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German firms seek out future of remote work

Mathilda Jordanova-Duda
July 19, 2021

After they were forced to send their staff home during the pandemic, firms have come to realize how well their employees managed to work remotely, even while juggling jobs and family duties. What comes next, they wonder?

An education teacher holding school classes remotely while pupils stay at home during the pandemic
A quarter of all employees in Germany work from home nowImage: Imago/J. Ritter

As both the global COVID-19 pandemic and work-from-home experiments appear to be stretching on for a while longer, there's a dawning realization among company heads that "hybrid" forms of work may become the new normal. Hybrid working involves flexible travel to the office on some days and working remotely on others.

Germany's traditionally strong sector of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), also known as Mittelstand, used to be especially skeptical about the pandemic-induced drive to work remotely, criticizing government efforts to force them to send staff home. But now, executives said in a survey they are amazed at how well their workers are coping.  

During the pandemic, about 30% to 40% of the staff of typical Mittelstand companies based in the Ruhr Valley industrial heartland were, or are still, working from home, said Dirk Erlhöfer, managing director of the Ruhr/Westfalen Employers' Association, a lobby group that represents 430 SMEs in the region.

"This high number has surprised even us because most of our members are active in the industrial sector," he told DW.

More light than darkness

As well as offering protection from the pandemic, remote working has also led to better work-life balance, which Erlhöfer says has boosted productivity. In addition, the number of sick days has dropped significantly, he said, and work-from-home offers have become increasingly important in recruiting young executives and specialists.

But a wider adoption of new ways of working is going to be challenging, said Erlhöfer, pointing to some of the problems that have emerged. "It is, for example, more difficult to coordinate processes between administration and production. Technical problems also come into play; and the gradual evolving of a kind of divided, two-class staff could disturb company peace."

Despite the downsides, Erlhöfer said member firms cherish the advantages, as about 80% of them said they are planning to continue remote-work arrangements.

A woman is installed in her living room and works remotely under the eyes of her cat, during the confinement period imposed by the government of the COVID-19
Employers are no longer required to allow staff to work from home — but at the same time, not everybody wants to go back to the officeImage: Imago/T. Vaerman

Flexible work environment

German chemical company BASF is currently developing a hybrid work model that would allow its employees to choose between in-person meetings in the office and virtually connecting to their co-workers. Valeska Schößler, a spokesperson for the corporation, said the model intentionally abstains from imposing binding rules for all.

"We are giving our teams a larger degree of flexibility in organizing their work," she told DW, noting that the number of days employees would want to work from home are to be negotiated between the employee and her or his team leader individually, and "under due consideration of actual work requirements." 

"You cannot oversee a test run in a laboratory from home, nor can our plants be maintained and repaired remotely," Schössler pointed out. Furthermore, some people would insist on drawing a clear line between private and work life, on the one hand; or, they find face-to-face encounters "the key to success" in developing their creative ideas, on the other hand.

Woman sitting in front of her laptop at her dining room table at home, with her hands to her face
Some people who work from home find it more difficult to separate work and personal timeImage: Robin Utrecht/picture alliance

Designing the office of the future

As more companies are transitioning back to the office amid the subsiding pandemic, the new era of flexible work is, however, bound to alter workplace design. Studies have shown that frequent in-person interaction leads to commitment, support, and cooperation among co-workers. But how can this be ensured if some of the employees prefer to stay at home?

A recent paper circulated by Germany's National Academy of Science and Engineering says that the office design of the future should be providing "optimal support for activity profiles, with a focus on social interaction, collaboration and innovation."

The paper, which was compiled by the academy's human resource working group (acatech), which brings together staff managers from large German corporations, also says that in such offices it would be possible to book rooms for quiet working or for employees to work together with others in flexibly designed meeting rooms and project rooms or in collaborative open workspaces.

"For concentrated, focused work and routine work, employees will be encouraged increasingly to work from home or in places other than on company premises," the paper adds.

Young startup firms, meanwhile, have been readily adopting remote work because it cuts travel expenses and allows them to attract talent from all over the world thanks to virtual meetings, machine translation and digital contracts based on Blockchain technology.

OroraTech from Munich, for example, uses the Donut app that randomly pairs co-workers and reminds them to meet up, whether it's for coffee or just a 15-minute Slack call. And the employees of Cloud & Heat, a German data center provider, have regularly met for virtual after-hours gaming nights to stay in touch during lockdowns. 

A group of people sitting and standing around a long office desk talking
Could collaborative arrangements be the future of post-pandemic work?Image: Blend Images/Resolution Property releaseoductions/picture alliance

'Experimental phase'

Working from home, with all its digital and virtual underpinnings, can also turn out to be problematic, as German recruitment platform Campusjäger (campus hunter) has found out.

Workers of the firm took part in a field test recently in which they were required to wear pulse-rate meters to find out how distracting and stressful interruptions caused by electronic communications could be. Inactivating digital notifications, it turned out, allowed people to remain focused for longer — 19% longer at the office, and even longer when working at home.

"Flexible and hybrid working models require a balance between trust and transparency," acatech notes in its paper. Static annual performance assessments must be replaced by "continuous, transparent ad-hoc feedback, which takes account of peer feedback and is employee-driven rather than management-driven."

Acatech proposes that companies begin the transition by establishing "experimental zones," because there is no "master plan" for shaping the future of work that would provide guidelines anticipating all relevant developments.

Chemical firm BASF is currently trialing mobile working at its headquarters in Ludwigshafen within its "flex work" project. This is intended to create concepts for "office design [and] IT solutions as well as providing advice on how to forge cooperation in flexible work teams," said Schössler.

BASF has set up pilot teams tasked with guiding employees through the first phase of the flexible-working project. They have a special digital toolkit at their disposal that will help staff organize workshops, conduct surveys, and meet administrative requirements. For staff in management positions, virtual tutorials are available about how to lead from a distance.

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This article was adapted from German.