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Working from home: A new status symbol?

Thomas Kohlmann
June 7, 2021

Millions of Germans have come to appreciate working from home and many companies say flexible working will continue after the COVID-19 pandemic. But the trend also has its downsides.

A father and his young daughter check his laptop at home
An expansion of working from home could create a two-tier society, warn German researchersImage: Christin Klose/dpa/picture alliance

The working life of millions of Germans is set to become more flexible after the coronavirus pandemic. Large companies, in particular, say they'll continue to rely on the work-at-home phenomenon, which took off in March last year.

Software giant SAP will in the future give its employees complete freedom to work from home, on the go, or in the office. Julia White, the firm's chief marketing and solutions officer, told the Reuters news agency that "we want to give our employees the choice."

The DAX-listed group sent an e-mail to its roughly 100,000 employees on June 1, promising a "100% flexible and trust-based workplace as the norm, not the exception." In an employee survey, 94% of workers supported the move, White said.

By making work more flexible, SAP is going one step further than many other corporations. Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, for example, say they'll introduce only partial homeworking schemes.

How the coronavirus impacts our work

Major pull for talent

The new approach is a major advantage when recruiting talent, emphasizes White, who also sits on SAP's board of directors and who joined the Walldorf-headquartered firm from Microsoft in March. Her application process took place entirely remotely.

"I didn't meet a single person," the American recalled. "As a single mother, I know how important it is to be able to work flexibly." It was only at the end of May that White traveled to southwestern Germany for the first time to meet her fellow board members, including CEO Christian Klein.

Remote working has long been part of the corporate DNA at digital giants like IBM or SAP. The latter has begun pilot schemes in London, Sydney and Zurich. It goes without saying that the German software giant will now want to profit from the trend of making work more flexible. After all, SAP has the technology to give interested clients a helping hand, emphasizes White.

A stressed woman in her home office
Younger people and those with an unstable home life have struggled with remote working during the pandemicImage: Robin Utrecht/picture alliance

Doesn't fit everyone

Not all workers want to do without the office, even in digitally savvy companies. More than the type of work done, a person's home circumstances are a more decisive factor in whether the change will be successful.

Small apartments, for example, can force a delicate balancing act between working from home, child care and homeschooling. The lack of a separate study, living room or bedroom has raised stress levels for the families during the COVID-19 lockdown.

A survey by TU Darmstadt looked at the opportunities and risks of expanding work-from-home schemes. Researchers found that the reality of working from home is often completely different from how it is perceived, at least by the 952 office workers from across Germany who were interviewed.

TU Darmstadt found that working from home was popular, even before the pandemic. The team also noticed that knowledge work is not always easy to do from home, and that more than a third of workers said they were less productive at home than in the office. The longer respondents spent working from home over the past year, the more they thought this was true.

"How people live says a lot about whether they can work successfully from home," said Andreas Pfnür, head of the Real Estate Management and Construction Management Department at TU Darmstadt.

"Living conditions are more meaningful than the type of job or the number of children," he added. "We didn't expect that." The more satisfied survey participants were with their living situation — the location and the layout of their home — the more satisfied and productive they were with remote working.

The study also found that not only were those with larger apartments and a separate room to work more satisfied. Employees with higher salaries and many years of professional experience also get along well at home.

In contrast, singles and younger employees who tend to live in smaller apartments often complained of isolation and a lack of communication with colleagues. The perceived lack of professional development was also an issue.

"The direct social interaction with colleagues, the opportunity to learn from older colleagues and career opportunities are less pronounced in the home office," says Pfnür. "Accordingly, young employees lose a bit of identification with the job. This also leads to less satisfaction with life."

Home office as a status symbol?

The study shows that office work that cannot be outsourced will continue to exist, and that traditional offices will not disappear anytime soon. The Darmstadt researchers found that the framework for working from home must be right: Suitable technology is required and the decision to work from home must be voluntary.

"Without an active change process, the risks of 'work from home,' which the empirical data of our study reveal, threaten to get out of hand," said Pfnür. A phenomenon could create far-reaching social upheaval "if the public authorities and employers do not counteract this."

"Home office could pave the way for a two-tier society," warned Pfnür. On the one hand, there are employees with attractive jobs who can enjoy themselves in a comfortable apartment. On the other hand, there are those who live in unstable or unviable working conditions, who will struggle to make remote working successful, he said.

"Working from home is on the way to becoming a status symbol for the winners of the new working worlds", Pfnür concluded. He and his team want to supplement the results of the study with data from abroad and compile recommendations for employers, politics, the real estate industry and urban planning.

This article has been adapted from German.

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