The unused potential of alternative working formats for the German Public Sector

Luise Ritter argues that Home Office as a flexible working format offers a currently unused potential to public sector institutions in Germany. Promoting e-work can solve the issue of human resources scarcity but also facilitates the digital adaptation process within public sector organisations. Further, it contributes to the practice of broader societal values of gender equality and sustainability, which allows the public sector to function as a role model. 

As a direct result of the social distancing measures during the COVID-19 crisis, a significant share of employees in the service industry were forced to switch to home office from one day to the other. Resulting from this sudden change, more professionals were able to experience an alternative work mode, the advantages and disadvantages of which have been widely debated before the outbreak of the pandemic. While alternative working formats such as home office are on the upswing, they are less common and often regimented by government institutions. However, promoting flexible working formats could be a promising strategy to solve the imminent scarcity of human resources, that evolved because of the aging workforce and little attractiveness of public sector workplaces to young professionals. Further, home office could become the driver of digital adaptation and cultural change within the public sector.

Although home office is not a new concept, it achieved another intensity, when the social distancing measures were implemented at the beginning of this year. A study conducted by the Federal Institute for Population Research (Bundesinstitut für Bevölkerungsforschung- BiB Wiesbaden) reveals the impact of COVID-19 on the German labour market, finding that the number of people working from home almost quadrupled. However, after five months of office distancing, there are only a few studies available analysing the impact of COVID-19 on the working landscape. The Global Workplace Analytics (GWA) platform, that conducts research on how work-at-home strategies can maximise employer, employee, and environmental outcomes in the US, anticipates that home office will become much more frequent after the crisis. The platform launched a Global Work From Home Experience Survey, assuming that people who tend to work remotely for a longer period are likely to be more attached to remote work. Researchers base their findings on the observation that the large-scale experience of the remote office creates additional demand for alternative work formats. Especially for those who were new to remote work until the pandemic, the survey predicts a significant rise in their adaptation, estimating a 25-30 percent increase of home office by the end of 2021. The 2020 Buffer Report supports this trend and highlights that 98 percent of the studies’ respondents indicated that they could imagine to at least sometimes work from home.

To some extent, the private sector already adapts towards the rising trend, as several companies strive to attract human capital through the promotion of more flexible working formats. A good example is provided by Siemens’ recent announcement to allow half of the companies’ workforce to work remotely at least on multiple days in the week. The COVID-19 crisis has also triggered a changing attitude of many employers towards their employees, including a greater acknowledgment of the importance of their intrinsic needs. The GWA survey also reveals that if managers experience remote work themselves, they tend to be less worried about the productivity and the working ethic of their employees.

However, home office creates considerable advantages, also for the public sector. The current situation creates great potential for solving the prevailing issue of human resource scarcity. The Public Governance Institute in Germany (Institut für den öffentlichen Sector e.V.) already highlighted in a governance report from 2014 the advantages of promoting more flexible working formats to attract young professionals. Luring young professionals necessarily coincides with a consideration of the work demands of a special generation; the millennials (born between 1981-1996). They will largely fall into the age span of people that, according to Eurostat statistics, will be more likely to work from home in the future. According to the Pew Research Centre, millennials are digitally literate and tend to select their workplaces based on the degree of flexibility and the existence of flat hierarchies. Generally, researchers assign this group more adaptive capacity to deal with alternative working formats. Thus, it is essential to reach out to millennials in particular to establish an organisational culture that supports and encourages digital adaptation. As a result, allowing alternative working formats also facilitates the digital adaptation process within public sector organizations.

In addition, there are plenty of beneficial side-effects that come along with the currently evolving office revolution. Besides changing management styles, remote work also attracted the serious attention of various political agendas. In Germany, for example, the Social Democratic Party is pushing for the legalisation of remote work as a permanent option in labour contracts and as a general right of citizens. They assume that more flexible working formats can contribute to the goal of achieving greater gender equality. Especially women would be supported as they are still unequally challenged by child care and homework duties next to their jobs. The Gender Equality Index 2019 recently revealed that Germany faces the highest gender equality gradient, meaning that proportionately woman are more likely to reduce working hours to do child care than their partners. More flexible working formats would support especially woman but also parents in general to better align child care with work and allows for a smoother re-entrance into the labor market after child birth.

Moreover, due to less business travel, we are observing a dramatic reduction in traffic, congestion, and pollution. Although sustainability has not been a primary driver of remote work in recent years, we actually see now the difference it can make. As a result, promoting alternative working formats also advances the public sector to function as a role model about practicing gender equality and sustainability.

About the Author

  • Luise Ritter , Student Research Assistant at the Centre for Digital Governance