Germany: Working from home declines
In western and northern European countries, the opportunity to work from home has increased in recent years. But the trend has taken an opposite direction in Germany, where the share of workers working from home has declined across occupations. This has occurred despite public debates on how teleworking might improve work–life balance. The study does not offer a conclusive explanation for the trend, but the author highlights the preference for other forms of working time arrangements in Germany.
A new study by Karl Brenke for the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) shows a decrease in homeworking in Germany (560 KB PDF, in German) over the past decade. This finding comes as a surprise; it had been assumed that the spread of information and communication technologies (ICT) would lead to a steady rise in teleworking. Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, a public research organisation, has previously said that it expects a growth in multi-locational office work.
The main focus of the DIW study is on recent developments in homeworking among workers in Germany and whether it varies depending on individual factors and public or private sector employment.
Germany bucks the European trend
The study finds an overall increase in homeworking in EU Member States from 1992 to 2012. Germany followed this trend up to 2004, at which point the proportion of workers predominately working from home began to fall; the proportion working occasionally from home has fallen since 2008. In 2012, figures had dropped back to the 1992 level, with 6% working from home: 4.4% occasionally and 1.6% predominately. The distribution of homeworking is below the average calculated for the EU28, Iceland and Switzerland, as a group, and about the same as in Hungary and Poland. The proportion of employees saying they predominately work from home is among the lowest in Europe. By contrast, all neighboring western European and Scandinavian countries stand out for their high levels of homeworkers.
Public and private workers affected
Overall employment increased in Germany by 1.5 million from 2008 to 2011, but the number of people saying they occasionally or predominately work from home declined by 800,000. The trend affected self-employed as well as employees. In case of employees, the decline was not related to age, sex, qualification, employment status, full-time or part-time work, or having children in the household. Groups that have the highest shares of homeworkers were most affected, namely civil servants (with a decline in homeworkers from 38.1% to 33.5%) and workers holding an university degree (declining from 32.8% to 25.0%).
Surprisingly, the trend is evident in almost all occupations. The strongest decline in absolute figures was a decrease from 69.8% to 58.9% among teachers, who account for the majority of all homeworkers, and a decrease from 7.2% to 5.5% among office workers, who rank second in numbers. But homeworking also dropped among IT specialists (from 26.9% to 22.4%), engineers, scientists, lawyers, therapists, workers in the media and creative industries, and health workers.
Increase among the highly qualified
The decline affected both the public sector (falling by 2.7%) and the private sector (falling by 1.4%). However, the the distribution of teleworking across both sectors did not change: in 2011, about 63% of homeworkers worked in the private sector and 37% in the public sector. The share of white-collar workers (69.8%) also stayed almost unchanged from 2008 to 2011, whereas the share of blue-collar workers decreased by 1.0% to 3.5%.
In 2011, women accounted for 46.2% of homeworkers (up by 1.6%) and men for 53.8%. Effects on the reconciliation of work and family life were minimal. The share of homeworkers who have children up to age 12 in the household increased by 0.6% to 25.3%.
The most significant change is seen with regard to qualifications and indicates that highly qualified workers have more privileged access to teleworking. The share of homeworkers holding a vocational training or professional school degree decreased from 37.1% to 34.5%, whereas the share of university graduates rose from 54.9% to 59.1%.
Debate on the findings
The study does not offer a conclusive explanation for the findings. According to Brenke, they cannot be attributed to Germany’s occupational structure as it is similar to western and northern European countries. He suggests that forms of work organisation and cultural factors may play a role. In an interview in DIW Wochenbericht (112 KB PDF, in German), he points to the extent of other forms of flexible working time arrangements in Germany and also notes that employers have an interest in keeping workers in the workplace for reasons of supervision.
The research was published in the context of an ongoing debate on how to facilitate the reconciliation of work and private life and reduce commuting stress by means of homeworking arrangements. The government's 2013 coalition agreement expressed a need for more flexible working time arrangements – including working from home – and called on the collective bargaining partners to join forces in promoting these forms of working at company level. In Germany, homeworking is regulated by works agreements in private sector and staff agreements in the public sector.
The DIW findings were widely reported in the media because, in late 2013, the new Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Andrea Nahles harshly criticised the ‘abnoxious culture of presenteeism’ (Anwesenheitswahn) and called for a team-based working culture allowing fathers and mothers to organise their working time and place of work more flexibly. Major newspapers highlighted that some large companies implement homeworking as a result of company agreements, but following on Brenke’s study, it was also reported that both trade unions and employer organisations are low key on the issue (in German).
Reticence among unions and employers
Neither side came out with responses to the findings. The trade unions hold an ambivalent position (in German), saying that telework may provide for more autonomy, enable a better reconciliation of work and family life, and save time and travelling costs. On the other hand, they see a risk of isolation, of blurring of boundaries between work and private life, overtime and poor ccupational health and safety standards (40 KB PDF, in German).
The Confederation of German Employer Associations (BDA) is lukewarm on homeworking (2.7 MB PDF, in German) as an option among family-friendly workplace policies. It has concluded that, because of the nature of most occupations, working from home is an option only for a minority of workers and has less importance to work–life balance compared to other flexible working time arrangements. In individual company cases, firm and task-related conditions for teleworking should be addressed by works agreements. Thus, coming from different positions, the social partners both favour in-house working time arrangements.
For his analysis, Brenke used Eurostat’s EU Labour Force Survey data (up to 2012) for comparing long-term trends. Microcensus data was available up to 2011. Regarding homeworking, this contains a question asking respondents whether their work is 'predominately' (more than half of working time), ‘occasionally’ (up to half of the working time) or ‘never’ done at home.