What will become of the home office now public life is reopening?

Working from home is the new normal in Berlin and beyond. But is the pandemic-fueled phenomenon here to stay? Listen to today's Berlin Report to find out more.

Dr. Søren Salomo of the Technical University of Berlin is the researcher heads the university’s department of technology and innovation management. He's part of an international study of people's experiences of the home office phenomenon.

 

Listen to part 1 here:

Listen to part 2 here:

 

Working from home is part of the “new normal” in Germany, due in large part to COVID-19. Labor Minister Hubertus Heil reported that during the first wave of the pandemic, homeworking increased from 12 to 25 percent.

A survey by the German Institute for Economic Research put the number even higher — with 35 percent of surveyed workers working at least part-time from home in the first half of April.

Here in Berlin, officials say that one sign workers are spending more time at home is an increase in water usage as people tend to their houseplants more than before.

But what happens now that the first wave of the outbreak in Germany is ending? Should everyone head back to the office?

Fueling the debate is Heil’s plan to draft a law by September to make working from home a right. Among his critics is the Christian Democratic Party’s (CDU) deputy chairman in parliament, Hermann Gröhe:
“This is best drawn up by those who shape employee relationships inside companies, rather than by a federal law, so I’m skeptical,” he told public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. “Let’s see what the minister comes up with. But what we really need now is more people who say: “Let’s do it,” rather than those calling for new regulations.”

What Heil told the weekly Bild Am Sonntag on April 26 is that he thinks the employee should be the one to decide whether or not to work from home. He also wants to make sure people’s work lives stay separate from their home lives: “Even home offices have a closing time, and not at 10 p.m.,” the minister said.

But some German employers are weary. According to the daily, Der Tagesspiegel, the Berlin Senate Department of Education is rescinding blanket permission for teachers and staff to work remotely as of Tuesday.“I don’t think we will see that from now on, that we will abandon all of our offices and everyone works at home. That’s not going to happen,” Søren Salomo of the Technical University of Berlin told KCRW Berlin. The researcher heads the university’s department of technology and innovation management.

“As people have experienced some of the upsides and have tried it out, I think it will be awfully difficult just as a manager also to say: “Well, OK, now Corona is over, come back all and we’ll just continue as we did before Corona. No, we need to adapt.”

Salomo is part of an international team studying people’s experiences with the home-office phenomenon. So far, respondents in 16 countries are taking part, more than 2,000 of them in Germany alone.

“It is a global study which was triggered just a few days after lockdown started,” he said. “In fact, in Denmark, they were a little ahead of us here in Germany. And then my Danish colleagues reached out to two other colleagues in other countries where the lock out had rolled on.”

Early results show parents often feel frustrated about working at home because they don’t have enough free time. But for others, Salomo described a “remarkable finding”:
“Seventy two percent …. say that their greatest challenge is that they really miss close interaction with their colleagues,” he said, adding that it’s surprising because they talk to those colleagues in video or phone calls all of the time.

So what’s the upside to working from home?

“Two thirds say that what they like most is that they can more flexibly arrange their days so they can take breaks when they want,” Salomo said. “They say that obviously they don’t have to travel to work, which is another advantage. And a lot of people also state that they can focus much better on work tasks because they do not get as many interruptions from other people coming into your office, for example.”

Even so, respondents report being more stressed the longer they work from home, partly because work/life boundaries become blurred:
“What is interesting is that Danish management…feel more stressed out than German managers when it comes to managing people working at home,” he explained.

He suspects that might in part be because, for Germans, working from home is still a novel experience.

If you are interested in taking part in Salomo’s survey, here’s the link. 

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