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Do we need a right to work from home?

Kevin Tschierse
October 14, 2020

The German Labor Minister Hubertus Heil wants to give employees the right to work remotely. But the CDU and others doubt the economic feasibility. Legitimate reasons can be found on both sides of the argument.

A young man with a computer in his lap sitting on the window sill of a tenant house in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

The possibility to work remotely 24 days a year: this is what Labor Minister Hubertus Heil wants for German employees. His new proposed law, the Mobile Work Act, is causing a stir in the grand coalition government between Social Democrats (SPD) and Germany's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). The CDU criticizes the bill as incompatible with a coalition agreement and firmly rejects it. But Heil has found support from within his own ranks.

A chart depicting the share of employees in Germany having the possibility to work from home, and at what time of the day teleworking is done
Image: .

Parliamentary executive secretary of the SPD's faction in the Bundestag Carsten Schneider supported Heil's bill with the words: "This is what we want. This is our offer to the CDU."

The disagreement within the grand coalition raises the question: Are German society, politics and businesses ready for such a law? What are the arguments in favor — and against — remote work?

Is remote work economically feasible in the long term?

If a company were to send its employees to work from home permanently, it could save a considerable amount of operational costs and costs for office spaces. Employees, meanwhile, save money and time because they don't need to commute to work. A win-win situation, one would think.

But it's not that simple, says Oliver Stettes, labor market expert at the employer-oriented Institute for the German Economy (IW) in Cologne. "What we have experienced during the coronavirus crisis is not the norm. In the future, it would be more likely for an employee to have a workplace at home in addition to a workplace within the company." This would also be the case in Heil's Mobile Work Act.

The minister points out that, in the future, the employer will also need to provide the "operating resources" — for example a desk or a laptop. Legally, working remotely is becoming ever more like telework, Stettes claims. This means it falls under the workplace regulation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

According to this regulation, workplace equipment and working materials must be provided by the employer. "The office cost savings you may see because you can distribute 100 people over 80 workplaces — because people might work from home one day a week — are then quickly reduced to nothing," says Stettes.

It's no wonder, then, that Heil's proposal is not well-received by the business community, which may have to pay for two workplaces per employee in the future.

A woman is installed in her living room and works remotely under the eyes of her cat, during the confinement period imposed by the German government during the COVID-19 lockdown
What looks like a comfortable place to live in isn't always in line with laws governing health and safety at the workplace.Image: Imago/T. Vaerman

Remote work for more equality

Could working from home be a means to achieve a greater level of equality in the job market? This was the discovery of the Hans Böckler Foundation, which is close to the trade unions, who conducted research on the phenomenon. Working from home offers many employees the possibility of a better work-life balance. "Women's employment has increased dramatically," says Elke Ahlers, head of the Quality of Work Department.

"There are more and more young couples with small children, where both parents work and where home office is a possibility that both can work more confidently and coordinate better." But that would only work, says Ahlers, if childcare is also guaranteed.

A graphic showing the pros and cons of teleworking and its effects on people's work-life balance
Image: .

"The coronavirus crisis showed us that institutional childcare is a very important basic requirement for remote work. If it is provided, it could be a means for women and men to participate more equally in the labor market and to earn equal income." she argues.

Does working from home increase employee productivity?

Employees are more satisfied and work more efficiently when working from home, the Hans Böckler Foundation found out. The other side of the coin: employees doing remote work often work longer hours than colleagues in the office — often without being compensated in wages or free time.

"There is a real danger that people forget the hours they actually work and, of course, in the worst case, become unable to recover, have trouble sleeping and are more susceptible to infections," says Ahlers, who is concerned about the mental health of employees. "I think we have to think completely differently. We have to ask how we can protect these employees from exploiting themselves and from the fact that working hours are becoming more and more limitless — especially when working from home. We are noticing that people identify strongly with their work tasks and also feel more burdened."

Oliver Stettes from the IW in Cologne cannot understand the argument of self-exploitation: "It is a very crude argument. After all, we are talking about people who assume a high level of responsibility in their function for a company. You have to be able to expect this from them. If, as an employer, I don't trust the person  to do this, then he or she is not suited for the function he or she is in. In that case, this person should not be allowed to do remote work at all."

That's why, according to Stettes, managers, and not a law, should still be the first to decide whether working from home is sensible, effective and efficient.

The amount of work done in home office during the COVID-19 pandemic in Germany
Image: .

Remote work is "good for the environment”

Environment Minister Svenja Schulze supports Heil's initiative. The SPD politician emphasizes to the German Press Agency (dpa): "A right to mobile working strengthens the interests of employees and is good for the environment at the same time. We have learned that mobile working can work in many areas. It helps to reduce traffic jams and commuter traffic."

Little research has been done in Germany and Europe on the environmental friendliness of remote work. But in practice, remote work is often implemented in companies' corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy — the voluntary corporate strategy of implementing social responsibility in the sense of sustainable business.

In the US, remote work and teleworking are much more widespread. According to American statistics from the TelCOA (Telework Coalition), up to 280 million liters of gasoline could be saved if 32 million Americans had the opportunity to work from home at least once a week. That would be enough to travel around the world 51,000 times.