While a progressing vaccination campaign and falling incidences have kicked off the political discussion on relaxing home office regulations, stricter requirements for working from home only came into force at the end of April 2021. Not only are companies obliged to offer home office as much as possible, employees are also encouraged to accept this offer. With its fourth survey on home office in Germany, bidt examines the effects of the new home office regulations in Germany in May 2021.
Home office survey May 2021
Falling infection figures and vaccination progress in Germany have recently sparked a debate on how home office regulations should proceed in the near future. The Federation of German Industries, for example, is calling for an end to compulsory home office work in the near future. At the same time, the German Federation of Trade Unions still sees the current regulations as an important instrument of occupational health and safety (Tagesschau 2021). Yet it is just over a month since the strictest home office regulations to date came into force on 23 April 2021. According to these regulations, companies are obliged to offer home office as far as possible, and employees are also required to accept this offer.
The Bavarian Research Institute for Digital Transformation (bidt) has taken this further tightening of home office regulations as an opportunity to investigate the spread and acceptance of home office in May 2021. To this end, bidt conducted a representative short survey from 6 to 28 May 2021 – i.e. after the new regulations came into force. Using Google Surveys, 1,559 adult working internet users in Germany were surveyed. This survey supplements the three survey waves on the subject of working from home conducted by bidt in March 2020, June 2020 and February 2021 and allows analyses throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Compared to February 2021, there is only a slight increase in home office use, primarily because employers have once again expanded the options for home office use. The potential for home office use several times a week has thus been fully exhausted. Looking ahead to the time after the pandemic, the results show that the vast majority of professionals would also like to use the home office potential for their activities. Around 72% of all professionals surveyed whose work allows a home office in principle see a suitable home office offer as important when choosing a new job in the future.
Accordingly, it can be assumed that a suitable home office offer will increasingly become a competitive factor for companies after the coronavirus pandemic, especially in the competition for scarce skilled workers. In this context, companies must keep an eye on the home office options per se and the suitable equipment of their employees’ workplaces at home and the development of new competencies and leadership qualities. In addition, employers’ perceived more positive attitude towards home office makes it seem unlikely that a complete reversion to the old patterns of the pronounced German presence culture will follow the pandemic. Accordingly, long-term structural changes are also expected, which will bring economic and societal challenges. Research should continue to accompany this change and point out implications actively.
Home office use slightly increased again.
Compared to February 2021, home office use has increased slightly. Thus, 52% of all adult working internet users are currently in a home office, at least from time to time. Compared to home office use during the first lockdown in March 2020, use is now 9 percentage points higher. At the same time, it is 17 percentage points higher than the pre-crisis level of 35%. Home office use several times a week has increased by 5 percentage points compared to February 2021. Thus, around 46% of working internet users currently work from home several times a week. This share has, therefore, more than doubled compared to before the coronavirus pandemic.
The evaluation by gender shows that the renewed increase is primarily due to increased home office use among working men. For this group, the use of home office at least occasionally increases by 5 percentage points to 55% compared to February 2021, while the use of home office several times a week increases by 6 percentage points to 48%. For women, on the other hand, occasional home office use increases almost not at all compared to February 2021 and now stands at 48%. The frequent use of home office several times a week also remains virtually unchanged for women compared to February 2021 at 42%.
Over the coronavirus pandemic to date, men are more flexible in switching between home office and on-site work than women. In less tense phases of the pandemic, men returned to workplaces more quickly than women, while in more tense phases, they worked more from home again. One possible reason for this could be the additional burden of childcare, especially for women – particularly when childcare facilities do not offer the usual amount of care due to the pandemic.
Little effect of compulsory home office for employees
An analysis of the effects of the “Fourth Law for the Protection of the Population in the Event of an Epidemic Situation of National Significance” shows the recent slight increase in home office use. The law, which came into force on 23 April 2021, not only transferred the previous regulations on home office from the SARS-CoV-2 Occupational Health and Safety Ordinance to the Infection Protection Act but also expanded them. In addition to the obligation for the employer to offer home office as far as possible, there was also an obligation for employees to accept the offer of home office as far as possible. Specifically, “in the case of office work or comparable activities, the employer […] must offer employees the opportunity to carry out these activities at their home if there are no compelling operational reasons to the contrary. The employees must accept this offer if there are no reasons for them not to do so”(Article 1 (7), Fourth Law on the Protection of the Population in the Event of an Epidemic Situation of National Significance). According to the current status (15.06.2021), the measures are limited until 30 June 2021. It can be seen that the majority of the surveyed employees for whom home office is possible have already made full use of the employer’s offer to use home office. For 16% of all employees, the use of home office was extended in May 2021. Around 4% of all employees now have to work from home more often, although they do not want to do so. 12% are now allowed to work from home more often and want to do so. Only 2% do not fully use the home office offer but must now provide the employer with a reason for this. Despite the current regulation, 7% of all employees do not make full use of the home office offer and do not have to justify this to the employer. The renewed increase in home office use thus seems to be primarily due to an expansion of the home office offer, as only a few workers report direct effects of the tightened requirements affecting them.
Almost a quarter of home office users do not work at a fixed workplace at home.
In the course of the fourth survey on the prevalence and acceptance of home office in Germany during the corona pandemic, bidt also investigated the workplace situation of professional internet users working at home. 23% of the respondents stated they did not have a fixed workplace at home. About one-third of the respondents have a fixed workstation in their home office. 45% say they have a fixed workstation in their study.
There is a certain correlation with the frequency of home office use. Thus, 47% of those working from home several times a week state that they have a permanently furnished workplace in their study. By contrast, only 37% of respondents who work from home only occasionally and not several times a week do so. 21% of those who work from home several times a week do not have a fixed workplace. Among those who only use their home office occasionally, the figure is 35%.
