Working from Home Has Hit a Wall in Germany
"In the office everyone is oh so hardworking, in the home office everyone is lazy" — A typical comment on working from home heard in Germany during the pandemic
The topic of the home office remains very much on the agenda here in Germany, bolstered in part by the new SARS-CoV-2-Arbeitsschutzverordnung (Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance) of the Federal Government. The driving motive for the federal government to become active in this area is probably the realization that the more people work from home, the fewer infections — cutting back on potential spread both at the workplace and on the commute to the workplace. An increase in working from home could halve the number of infections, but companies appear reluctant to allow it, in contrast to the first lockdown. According to a report by the Hans Böckler Foundation, only 14% of people who could work from home did so in November 2020, down from 27% in April 2020. Hopefully this figure has changed for the better in the interim.
Working From Home Faces an Uphill Battle in Germany
What is striking is the widespread resistance to the home office here in Germany. Companies circumvent regulations, leading to headlines like this: "Anyone Who Wants to Work From Home Will Be Fired," as Oliver Klein wrote for ZDF.de. This isn't an isolated case. Laura Sophie Dornheim from the Green Party has collected and documented over 150 cases of companies ignoring work from home mandates and is accepting submissions of further cases via Twitter.
Ein Schreibtisch, sie zu knechten, sie alle zu binden,— StefanPfeiffer (@Digitalnaiv) January 28, 2021
Ins Büro zu treiben, wo viele sich winden.
Im Großraumbüro, wo die Kontrolleure drohn.
Die Herren der Präsenzpflicht #Homeoffice https://t.co/VKB8IFSs8Z pic.twitter.com/wyyLWSapXk
Translation: A desk, to subjugate them, to bind them all,
To herd them into the office, where many squirm.
In the open-plan office, where the controllers threaten.
The lords of the presence duty #Homeoffice
The resistance to remote working is strong, with many employers fighting against it. Everywhere working from home is possible it is happening, said the chief executive of the Federation of Hessian Business Associations according to FAZ. The numbers however tell a different story. Katharina Borchert, former Chief Innovation Officer at the Mozilla Foundation, has experienced a very different reality, as she argued in clear, unequivocal words for Spiegel Online. She takes aim at some of the specious arguments made against working from home (ones that make me shake my head, too). For example, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, how can people seriously point to desk height requirements or data protection as reasons working from home can't happen, when both can be readily solved both technically and organizationally? Such pseudo-arguments only serve to conceal the desire to control and supervise.
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Work Processes Can Be Improved, But That Has Nothing to Do With Working From Home
And yet again and again, businesses voice similarly questionable concerns. Of course working in a home office poses special challenges. But when an article in Wirtschaftswoche titled "Where We Waste Our Time in the Home Office" mentions things that have little to do with home office and more to do with the organization in general, it raises questions.
"Workers could save 6 hours and 5 minutes every week if company processes were optimized," writes the article's author, Jan Gulder. True, but this is generally true no matter where you work. "Three and a half hours a week are wasted on unnecessary meetings." Again, true, but these unnecessary meetings already existed before and I'm not so sure the home office has exacerbated the issue. People have the choice of too many tools and too many software programs, some of which overlap functionally. In addition, it is often unclear what content is stored where and how, and which tool is used for what. True again, but this problem also existed before the pandemic.
Most of the time, you get the impression that people list made-up complaints like these just to badmouth the home office. Also, in none of these contributions which criticize the home office do we see any of the conditions in the central office criticized. Everything seems to run smoothly there, if you can believe it. Does everyone who is in the office really work highly efficiently? Or don't they also spend time in unnecessary meetings and with bureaucratic things that shouldn't exist? Aren't they also distracted there, perhaps especially there, again and again and lose the thread in the completion of their tasks?
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The ideal office world doesn't exist any more than the ideal home office world.
I also find the statement that you can't be creative, agile or productive in a home office or collaborating online absurd. Every large organization and many medium-sized companies have teams that work together regardless of location, whether in Germany, Europe or around the world. Borchert, formerly with the Mozilla Foundation, can certainly confirm this. Are they all per se unproductive and not creative? That's absolute garbage, to paraphrase Reich-Ranicki.
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The Hybrid Model Will and Should Prevail
Working from home is not always paradise and everything doesn't always run smoothly. A lot can be improved in communication, in the way we work together, in the way we lead and how managers and employees behave and deal with each other as empathetically as possible. While all this is undeniable, we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Especially now, when we can potentially prevent coronavirus infections and deaths, we should work from home wherever possible.
Even after the pandemic, it is important that we continue to allow work from home to those who want it and can do so successfully. There are many good reasons for doing so, many of which have been and continue to be cited, from environmental protection to lost commute time to a better work-life balance. At the same time, those who want to go to the office should be able to do so as well. I'm a firm believer that hybrid models will prevail. One works some hours and days in the office, the others at home or remote. That should become the new real working world. The old and the new should get used to it. And if it takes a law to make that happen, so be it.
*Disclaimer: I am well aware that working from home isn't possible for many professions. I'm also very aware that there are enough cases where personal circumstances don't really make it comfortable to work from home productively and happily. I also realize that many like to go to the office because they may not be able to discipline themselves as well at home, or because they want and need direct contact with colleagues. All of that is OK and accepted. But why should those who want to and can work at home not be allowed to do so? Someone has to explain that to me.
About the Author
Stefan Pfeiffer is working in Marketing for IBM in Germany. Prior to his time at IBM he was working for FileNet (which got acquired by IBM) and MIS AG.