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SETTING STANDARDS

Germany is drafting a law to protect your right to work from home—and still have a life

A man sits outside his apartment and takes part in remote meeting
Reuters/Brian Snyder
Some will stay, some will go.
  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work reporter

As the pandemic stretches on unevenly around the globe, the German government wants to codify labor conditions for remote employees.

It’s moving forward with a set of laws that would protect a person’s ability to work from home when possible, turning what was once a fringe benefit into a personal right. The legislation would also limit the number of hours that people are expected to toil from their kitchen tables, home studies, and bedrooms, long after quitting time, the Financial Times reports.

“We cannot stop the changes in the world of work, nor do we want to,” Hubertus Heil, Germany’s labor minister told the FT. “The question is how we can turn technological progress, new business models, and higher productivity into progress not only for a few, but for many people. How do we turn technological progress into social progress?”

Details about the regulations won’t be known until a draft of the law is published in three to four weeks. But the idea, which was first floated in 2019 and has gathered momentum during the pandemic, is already facing resistance from the country’s influential labor groups who worry that work-from-home laws will hamper employees’ ability to organize and bargain collectivity, something they say is more effectively done in face-to-face conversations.

The president of the German Employers’ Association, meanwhile, said in June that the change will nudge employers to send jobs overseas, fearing a plunge in productivity, according to Fortune. Business leaders close to chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) party have also spoken out against the proposals, Fortune reports. The CDU and the center-left Social Democrats—of which Heil is a member—currently lead the country as a coalition government.

However, a survey published this summer by the Ifo Institute, an economic think-tank in Munich found 54% of company leaders say they want more employees to work from home after the pandemic. It also revealed that 75% of German companies sent their staff home to work through the pandemic, according to Bloomberg. That’s a dramatic change in a nation where, before this year, few people who could work from home actually did and it has apparently opened the door to a permanent shift in thinking.

The proposed remote work protections are “part of a wider rethink of the German economic approach which includes abandoning the country’s longstanding commitment to running a balanced budget—dubbed the ‘black zero’ or ‘schwarze Null’—and extending its Kurzarbeit, or short-term work scheme, a way of cushioning workers from the worst of the economic slowdown,” the FT writes. The Covid-19 crisis has illustrated that “a strong welfare state not only helps people, but has an economically stabilizing effect,” Heil said.

The crisis has also shown remote workers how easily work and life can merge without the psychological boundaries created by commutes and conventional offices. The blending of the personal and professional can be especially burdensome for women, who have taken on the bulk of childcare, home-schooling, and housekeeping duties during the pandemic.

Yet the work-life balance problem, too, is something the government believes it can manage through official policy, rather than waiting for people or business leaders to change their culture.

This strategy is not uncommon in Europe: Three years ago, France passed a law a “right to disconnect” law, guaranteeing an employee’s right to silence their phones and snap shut their laptops every evening. Ireland is currently running public surveys to inform a new set of remote work laws.

And in Spain, where the right to disconnect law was adopted last year, the government, business associations, and unions just successfully negotiated the details of a new decree covering the rights of remote workers. It gives employees the right to flexible hours and forces companies to pick up the tab for home office expenses. Employers are also now legally obliged to pay workers the same salary they would make if they weren’t working remotely and afford them all the same opportunities for career advancement as their office-based colleagues.

In Greece, newly proposed remote work laws address all of those issues, but also block companies from using software to spy on employees at home. Since the pandemic, a growing number of businesses have adopted “productivity” applications that monitor staff, sometimes by snapping photos of employees every few minutes through their webcam.

That’s the kind of behavioral change that could quietly take hold in the post-pandemic new normal—and a good reason for policy makers around the globe to start paying attention.

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