German businesses consider alternative labor models | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 02.10.2016
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German businesses consider alternative labor models

Germany may not be as innovative as other European countries when it comes to alternative labor models, but flextime and home offices are on the rise. The question is: Who mainly benefits from them?

Late last week, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) newspaper published an article with the intriguing headline "The Eight-Hour Workday as an Obsolete Model." Flexible working hours and home-office schemes aren't as widespread in Germany as in other countries. Only 11 percent of Germans work from home, compared with 17 percent on average in Western Europe and 27.5 percent in Scandinavia. But what's often known in Germany as "Work 4.0" is a perennial hot-button issue.

The potential advantages for employees, particularly those with families and those faced with long commutes, seem obvious. In a poll published last month by the Ifo Institute for Economic Research, 39 percent of the companies surveyed said they offered home-office possibilities. And part-time and flextime work arrangements are also becoming more popular.

On the other hand, 82 percent of office workers polled by the Forsa Institute last year said they wouldn't want to do without the personal interactions they get with fellow employees by regularly going to the office. Surprisingly, the proportion of people under the age of 35 who expressed that opinion was 89 percent.

So how popular are alternatives to traditional Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 office jobs in Germany? And with whom are they most popular?

Symbolbild Homeoffice (Pressmaster/Colourbox)

Technology has changed how - and where - people work

'Sheer time spent'

A number of large German companies, including Bosch and Lufthansa, are becoming increasingly flexible about how long and where their employees work.

"Long hours at the workplace are often equated with performance," Christoph Kübel, Bosch's manager and director of labor, told FAZ. "We're trying to get away from sheer time spent at work and move toward flexibility and results orientation. ... Part-time work is also a possibility for opening up some creative space to think during the workweek and restoring people's energy."

There are a number of nontraditional Work 4.0 arrangements. Some allow employees to adjust the number of hours that they work per day or their start and finish times as long as they end up with a standard number of hours in so-called work "accounts." The norm in Germany is currently between 37.5 and 40 hours a week. In other models, employers trust their employees to accomplish certain tasks and leave it up to them to determine precisely how long and when they need to work to get desired results.

Deutschland Produktion Audi in Neckarsulm (picture-alliance/Stephan Goerlich)

Most Germans still favor stability over flexibility

One trend, according to the current issue of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, is the four-day workweek. Sometimes this entails employees' working 10 hours a day in return for a day off. Other companies hire employees for shorter-than-standard workweeks for commensurately reduced salaries.

"For us as a small company with eight permanent employees and two freelancers, that's a good option," Christian Becker, chief technical officer at a firm called Media Event Service, told Die Zeit. "We're more flexible and don't have full costs for each job. Some weeks when we have a lot of projects, we can ask employees to come in full time. But normally Friday is a slow day, so you don't notice if not everyone is here." 

The bottom line

Many companies use the family-friendliness of flexible schedules as an incentive when recruiting employees. But from an employer's perspective, the primary point of Work 4.0 is not to benefit employees, but to lower costs and increase profits.

Lufthansa is experimenting with having employees work from home, while on the go or in newly established facilities where they use whatever workstations happen to be free at a given time rather than having set desks. 

"The everyday business environment lives on regular exchange of information and quick reactions," Lufthansa personnel manager Lars Ottmer told FAZ. "In a lot of cases, fixed work structures don't get us any anywhere."

The airline hopes that after an initial investment of 11 million euros ($12 million) in IT and training, it can save about 4 million euros a year by being more flexible.

The Confederation of German Employers' Associations is an enthusiastic supporter of flexible work times, arguing that not only are they family-friendly, but that they "offer a balance necessary for competitiveness to offset the comparatively low number of standard working hours per week in Germany." Employees, however, are somewhat less excited about the new models.

From 9-5 to 24/7?

Though companies are seeking greater flexibility, German employees are becoming disenchanted with models such as telecommuting. A recent study by the Allensbach Institute found that only 22 percent of workers surveyed this year said they would like to work at home, compared with 41 percent in 2013.

"For many years, working from home or while in transit was considered an important facet of the working world of the future," the institute concluded. "But working people haven't shared this euphoria for quite some time now."

Among the reasons for that is that more than three-quarters of German employees say they can't perform their jobs from home, and even fewer think that their bosses would agree to a home-office situation - even if it were feasible.

Meanwhile, union leaders worry that flexible models could break down distinctions between free time and labor time, undermining laws about how long people are normally allowed to work in a given span of time.

"The eight-hour workday rule is an indispensable precondition for greater flexibility since, in the future as well, there need to be sensible limits on work," Annelie Buntenbach, a board member of the German Trade Union Confederation, told the Handelsblatt newspaper earlier this year. "Even if many employees no longer work 9 to 5, that doesn't mean it should become 24/7."

And surveys suggest that the main priority for German employees remains reliability rather than flexibility. In a poll carried out by their trade union, one of the largest in Germany, 88 percent of metalworkers said having a permanent contract was "very important" to them. Eighty-three percent found a "sufficient regular income" very important, and only 44 percent made "the ability to plan work times" a top concern.