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Will the virus drive digitization in Germany?

Thomas Kohlmann
April 22, 2020

The pandemic has boosted networking in Germany. Despite some technical hurdles, working from home is on the rise here to an extent thought impossible a couple of months ago. Will Germany become a digital highflier?

Man sitting in front of a laptop
Image: Imago Images/N. Guyonnet

Millions of Germans are currently working from home, meeting via video conferences and using digital platforms for their jobs.

What was inconceivable some weeks ago has become the new normal. But that's not the complete picture. There are still quite a number of companies in the country that rely on conventional, analog work processes. And more than a month after the pandemic hit Germany, many public health departments keep faxing their stats of new infections and deaths to the Berlin-based Robert Koch Institute, the German government agency for disease control and prevention.

Having said that, more and more firms and their employees are learning to appreciate the benefits of working from home.

"Mainly sectors that weren't particularly known for high digitization levels now have the opportunity to catch up and achieve good results with the help of more digital technology," said Nils Britze, who heads the digital business processes department at the German IT and telecommunications industry group, Bitkom.

"Digital technology has a huge potential, especially in trying times like these," Britze told DW. "We're talking about technologies that are currently keeping societies afloat amid the pandemic, enabling online shopping, e-government and home schooling."

Piles of filing folders
Going digital has many advantages — removing the chaos on your desk is one of themImage: picture-alliance/dpa/SZ /T. Lehmann

Paperless office?

But digitization is not progressing evenly in Europe's powerhouse, with larger companies usually taking the lead while small and medium-sized enterprises tend to lag behind.

Britze says many firms and a considerable proportion of workflows in administration and the education system are still paper-based, using postal letters and fax machines. However, the coronavirus crisis has been a wake-up call for many of them.

Smaller firms are now hoping to jump on the bandwagon, Britze notes. "By using cloud technology, every company can quickly find a digital solution to processing documents or setting up video conferences." Direct investment in IT infrastructure complete with servers would have been too costly for many, but cloud-based services have proven a real game changer.

"It's a miracle just how fast many companies are catching up now," the Bitkom expert said.

But just using digital tools to improve workflows isn't enough. Work processes have to be enhanced across the board to use the full potential of digitization. "If you just digitize an inefficient analog process, you end up with an inefficient digital process," Britze argued.

Executives also need to adapt to a changing work environment. "If managers and employees don't meet each other daily, mutual trust is indispensable for efficient cooperation." He added that managers have to find new, creative ways of keeping employees motivated.

A video conferencing session at Memphis Meats in Berkeley, California
A video conferencing session at Memphis Meats in Berkeley, CaliforniaImage: Reuters/M. Meats

Teleworking in the US a lot more advanced

Kate Lister from the Global Workplace Analytics consultancy expects that 30% of US citizens will soon be working several days from home each week on a regular basis. She told tech blog Recode that even the US needs to do a lot of catching-up.

A recent MIT study showed that only about 5% of Americans worked (partly) from home before the coronavirus hit the country — now it's already approaching 30%.

But that doesn't mean the figure can go up and up endlessly. The University of Chicago maintains the 30% mark is a threshold that can hardly be crossed in the country. Bitkom's Nils Britze is confident that current coronavirus-induced advances in digitization will not be rolled back once the pandemic is under control.

"Current developments will be perpetuated, and it would be desirable for Germany to finally become a digital highflier," he said." At the end of the day, it's up to us. We can make this happen."