employees in Germany ready to return to the workplace?
Mandatory home office is set to end in Germany. Are people ready? Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

What’s changing?

After months of working from home, some people are itching to get back to the office, but others have got used to the idea of working from their own living room. Now that Covid restrictions are relaxing, will bosses be dragging their employees back into their desks, or will a more flexible working environment become the norm?

Germany tightened rules earlier this year on working from home, known as home office in Germany, due to spiralling Covid figures. 

Up until June 30th 2021, employers are still required to allow their workers to stay home for work, except in cases where it is impossible for them to do so, for example if they work as a delivery driver or in a hospital. But new rules will come into force from the end of this month.

From July 1st  it is up to employers to decide whether they continue to let their employees work from home, or if they call them back to the office.

READ ALSO: ‘Blindly continuing’: Are too many workers going into the office amid the pandemic?

Do you have to go into the office?

Workers in Germany currently have no legal right to work from home but Hubertus Heil, Germany’s Employment Minister, wants the government to bring in a new flexible working law.

The draft of this act was published in October of last year, but so far it has not progressed further. The Social Democrats (SPD) and the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) are in favour of the idea, but the Christian Democrats (CDU and CSU) are resisting the legislation, despite saying they generally support flexible working environments.

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

The rules drafted by Heil would mean that, where possible, workers would have the legal right to work remotely on at least 24 days a year. Heil sees the 24 days as a minimum, and thinks that employees should be able to come to an agreement with their bosses to extend this at any time.

“The virus has taught us that a much more flexible working environment is possible,” he said. “Remote working is part of the modern world of work, and that’s why we need this new law.” 

Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

Bavaria’s finance minister, Hubert Aiwanger, has spoken out against Heil’s proposals. Aiwanger thinks that each company should be able to decide for itself what works best, saying that politicians should stick to what they know and not interfere in the affairs of individual businesses.

“Let the companies decide these things for themselves,” said the minister. 

Is a flexible approach happening in Germany?

There definitely seems to be a change in culture when it comes to working from home, with some companies offering a more flexible approach. 

In Nuremberg, the city’s council will continue to offer a home-office option for its employees. Before the pandemic, just 400 of the office’s 12,000 workers could choose to work from home, but during the crisis that number has risen to 4,200, reported regional broadcaster BR24.

This number will stay the same until at least the end of the school summer holidays. The administration has even gone through an upgrade, purchasing thousands more laptops for its employees. 

READ ALSO: Free Covid tests for staff – These are Germany’s new rules for employers

The spokesperson for the city’s finance department, Harald Riedel, says the system has been working well. Though the change in working style has not brought any significant differences, it has been fairly unbureaucratic, and he thinks it should be the way forward.

“During this time, we also passed a framework agreement through the council, in which we made official arrangements for now and for going forward,” he said. “We are also working on arranging mobile workstations for our colleagues on a wider front.”

According to a survey conducted by the Institute for Employment Research, around 10 percent of businesses have already brought in their own rules for remote working.

Meanwhile, a business modernisation law has already passed through the Bundestag that dictates for works councils to have more of a say on providing money and equipment for those employees working from home. The act also legislates for insurance cover for employees in the case of any accidents. 

How do people in Germany feel about home office?

Research show that about most workers are in support of more flexible employment arrangements. Stefanie Wolter, a spokesperson for the Institute for Employment Research, said that “the overwhelming wish of employees is to be able to spontaneously choose to work from home”.

“Another 20 percent would prefer to work from home on a couple of days per week and only a minority of respondents actually want to spend every day working from their home-office,” she said.

The employers who responded to the survey thought differently, saying they would prefer a widespread return to the office and for their employees to work much as they did before the coronavirus crisis. 

Some employers are opting for a more balanced way forward by offering the option of remote working, while also providing incentives for coming back to the office.

Claudia Bär, who runs the Claudia Bär and Friends agency in Forchheim, wants to leave it up to her employees as to whether or not they come into the office. Bär says she does not want to force her 24 employees to sit at their desks for five days a week again, but she also wants to make sure that they feel comfortable to come in when they feel like it. 

“I believe we need a different culture after the pandemic,” she said. “We need to make the workspace enticing, so that employees actually want to come back. We need to make it clear that it is cooler to work in your own space than to sit at home and try to work from the kitchen table.”

Bär is turning her company into a creative zone. Instead of working alone at home, employees now have the incentive of a collective, team-focused workspace. Once a week, Claudia has organised for a food truck to come to the office, or for the team to have a barbecue in order to increase the feeling of belonging and mutual support.

However, for people who have to attend a workplace – whether it’s the hospital, post office or restaurant – home office is not an option. And if the option for working from home remains for some, it may create a bit of resentment from employees who have to go to their workplace.

And if working from home becomes the norm, it could also change the make-up of cities. With less commuting, people could become more free to choose where they want to live. 

READ ALSO: What a boom in remote working could mean for Germany’s housing market

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7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

Taking the decision to go it alone and freelance in Germany can be a daunting prospect. But, if you do it right, it can be an exciting and liberating path. Here are some of our top tips on how to survive.

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

1. Get a tax advisor

The German tax system is complicated, even for Germans. All the associated paperwork uses the Amtsprache (authority language) which is more like legalese than ‘normal’ German, and mistakes when filling out tax forms can cause you, at best, a massive headache and, at worst, a costly fine. So it’s best that you employ someone who knows what they’re doing to help you out.

