COVID-19 Changed Work in Germany

Photograph Source: Michał Beim – CC BY 2.0

Germany is generally known as a high-tech country producing machinery and cars. But a few decades ago, Germany passed the 50% mark, entering the service industry. The 50% mark indicated that more than half of Germany’s wealth now comes from the service industry and no longer from making machines like Porsches and Volkswagens. By 2020, the Coronavirus hit the workers of Germany’s service industry. While the car industry stopped production, office workers in Germany’s service industry went home. Workers moved from the corporate office into the home office.

Concerned with the health impact of this transition, Germany’s third-largest non-profit health insurer, DAK, surveyed its predominately white-collar workers. The not-for-profit insurer analysed the digitalisation of work linked to the move to working from home (WFH) under the conditions of the Coronavirus. The goal was to find out how companies reacted to the Coronavirus, what has changed, and how did the change impact workers.

The survey found that the Corona pandemic has changed work. Work will not go back to what it was before the Coronavirus, and many changes will be permanent. It also found that we might need to re-define what Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) means in a future defined by WFH. To ascertain this, DAK asked 7,054 workers between December 2019 and January 2020 and again 7,226 workers between April and May 2020. Five thousand eight hundred fifty-four workers participated in both surveys.

About 36% of all workers found that their company moved towards the use of IT [Zoom, etc.] only after seeing that other companies had done so. Only 16% of German white-collar workers thought their company was ahead of the game. A staggering 70% said, their employer moved very rapidly towards new IT systems and WFH as the Coronavirus was hitting their workplace.

One of the most significant increase, workers said, occurred in the area of phone conferencing and video conferences. Workers experienced a marked increase between Dec/Jan and Apr/May. The upsurge was a stunning 100% – from 17.4% to 34.9%. Meanwhile, the increase of smartphone use was less marked, with only a 17% uptake.

In terms of which economic sector moved towards WFH, DAK found that banks and insurance companies had been the most significant movers. Eighty per cent of them moved to WFH. It was closely followed by the IT industry, Germany’s massive chemical industry (BASF, Bayer, etc.) as well as Germany’s substantial public service (72%) and the art and media industry (68%). Somewhat surprisingly, at the lower end of moving towards per cent were commerce and trading (37%). As expected, Germany’s age care industry (29%) and public health (29%) were at the lower end.

Many workers (39%) found that the increased use of IT was useful for their work. They thought that new work methods were relief from out-dated work practices. Even more so, 64% said, IT made work easier. Most workers also thought that productivity did neither increase nor decline (57%) during the Coronavirus crisis.

Before the Coronavirus hit German companies, 95% of workers said, their immediate boss insisted that they work in the office. Only 49% of bosses considered working from home as a serious option before the crisis. Forty-four per cent of middle managers doubted WFH, usually for the perceived lack of managerial control and because of their own usefulness as managerial apparatchiks.

This sort of thinking changed most dramatically during the Coronavirus crisis. German office workers experience a staggering increase in home office work. Between Dec/Jan and Apr/May 2020, workers saw a whopping 116% increase in WFH either as a daily occurrence or at least several times per week – up from 18% before the crisis to 39% during the crisis.

Predictably, around 25% of all office workers thought that WFH increases productivity which is roughly in line with the commonly assumed 20% productivity increase. Still, only 18.1% said, they are free to arrange their own working time. 41.3% thought they are more productive at home while 41.7% said, they missed the regular engagement with co-workers. Worse, 54.2% of home office worker said, the lack of a clear separation between work and family life is a problem.

Still, 37.7% said that WFH improved their work-life balance. Men and women do not seem to differ when it comes to their ideas about work-life balance as 47% of men and 46% of women miss a clear separation between work and private life. Overall younger workers miss such a separation (52%) more than older workers (34%).

German office workers found that they saved time when there was no longer a need to travel to work. 68% appreciated the elimination of travelling. 6% appreciated an increase in flexibility. Just about half (54%) preferred WFH instead of going to the company’s office.

Improvements in work-life balances were experienced by men (68%) slightly more than women (63%). The group that gained most from new forms of work-life arrangements were those between the age of 30 to 39 (71%). The group that gained the least were aged between 60 and 65 (43%). While many valued WFH, there are also negatives. Seventy-five per cent said they missed their co-workers. Forty-eight per cent also said that WFH makes it challenging to communicate with other office workers and their managers. Forty-one per cent found that their work has become difficult because they could not access essential documents held in their company’s office. Much of this also impacts on the general health and wellbeing of German office workers.

White-collar work is often associated with increased levels of occupational stress. DAK’s survey found that the level of stress actually declined as working from home increased. Before WFH, 21% reported high levels of stress. During the Coronavirus pandemic, only 15% reported stress.

On the upswing, 57% of home office workers said they do not experience stress at all, not even only once in a while. Similarly, the percentage of workers who experiences problems with falling asleep only increased from 62% (before the Corona crisis) to 66%. Still, overall, two-thirds of German office workers experience sleep problems – a high number that only increased during the Corona crisis, which fostered anxieties over infections and illness. Perhaps one of the most important findings of the DAK survey has been the fact that 75% of German office workers favour working from home and are interested in maintaining working from home as a permanent change to work.

Overall, the survey of German home office workers found that most thought it makes them more productive. This is a fact that aligned with the commonly assumed 20% productivity increase. Their experience was that they could do their work just as well as from home as they can do it in the company’s office. Most actually thought that WFH is preferable compared to going into the office. Workers also agreed that the absence of work-related travel was positive. Additionally, most agreed that work-life balance has improved and that they can arrange the daily working time and have more flexibility than before.

Many also thought that it was positive how quickly their company reacted to the Coronavirus crisis by transitioning to working from home. Overall, this transition has not led to serious health issues, the survey found. Still, many home office workers have also experienced negatives. Most commonly, workers noted the lack of direct engagement with co-workers as one of the key disadvantages of working from home. It leads to social isolation. Between 49% and 54% of German office workers prefer to continue working from home because of the noted advantages of improved work-life balance.

In the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, working from home appears to have been an unexpected positive for many workers. This comes on top of the aforementioned decline in stress – one of the most serious OHS issues of white-collar work. Naturally, working from home reduces the infection rate of the Coronavirus. Especially, open-plan offices are almost by design set up to spread a virus. As a consequence, workers feel safer at home rather than being crammed into an open-plan office.

Finally, there are two more negatives. For some reason, younger workers experienced more problems with adjusting to the home office. Secondly, many German workers do not have a home office to go to. They do their work in the kitchen, the bedroom or in the living room. These are not set up for eight hours of computer work. This creates serious problems in terms of ergonomics. Since the survey found that about 85% of all office work can be performed at home, it is to be expected that for many German office workers, there will be no return to full-time office work.

For many German office workers this will most likely mean that they will not work five days per week at home. It also means that they will never work five days in a company. It is to be expected that many workers will work from home at least some days of the week. This will be a permanent change for most German office workers. Meanwhile, Greenpeace has calculated that if Germany’s white-collar workers just work two days per week from home, it would reduce Germany’s CO2 emissions by 5.4 million tonnes per year – a worthwhile enterprise.