Written by Thomas Klikauer and Norman Simms

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The Coronavirus pandemic has led to many changes in our working life from zoom meetings to interviews at home, to the prevalence of the home office that often is at the kitchen table or in the bedroom. In Germany, the number of people working from home dramatically increased since the Coronavirus pandemic hit from 13% to 33%. Yet many are asking, Will this be a permanent change? Recent polls among German office workers found that most prefer to work 2.9 days per week from home. This is a 3-to-2 split or a whopping 73% of German office workers who prefer the home office, despite some niggling feelings of potentially negatives effects, such as social isolation.

On average, most German office workers favour a split with two to three days home office work or with two to three days in the corporate office. For many years management had been converting corporate offices into so-called open plan spaces. By this means, they squeezed ever more workers into an ever smaller space. With the Coronavirus pandemic, German workers have become increasingly worried about getting infected with Covid-19 in such place. As a consequence, they now prefer the home office.

Overall, 91% of German workers see the changes towards the home office as important. It might indicate the future of work. If 82% of managers also say that these changes are important to them, then the changes are likely to become permanent: the new norm. Most German office workers (88%) regard flexibility between home office and the corporate office as important. Eventually, this will allow for the much trumpeted new norm Work-Life Balance to become reality.

However, significantly more office workers think that these changes are important compared to managers. At the same time, many office workers are also acutely aware that home office work can also means missing out on, as a German worker said, the casual chat at the coffee machine. In fact, 36% say they would miss the personal contact with colleagues, while 46% think there are too many negatives associated with the home office. Before Corvid-19 the digitalization of German office had not progressed very far much in recent years. To express this, Germans use the unpronounceable word of “Digitalisierungsrückstand” or digital backlog. As a consequence, 28% think that they would have problems working from home without having access to important paper files still kept in bulky folders at corporate offices.

So far, for 40% of German workers the move into their home office space means working from the kitchen table, the bedroom or the living-room. Hardly anyone has set aside a specialized room for the home office. Many office workers also fear that a normalization of this situation would change the perception of a defined separation between work and leisure time. Some 46% are worried that this division would lead to an intrusion of work into the private sphere. Surprisingly, many workers below the age of thirty actually prefer the corporate office, the survey shows.

Among small and medium companies, 68% had already introduced some version of home offices, while 36% have only recently started to do so in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. On a simple pro-vs.-contra matrix, 40% of workers in such small and medium companies say that they appreciated a “stress free travel to work”, i.e., not to have to travel at all; and 35% say, the home office gives them more flexibility; while 33% say their work-life balance has improved. On the negative side, though, there is the loss of personal contact with other workers (46% fear this); the loss of casual and informal meetings even when used to organize work (36%); and having no access to paper files (28%).

Meanwhile German managers see three issues that concern them during the Coronavirus pandemic:

  • they are unsure how save online connections between the home office and the company are;
  • they are concerned about the application of Corona protective measures; and
  • they are worried about the motivation of their employees once they have moved into the home office.

With a general move out of the corporate office and into the home office, desk sharing at the remaining corporate office has also become more important. Only 38% say, they use desk sharing, 29% say their company plans to introduce desk sharing while another 33% say this is not planned at all at their workplace. Meanwhile 92% of German workers say they are pleased with working from home despite the fact that this often means the using the kitchen table.

Not unsurprisingly, however, only 9% of workers see their own company as a leader when it comes to the move towards home office work; 41% say they the company is currently moving towards working from home; while 30% say their management has done the first steps towards changing their work organization towards home office work; 11% say this might happen in the future and 9% noted that at their workplace there are no plans to work from home.

When asked, Has the Coronavirus pandemic changed your work organization? More than half, 58% of workers said “yes” and that these changes – towards the home office – will require an adjustment that is not short-term. In other words, the home office will remain part of their working lives. Still 31% said, these changes were merely temporary, while a small percentage, 7% said there is no change at all.

At the head office of an organic supermarket chain Alnatura in the city of Darmstadt, 500 employees – at least those who come to the corporate office – find a modern workplace with desks, stand-up options, sofas, etc. The office of Berlin publisher Suhrkamp gives – despite shelf after shelf of books – a similar impression. Its 135 employees find the workplace rather enticing, even though the home office has quickly become the preferred workplace. German online retailer Otto Otto appears to be very similar. Despite these modern corporate offices, the trend is definitely towards the home office. German managers think there are six key issues to consider when it comes to such an arrangement:

  1. Changing work organization in German offices is already happening. It is no longer some distant plan for the future.
  2. The Coronavirus pandemic has change the mind of German manager. Most likely they will be more interest in what office workers do rather than being interested where they are.
  3. The change from the corporate office to the home office demands, well, an home office at home rather than just a kitchen table.
  4. Corporate offices will be smaller in the future as the demand for corporate offices declines while fewer workers will attend such corporate offices in the future.
  5. Most home offices will eventually move out of the bedroom or the kitchen to become more professional home offices.
  6. The Coronavirus pandemic will not end office work but office work will change rapidly as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Overall, the survey by one of Germany’s most recognized weekly magazines, Der Stern magazines shows that the Coronavirus pandemic has changed German work organization in corporate offices. This is no longer a temporary trend but it will soon be a permanent change. Overall, most German office workers have a 2-to-3 split, employees working either two or three days from home. The rest of the week is done by actually working in corporate offices.

One of the key benefits of the home office is the time workers save when not having to commute to their corporate office. Whether they would have to travel by private car, train or bus, not going to the office is beneficial to the environment and may even help – a little bit – battling the loss of quality time with their families, especially young children. The second advantage of the home office is that eventually work-life balance comes closer to existing rather than being a mere managerial myth.

Finally, there are the all important negatives. Many home office workers miss the daily engagement with co-workers. Worse, and this time it is on the management side on the equation, is the fact that many workers say they do not have access to important files still kept in German manager’s favorite Leitz-Ordner – bulky folders. In other words, the Coronavirus pandemic has put the spotlight on very serious deficiencies in terms of corporate digitalization. Despite selling itself as a technology nation, Germany lags behind other modern European and Asian nations when it comes to digitalizing corporate offices. Once again, German corporate managers have missed the train.

Thomas Klikauer teaches at the Sydney Graduate School of Management at Western Sydney University, Australia. He has over 600 publications including a book on the AfD.

Norman Simms is a retired professor of Humanities at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. He is the editor of the online journal Mentalités/Mentalities.


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