Ms. Hassel, many employees are still working from home due to the corona crisis. Will it stay that way after the pandemic?
Anke Hassel: It depends a lot on the industry, on the profession, but also on the relationship of trust between employer and employee. There are employees, for example in science, who work independently and independently without direct control by the employer anyway. But there are many areas in the private economy in which employers are much more skeptical about working from home because they do not trust employees. These are employers who have direct control over employees. They believe everyone has to come to the office so that they can see them.
Do the employees all want to stick to the home office?
Partly, partly. Many have had good experiences, but many have not. If I live in cramped living conditions that I share with a lot of people and I am happy to be able to go to the office every morning, then working from home is not a good experience. For students or doctoral students, for example, who live in shared apartments or only have one room, working from home is terrible. They sit on the bed, write their texts or take part in seminars and can no longer get out of their small room. For others who may have long journeys to the office or factory, it is very positive that this travel time is no longer necessary. For many people, social contact in the office is also important.
Is home office for women with children associated with professional setbacks, because many of them are then more responsible for childcare than men?
This is an open point; we will only know that in a few years. There is evidence that women, especially mothers, have suffered because of the pandemic. On the other hand, the home office phase also has positive effects for some families because they had more time. There are surveys as to who has reduced how much working hours and who has taken on childcare. This is not as gender-specific as is commonly believed. Fathers have also taken on a significant part of childcare.
How can those who have positive experiences with the home office save it after the corona crisis?
The best way is for employers and employees to agree on a solution. Surveys show that most of them do not want to work completely from home. They want a hybrid form of work in which they come to the office two days a week because that is where they can meet their boss and colleagues and have better access to their documents. But they want to work at home three days a week. For most people, a hybrid form of work is the best because it allows them to combine the advantages of both. You need to find a consensus with the employer about mobile working. This also includes the equipment and the assumption of costs. The problem begins when the two sides cannot agree.
The unions are demanding the right to work from home.
I am skeptical about that. In principle, this right makes sense from the employee’s point of view. Then the employer cannot simply refuse the request. On the other hand, this right does not solve the underlying problem: a deep distrust on the part of employers towards employees. Even if you can claim the right to work from home, it does not improve the climate in the company.
What could a solution be?
One could, for example, introduce the right that the employer is required to give reasons if he does not want to work remotely. This would mean that the employer would be obliged to deal with the matter and clearly state why it is not possible. This conversation could lead to a discussion and negotiation about the conditions of mobile working. If the home office is enforced against the will of the employer, it will lead to a backlash. Then there are constant control calls or employees have to sit at the computer on demand.
Anyone who has had bad experiences with the home office can simply go back to the office or the company, right?
Some companies have realized that having people work from home can save them a lot of money. Because most of them do not have a well-equipped workplace by their employer, they finance it privately. You might get a notebook, but neither a desk nor a chair nor anything else. Employers can save a lot if they forego offices and equipment. The first step, which I have already encountered several times, is to say: We are now doing floating desks, which means that our employees no longer have permanent workplaces, they can work at home. Those who want to come to the office have to look around in the morning to see where there is still a free desk.
So we need a right to a job in the company?
Yes. But that is difficult to combine with the demand for the right to work from home. It is unlikely that the employee side will get both. If there is a right to work from home, companies will say: Okay, then you will also be required to work from home. Then we will no longer set up a workplace for you in the company. But very few people want that.
You say that mobile working can help break down social hierarchies. How?
The rather distant nature of the collaboration creates new rules for dealing with one another. On the one hand, it is much easier for people with physical disabilities to take part in everyday office life because it is easier for them to take part in it via the computer and through online meetings. Online cooperation in a team is a completely different format than in the office, due to the physical presence, but also because people present themselves differently. Top dogs who come into a meeting ten minutes late and then grab everything for themselves have a harder time in online meetings because the basis of communication is different. Groups that are marginalized have the opportunity to participate in a different way than before. Well-established patterns of conducting a conversation dissolve simply because you talk to one another in a completely different way.
Can this experience be transferred to the post-Corona world?
No. At least not in the physical world. When everyone is back in the same room, everyone will act as they did before. I’m afraid that as soon as the corona restrictions are over, everyone will go back to their offices, to their conferences, and carry on as before. Something can only be saved if you consciously change the way you work, for example, mobile work.
How can this be done?
The effects need to be clarified. One can argue: yes, I want to keep my desk, but I’m only there one day a week? If many people work mobile most of the time, what does that mean for those who are happy to go back to the office every day? People have very different needs. The goal should be to do justice to these differences. In a business context, of course, because the business itself also has needs.
If you just let everything go on, you miss the chance to start a new collaboration.