High satisfaction in the home office is partly dependent on the workplace situation
86% of home office users in May 2021 stated that they are rather or very satisfied with their home office situation; only around 15% are not. Satisfaction has thus risen again somewhat compared to February 2021 and is at the level of June 2020, when similarly high satisfaction values were recorded. This shows that satisfaction has at least some connection with the workplace situation in the home office. Thus, 90% of home office users are rather or very satisfied with a permanently furnished workplace in their study. In comparison, only 84% of those with a permanently furnished workplace in their living area are satisfied. Home office users without a fixed workplace show the lowest satisfaction values at 80%. The differences are even more marked in the group of the very satisfied. Thus, 58% of home office users with a fixed workstation in their study are very satisfied with their situation in the home office. Among those who do not have a fixed workstation at home, only 32% are very satisfied.
Employers are more positive about home office.
A clear majority of 80% of working internet-using employees say that employer attitudes towards home office use have improved. Only one in five does not believe this.
Home office desire is very high and close to potential after the pandemic.
A comparison of the current home office use with the home office potential from the bidt survey in February 2021 shows that the home office potential is currently more than exhausted in the case of exclusive or almost exclusive use. While 29% of professionals are currently (almost) exclusively in a home office, only around 19% of respondents in February 2021 stated that their activities can also be carried out (almost) exclusively in a meaningful way in a home office. The potential is currently fully exhausted if home office is used several times a week. Now, 46% of those in employment are in a home office several times a week, while 46% consider this possible. Only when the observation is extended to include occasional home office use, for example, once a week or less, is there still potential. Thus, around 52% of respondents currently use home office occasionally, whereas 61% of respondents see a potential for this.
After the coronavirus pandemic, about 55% of working internet users would like to be able to work from home at least occasionally. In stating their wish, the respondents were explicitly asked to take into account that their job must also be able to be practised to the desired extent in a home office. 13% of the respondents want to work exclusively or almost exclusively in a home office. 28% do not want to use home office (almost) solely but at least several times a week. 11% want to be able to work from home about once a week, and 3 % want to use home office at least two to three times a month or less often. Only 6% of respondents do not want to work from home, although they consider this possible in principle. 39% state that their job generally does not permit a home office.
Suppose one compares the desire for home office with the current use. In that case, it becomes apparent that in the future, more professionals will want to work from home at least from time to time and consider this to be possible in principle in their profession. Looking only at intensive home office use, it is noticeable that fewer respondents want to work exclusively or almost exclusively in a home office (13%) than is currently the case (29%). This is still true if one considers professionals who work from home several times a week.
A comparison of the desire for home office after the pandemic with the home office potential shows that the professionals also largely want to use the self-assessed potential. In the case of exclusive or almost exclusive use, however, the desire of 13% of the respondents falls somewhat short of the stated potential (19%).
The high importance of home office offer when changing jobs
The pronounced desire to be able to work from home after the coronavirus pandemic is also reflected in the importance of a suitable home office offer in a future job. Thus, 72% of the respondents who generally consider home office possible in their job state that home office options are rather or very important in a new job. Only 28% believe a corresponding offer to be unimportant.
A certain correlation can be shown with the home office situation. Among professionals who generally consider home office possible, 84% believe a suitable home office offer is important if they have a permanently furnished workplace in their own study. For respondents with a fixed workplace in their living area, this is 77%. For professionals without a fixed workplace, on the other hand, this proportion is only 64%.
Summary and outlook
Germany’s strictest home office regulations, which came into force on 23 April 2021, have once again slightly increased home office use. Thus, in May 2021, at least occasionally, 52% of employed persons were in a home office. 46% even work from home several times a week. Especially among frequent home office users, the home office potential is thus exhausted.
For the period after the coronavirus pandemic, around 55% of those in employment would like to work from home at least occasionally and consider this possible for their activities. 41% would like to work from home several times a week after the pandemic. 80% of the surveyed workers who consider home office possible in principle state that the employer’s attitude towards home office has improved. Accordingly, it seems unlikely that the world of work will completely revert to the old patterns of German presence culture after the coronavirus pandemic. Rather, it can be assumed that a suitable offer for the use of home office will also develop into a competitive factor in the struggle for qualified workers. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed who consider home office possible in their job say that a suitable home office offer will be an important decision criterion for them when changing jobs in the future.
Companies should, therefore, see the current pandemic-related push for home office as an opportunity to successfully set the course for the future in competition with suitable offers for home office use. This is all the more true as the home office potential is particularly strong among higher qualified, scarce skilled workers (Mergener 2020). Job satisfaction can suffer among employees with unfulfilled home office desires (Grunau et al. 2019).
In future home office offers, special attention must also be paid to the workplace equipment at home. Companies should actively participate in setting up a fixed workplace within the employees’ four walls in the competition for skilled workers. Suitable ergonomic equipment can not only counteract the currently increasing negative health consequences caused by the frequent use of home office (DAK 2021) but also promote employee satisfaction. For example, significantly more home office workers with a fixed workstation are satisfied than workers without such a workstation.
A balanced mix of presence and home office days should become the rule where possible. In this way, the advantages of home office can be combined with the benefits of presence work, and the negative consequences of excessive home office use can be avoided. Where home office is not possible, the employer side and politics will have to ensure a suitable balance to counteract a division of the workforce or a further social division of society. Employees and managers alike must be sensitised and supported in the change. For example, new competencies and leadership skills for working and leading from a distance often still need to be built up. This change will bring challenges for the economy and society. Research should continue to accompany this change and identify implications actively.