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

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

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?

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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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