Home office lure


​Home office has become a daily reality for many in the Corona crisis. Various studies are investigating what opportunities mobile work offers and what risks arise. Our most important findings at a glance.

Will office workers continue to work from home in the future? Job ads provide a clue.

The Corona pandemic has catapulted many workers from the office to their desks at home. If they like it there, chances are good that they can continue to work from home at least part of the day - even if they change jobs. That's because companies are advertising more and more jobs with the option of a home office. This is shown in a study by the Institute for Economic Research (Ifo) and the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt.

A total of more than 35 million job advertisements from more than 200 company websites and online job boards from 2014 to 2021 were evaluated. It shows: between 2019 and 2021, the share of offers with the option of home office more than tripled. While in 2019 only about 3.3 percent of the tenders contained a home office offer, in 2021 it was more than twelve percent. Especially in professions where home office work has not been common so far, such as in the construction industry or in the education sector, there has been a strong increase, the study says. The proportion here rose almost fivefold. But even in industries where many companies already offered home office options to their employees before the pandemic, the share quadrupled. These include the finance and insurance industries, for example. In the information and communications industry, the proportion has tripled.

A trend that also manifests itself in direct surveys of companies, as the Leibniz Center for European Economic Research (ZEW) notes in a corresponding industry report on the information economy and manufacturing. According to the report, many companies in both sectors expected an increase in the number of home offices right from the start of the pandemic, but revised their estimates upwards over time: In June 2020, nearly two-thirds of the companies surveyed planned to use home office even after the pandemic, and a year later, 74 percent already did.

On the employee side, ZEW researchers also see growing interest in working from home. "Currently, for example, every second company in the information economy assumes that in the long term more than 20 percent of employees will work in a home office at least once a week," says ZEW researcher Daniel Erdsiek. As recently as June of last year, only one in three companies expected this to happen.

Home office use during the Corona epidemic

Corona is a catalyst for mobile working: at the end of June 2020, around 16 percent of respondents to a survey by the Hans Boeckler Foundation worked mainly or exclusively at home. Another 17 percent said they alternate between working at work or at home. The proportion of employees in the home office is thus significantly higher than before the outbreak of the pandemic, when only 4 percent worked mainly or exclusively at home. However, the proportion was even higher than last, at 27 percent, in April 2020, shortly after the start of the corona crisis in Germany.

By contrast, home office use was surprisingly low in November 2020, the period of "lockdown light." Only 14 percent of the employed persons surveyed said they had worked predominantly or exclusively at home, despite the fact that politicians had appealed to employers to make mobile working possible across the board. It wasn't until January 2021 that the figures were back at nearly the same level as in April of the previous year, as our latest wave of the survey showed. However, it also made clear that many employees with jobs that are suitable for home office work are still encouraged to work in person.

Nevertheless, home office is likely to play a greater role in the working world in the future: When asked whether they expect home office to become more widespread in the future, 71 percent of respondents to our June survey answered yes.

In fact, working at home also harbors risks, such as psychological overload, loneliness or career disadvantages. However, these risks can be averted if clear company rules are created and the necessary framework conditions are adhered to, according to an April 2021 study by researchers at the Institute of Economic and Social Research (WSI) and the Institute for Co-determination and Corporate Governance (I.M.U.) of the Hans Böckler Foundation.

In companies with works councils, employees report an above-average number of positive experiences with the home office. In companies with a works council, 86 percent do so, compared with only 77 percent on average. Almost half of those surveyed in home offices would also like to work from home in the future. This indicates a "high level of satisfaction and openness toward the home office," according to the researchers.

Dissolution of boundaries and retraditionalization: Effects of the home office on employees

Home office can reinforce traditional division of labor: Those who work at home spend more time on care work. This is more true for women than for men. New rules are therefore needed to reconcile work and family life, and incentives are needed for a fairer division of care work. This is the conclusion of an expert report for the German government's Third Report on Gender Equality, written by Yvonne Lott of the WSI together with Claire Samtleben and Kai-Uwe Müller of the DIW.

Differences between the sexes can be observed in particular among parents: Mothers who work from home have three hours more childcare time per week than mothers who cannot work at home. The situation is different for fathers: They work more overtime in the home office, but do not take more time for the children. Employees' experiences with home office in Corona times vary: 77 percent say home office makes it easier to balance work and family. 60 percent believe they can even organize their work at home more effectively than at work. However, 60 percent of respondents with home office use have the impression that the boundaries between work and leisure are blurring.
Closely linked to the topic of home office is often the question of working hours: Extremely flexible working hours are often at the expense of employees, shows the study by our expert on mobile working and flexibilization of work, Yvonne Lott. Those who work in a home office are often unable to switch off in the evening. The probability is 45 percent, more than twice as high as for employees who never work at home.

Designing mobile work well: Prerequisites and best practice

What are the criteria for successfully designing mobile work? It all depends on the corporate culture; employers and supervisors must create the right conditions. This also includes formalizing mobile work: If home office is contractually regulated, significantly more employees have good experiences with it.

Flexible working, both in terms of location and time, is now common in almost all industries. This leads to many questions that arise less in the presence workplace. I.M.U. expert Sandra Mierich analyzed the contents of 67 current company or service agreements. This shows what the neuralgic points are. When designing flexible working hours, especially in the home office, it is important to have clear rules: time limits, time recording, realistic guidelines for the workload, enough staff and substitution rules.

Companies with a works council are ahead of the game when it comes to the fair design of such rules: According to the study, the probability that companies offer flexible working time arrangements for employees with care obligations, such as flexitime or home office, increases by 13.9 percentage points if there is a works council.

In times of Corona, where hundreds of thousands work in home offices for weeks and months at a time, many supervisors feel a growing need to monitor their employees. Are they perhaps having a lazy time in the home office? Manufacturers of monitoring software are currently experiencing high growth rates. But electronic monitoring of employees in the home office is only permitted in narrowly defined cases.

The future of mobile work: A right to a home office? Back to a culture of presence?

Our study results show why a right to mobile work and clear rules on time recording make sense. Before Corona, many employees did not work from home due to barriers arising from the corporate culture. A right to home office would help women in particular.​

What is needed is fair access for all those who want to work on the move and for whom the content of their work makes mobile working possible. A clear distinction between work and leisure time is important here, so that the two do not become increasingly blurred, as are opportunities for co-determination by works councils and staff councils. WSI Director Bettina Kohlrausch points this out.

Whether we need a "right to home office" is also up for debate: "Yes," says Astrid Schmidt, Verdi advisor in the federal administration, specialist group Telecommunications/Innovation and Good Work. "No," says Oliver Stettes, head of the Labor Market and the World of Work competence field at the Institute of the German Economy (IW) in Cologne.

"We have a large potential of employees who could work in a home office, but currently do not" - our WSI expert on mobile work, Yvonne Lott, describes the trends of home office use in an extensive video interview of the business network "Success Factor Family" (from 2019) and is convinced: Even beyond the classic office jobs, there are opportunities for employees* to do at least parts of their work on the go.

Will the crisis be followed by a return to a culture of presence? Dorothea Voss, head of our research funding department, writes that, despite all the advantages and disadvantages of mobile working, it is possible to take the best of both worlds into the post-Corona era. To that end, we've compiled voices from the home office during the Corona period from a variety of affected people.

In the long run, it is about a claim for employees to home office or mobile work, writes WSI expert Yvonne Lott. Two aspects are central: voluntary mobile work for employees and the possibility of a mixture of home office and work at the workplace.

Sources: Süddeutsche Zeitung; Hans Boeckler Foundation
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