Workers are calling for flexible arrangements to continue © PA

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After months of being banished from the office because of Covid-19 restrictions, 140,000 Siemens employees in 43 countries learnt last week they had earned the permanent right to work from home for up to three days a week.

“The coronavirus crisis was the decisive moment,” said Jochen Wallisch, head of industrial relations and employment conditions at the Munich-based group. “If there is one positive thing in this crisis, it is that it has shown what is possible with remote working.” 

The company, one of Germany’s largest employers — it had 300,000 workers off-site at the height of the pandemic — says the scheme is voluntary and staff who want to work from the office will always be able to do so once restrictions are fully lifted. 

It is one of several Dax companies responding to calls from workers, usually tied to their desks in Germany’s stiff corporate culture, for flexible arrangements to continue. According to research by the Ifo economic institute, just over half of all German companies want to follow in their footsteps. 

Members of Germany’s coalition government, however, plan to take things further. Soon after the Covid-19 outbreak, employment minister Hubertus Heil, a Social Democrat, said he would consider enshrining the right to work from home in law, a proposal long discussed in Berlin.

The move was cautiously welcomed by unions and workers’ representatives, which fought bitter battles for the establishment of professional workshops to ease the plight of industrial workers toiling in squalid homes early last century. 

Despite concerns about longer working hours and staff welfare, workers’ councils “really appreciate this higher degree of flexibility, of self-determination”, said one executive at a large Dax-listed company, citing benefits such as the lack of commuting and more family time.

A workers’ representative at heavily unionised VW said it was “completely clear” that the carmakers’ office-based employees wanted the option to work from anywhere. 

Opposition to the introduction of a legal right came mainly from employer groups and organisations representing family-run businesses, who fear they could be tied up in litigation and face extra investment costs, for instance in cyber security. 

But it is Germany’s unions that should be more alarmed.

The country’s unique Mitbestimmung (co-determination) system relies on the strength of locally organised workers’ representatives, who sit on company boards and safeguard the rights of those in the area against the whims of management. 

A boom in homeworking is likely to loosen ties between staff, who can now be spread across towns, cities or even countries. 

SAP, Europe’s largest software company and a German remote working trailblazer, offers a cautionary tale for those in more precarious employment. 

With the support of unions, its roughly 25,000 employees in the country were already working from anywhere for an average of 2.6 days a week before the pandemic, and once the virus spread almost the entire company remained at home. 

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The scheme has been so successful — SAP says there has been no discernible difference in productivity when it comes to software development targets — that the company has been sharing its expertise with other large German groups.

Several SAP initiatives to ease the stresses of working from home, from its Never Lunch Alone virtual mealtime platform to piano lessons for employees’ children, have proved popular.

SAP’s embrace of flexible working is not just about reducing infection risk. It is an attempt to expand and diversify its talent pool, as well as compete with the working conditions offered by US software rivals. 

“Except for jobs for which German language is necessary, we advertise positions globally,” says Cawa Younosi, SAP’s HR head for Germany. “We can get people from other European countries, India, wherever.”

Andreas Schierenbeck, chief executive of energy group Uniper, sees similar benefits to talent acquisition. “If all your company’s work has to be done in the office, your recruitment pool is limited to the city or region where you’re based,” he wrote in a recent online post.

Homeworking is chipping away at another cornerstone of collective bargaining — the setting of salaries in relation to hours worked. 

SAP has reached an agreement with workers’ representatives that binds compensation with performance, abolishing an hourly requirement. Siemens also wants to “move away from a presence culture towards a results orientation”.

While the most productive workers welcome this change, it removes the protection that presenteeism offers those who may be going through a difficult patch.

Recognising this, IG Metall, Germany’s most powerful union, recently renegotiated the calculation of bonuses at VW, deliberately decoupling the awards from individual performance assessment.

Working from home, however, will force most employees to choose between some form of digital surveillance and a more qualitative assessment of performance — which could tear apart German pay conventions.

“If you want to work at home, you have to accept that your compensation may become more flexible,” said Oliver Stettes, head of labour at Cologne’s German Economic Institute, IW. “That’s the flip side of the coin”.

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