That person is called a Steuerberater (tax advisor) in Germany. They will help you register with the tax office, correspond with them and submit your tax declarations.

Be aware that, in Germany, different deadlines apply for tax returns depending on whether you employ an official tax advisor or not. If you are doing the tax return on your own, the deadline for submitting your annual tax return is earlier than if you use a tax advisor’s services. 

READ ALSO: What NOT to do when you’re freelancing in Germany

When looking for a tax advisor, a top tip is to use your network to get recommendations. Ideally, you want someone who will do more than just fill in the forms for you, but who will actually advise you on how best to manage your business finances so that you can make tax savings.

2. Keep your accounting in order

The better you keep your own accounts in order, the easier it will be for your tax advisor to compile your tax declarations and therefore the cheaper their services will be.

As a freelancer, there are a lot of costs you can deduct from your taxes – from train tickets, working materials, to meals out – so it’s best to keep hold of all your receipts and to keep them in good order.

2 euros and 50 cents lie on a receipt in a beer garden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

In Germany, you’re obliged to keep hold of receipts for two years, in case of a tax inspection, so it’s a good idea to photocopy the type of machine-printed receipts you get from restaurants so that they stay legible for a long time.

There are also a few things to be aware of when writing your own invoices. Firstly, make sure that you include your tax number. This isn’t the 11-digit Steueridentifikationsnummer that everyone gets when registering in Germany, but the 10-digit Steuernummer you get from the Finanzamt after registering yourself as a freelancer. 

Most companies won’t pay you if you don’t have this on your invoices so make sure you include it.

You should also make sure that you number your invoices properly – ideally in ascending order so that you can easily keep track of them. You are not allowed to issue two invoices with the same number and if you do so and the finance office notices, you could face an inspection of your whole accounting system.

There are numerous great accounting software programmes you can use to help you, such as Lexoffice and Sevdesk and, even if you have to pay for them, the costs will be tax deductible!

3. Find out if you’re eligible for financial support

In Germany, there are several opportunities for freelancers to gain financial support and to cut their outgoings, and its worth finding out if you’re eligible for them.

If you’re claiming unemployment benefits under ALG 1 and are thinking about becoming a freelancer, the employment office offers a special type of financial support to help you to get your freelance business off the ground.

Called the Grundungszuschuss (“foundation grant”) the payment is a six-month grant equalling your monthly entitlement under ALG 1 plus €300 towards your insurance costs can be applied for those in receipt of this unemployment benefit.

READ ALSO: Will freelancers benefit from Germany’s €300 energy allowance?

If you are engaged in some form of artistic profession in Germany – which can include journalism to pottery – you may be entitled to membership to the Kunstlersozialkasse (artists’ social insurance).

Being a member of the KSK means you only have to pay half of your health insurance and pension contributions, and the KSK will pay the rest.

4. Work out how much you think you will earn

As with starting any business, you need to have some idea of your expected earnings from the outset.

If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, or have some freelance gigs on the side of an employment position, then it might be worth considering registering yourself as a Kleinunternehmer (“small business”).

As a Kleinunternehmer, you can currently earn up to €22.000 per year without having to charge VAT and having to submit only yearly tax declarations. 

An income tax declaration form lies on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hans-Jürgen Wiedl

Be aware that if you are registered as this kind of freelancer, you must include the following sentence in your invoices: ‘Gemäß § 19 UStG wird keine Umsatzsteuer berechnet’ which means ‘In accordance with Paragrah19 of the German VAT law, no VAT has been added to this invoice.’

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about your German tax return in 2022

If you think you will earn more than €22.000 per year, you will need to pay Umsatzsteuer (VAT) and will have to submit tax declarations in advance and more often. Depending on how much you earn, this could be every month or every quarter. 

5. Get your insurance in order

In Germany, it’s a legal requirement to have health insurance.

If you’ve just made the move from employment to being a freelancer and want to keep the same health insurer, you should get in contact with your health insurance provider straight away to tell them about your change of circumstances. They will ask you to re-register and to tell them your projected freelance earnings for the year, so they can amend your monthly fees.

If you don’t keep your health insurer provider updated, you could continue to be charged the higher rate that you had from your previous salary.

The insurance cards of the health insurance companies DAK, AOK, Barmer and Techniker-Krankenkasse TK lie with euro notes under a stethoscope. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

It’s not just health insurance you need to think about as a freelancer. It’s also wise to think about protecting yourself from any sort of claims that could arise as a result of any working mishaps. 

If, for example, you lose your laptop which contains confidential client information, you need to be protected against claims.

That’s why it’s good to have both Betriebshaftversicherung (business liability insurance) and Rechtschutzversicherung (legal protection insurance).

6. Plan your time wisely

All of these bureaucratic obligations take time. So it’s really important that you take account of that when planning your time. For example, planning half a day a week to deal with your invoices, filing, emails to clients, and conversations with authorities can be really beneficial when scheduling your working time. 

7. Grow your network

As a freelancer, networking is absolutely crucial to success. 

Keep an up-to-date profile on websites like LinkedIn and German equivalent XING and keep in contact with anyone you’ve ever worked with, no matter how brief the contact was. 

Having a network is not only about getting more clients, but also about building a support network in your field to exchange advice, tips and generally for your own enrichment. 

Participating in workshops related to your field, going to seminars, and meet-ups, can be great ways of broadening your network.