Berlin - The right to work from home that was implemented nationwide in the spring to bring down infection rates expires at the end of June. Till then, employers are required to offer their employees the opportunity to work from home, unless there are compelling business reasons not to do so. The German government has no plans to extend the temporary regulation. But plenty of employees want to continue to work from home after the pandemic.

This is hasn't been lost on the German government and the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs is currently looking into the issue. "Home office", as the Germans say, has made an important contribution to infection control, a spokesperson said a week ago. 

Mobile working is desired, but requires a new kind of management culture

A study by Ernst & Young on how workers fared working from home found that a majority of respondents would like to work location-independent and flexibly even after the pandemic. The auditors interviewed 1,000 employees aged 20 to 50. About 90 per ent of the respondents said they were very satisfied or satisfied with working from home during the pandemic. A majority reject a return to the status quo. A good 80 per cent want to continue to spend all or at least part of their working time in their home office in the future. When asked to imagine working life in 2030, 84 per cent said, "I can work completely location-independent." 78 per cent expect to be able to organise their work with total flexibility in the future.

The Institute for Leadership and Human Resource Management at the University of St. Gallen also found other effects of working from home in a study last summer. In it, the researchers describe moods of both transformation and isolation. About 400 workers were interviewed for the study during the summer months of last year: 81 per cent of the respondents said they learned and tried out many new things while working virtually. While 79 per cent of respondents said they communicate more than before, 42 per cent expressed concern that they would feel "left alone and overburdened" in the situation. Younger and older workers in particular felt left out, according to the study's findings. Thirty per cent of younger respondents felt overwhelmed by their work, while 44 per cent of older workers struggled with technology. The researchers concluded that virtual working requires a new leadership culture to counter these effects.

Legislators lagging

However, the idea of permanent mobile work is far from accepted by politicians. So far, employees have no legal right to work location-independent, although the CDU and SPD promised in the 2018 coalition agreement to address mobile working. The Minister of Labour, Hubertus Heil, presented a draft law to make work more flexible with the "Mobile Work Act" in December last year. Heil's bill proposed giving workers the right to work from home 24 days a year. The Chancellor's Office, however, binned the draft back in January.

"In later discussions, this draft was modified to a right of the employee to make a request," says Nathalie Oberthür, lawyer and chairperson of the Labour Law Committee of the German Bar Association. If the employer doesn't object to the employee's request, mobile work is possible, says Oberthür.

EU directive on mobile work

One way or another, the German government cannot sidestep the issue. In 2019, the EU launched a directive on transparent and reliable working conditions, which has to be passed into the national law of its member states by August 2022. This directive includes, among other things, the right for European workers to be able to request working conditions such as mobile working from their employers. Employers are then obliged to justify their decision for or against mobile working.

With the expiry of the right to home office, the legal right to mobile work after the pandemic is also a hot topic of discussion between trade unions and employers. "In many companies there are already good regulations, but not everywhere," DGB Executive Board member Anja Piel told the Funke-Mediengruppe. The DGB is also calling for a separate law on employee data protection. "Digital work tools and instruments must not be misused to control employees or even to permanently monitor them," said Piel.

"The exception must not become the rule," said Markus Jerger, Federal Executive Director of the German Association of Small and Medium-Sized Businesses (BVMW). The SME sector resolutely rejects state intervention in entrepreneurial autonomy, especially when it comes to an obligation for companies to offer the option of mobile working.

Workplace regulation as a home office hurdle

The question of workplace regulation for home office workplaces raises new problems. It is hardly possible for employers to check workplace regulations in a private residence or in a train, says the CDU Economic Council. Currently, the regulation requires employers to check workplace conditions for safety issues. This applies not only to work equipment provided by the employer, says lawyer Oberthür, but also to that in the employee's private possession. "This means that even if the employee is sitting at his own kitchen table, the employer would have to ensure that this kitchen table is safe," says Oberthür.

Berlin news in English.