“No teleconference can replace conversation in person”

One or two days of working from home (aka telecommuting) per week has become the norm for more and more employees. In an interview, labor market expert Karl Brenke explains what you need to keep in mind and what pitfalls there can be – as well as what the optimal mix between working in the office and working from home looks like.

Interview Thomas Schmelzer  
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Mr. Brenke, how long has there been such a thing as working from home?


There have actually always been certain ways of working from home. Often this involved work that was formally classified as self-employment but that in fact took place in a relationship of dependency on an employer – that is, people remained dependent on just a few clients. Jobs like these were mostly poorly paid and precarious.


For example?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many formally independent weavers produced fabrics for a merchant. They received an order and then had to produce a certain number of meters in a specified quality within a certain period of time. To close out the order, the client came, picked everything up, and paid. It was similar after the Second World War, when war widows had to fold and glue cartons for medicine at home, for example.


Working from home today has hardly anything to do with these beginnings.

Exactly. Today, you don’t need anything more than a laptop, an Internet connection, and a phone. And an arrangement with your employer, of course.


A quiet corner in which to work probably wouldn’t be bad thing to have either.

Sure, a desk and bit of peace and quiet are also helpful. You could theoretically also talk about a few other details, but in practice that doesn’t work because they aren’t possible to verify. Why would an employer be interested in whether the work is done at a desk, in bed, or at the kitchen counter? With teachers who correct schoolwork at home, no one would ask whether the light they are working by is bright enough and whether the chair they are working in is sufficiently ergonomic. However, a good employer should still be interested in whether their employees have proper furnishings available at home.


What are the advantages of working from home for employers and employees?

As an employee, I can of course save myself the commute to work, which represents time savings that are not insignificant in major metropolitan areas. Telecommuting is also good for the environment. The employer saves costs because they can use the office premises for other purposes, at least in part. However, the most important point is the employee’s freedom to make decisions regarding their own time, as they can manage their schedule themselves.


About the interviewee

About the interviewee

Karl Brenke is an expert on issues relating to the labor market. The graduate economist works as a research associate at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin. He also has a seat on the board there. His work, including a study published in 2010 on the shortage of skilled workers in Germany, has attracted a great deal of attention.


Can’t they do that in the office too?


On a normal working day, I’m at the office from nine in the morning to five in the afternoon. If I dispense with a commute to work, I can be at my desk starting at eight o’clock and work straight through until noon. I can then decide to exercise over lunch and finish my work in the afternoon or evening, for example. If I have children, I would also have the opportunity to do something with them.


Sounds a bit laissez-faire.

That’s precisely not what I’m talking about. Being able to make decisions regarding when I do work does not mean that I let my work slide; on the contrary, I have to put forth a considerable amount of self-discipline. Experience has shown that work and childcare at the same time do not work and that priorities need to be set.


Is that everything?

The most important thing is to distinguish between productivity and mere time spent working. For example, as an employer I should give the employee certain tasks to take home with them instead of just asking them to sit in front of the PC for a certain amount of time. In this way, a predefined output is requested and the focus is on productivity. However, the danger is that employees will be tasked with too much work unless clear agreements and reasonable objectives have been agreed.


The line between leisure and work time is becoming blurred.

You need to be extremely careful when it comes to this issue. Discipline and clear organization are extremely important – not only in terms of working hours. This includes the discipline of not looking at your cellphone during breaks and not immediately answering every e-mail, for example. You also need to be able to say that your work is done for the day and now your computer is going to remain switched off. However, all of this is ultimately a question of how you shape your work time, and your superior should also be integrated in this discussion.


How do companies and employees rate the work-from-home model themselves?

There are no extensive studies on the topic, but some surveys have been done – and they actually only show advantages on both sides. However, not all jobs are suitable for working from home. As a rule of thumb, no more than 40 percent of all jobs make the cut. They are usually professions that require a college degree and other significant qualifications. Due to demographic developments, such employees are also in demand on the labor market and can therefore ask for more from their employers.


So there’s no downside?

Well, the lack of presence in the office can of course lead to a lack of visibility to the boss. Those who are not often in the office can quickly be passed over when projects are assigned, or promotions are handed out.


Doesn’t communication with colleagues also suffer?

We found out that communication with colleagues also works sufficiently well when employees work from home. To be honest, I don’t see any advantage in my colleagues constantly walking into my office and distracting me. The conversations then go off topic and we often end up talking about something else entirely. I think it’s possible to organize everything by phone and e-mail, to make appointments for phone calls, and to work things out beforehand.


And the human factor?

It may be that you don’t find out as much about your colleague’s vacation, but the human aspect is certainly not completely absent when you’re working from home. Sometimes it also depends on the temperament of the individual colleagues. In some offices, more socializing is done, and in others there is less. Many are even annoyed when colleagues are constantly coming around the corner to talk about private matters.


What about the classic meeting?

I believe that working from home can generally reduce the number of meetings. I often get the impression that meetings are just rituals in which people take the opportunity to prove themselves. But I’ll admit that no teleconference can replace conversation in person. The right mix is also important here. If the mix is right, you can streamline your processes and still leave enough room for personal interaction.


And what does the right mix look like?

Studies have shown that people who work from home a few days a week are happier. However, this may also be due to the fact that, as stated previously, we are dealing here with more highly qualified workers who tend to be happier anyway. What is not recommended is working from home exclusively. Spending two to three days a week in the office with colleagues certainly doesn’t harm anyone.


What does the future of working from home look like?

The trend is clearly towards working from home more, as companies have recognized the advantages of the model and are trying to become more attractive to qualified employees by offering the option to work from home. However, banks, insurance companies, and the public sector in particular still have great potential to take further steps in this direction. And of course, there are jobs that you can only do on site: The concrete caster still needs to be on the construction site and the cashier cannot ring people up from home. There will also be no major changes in such jobs in the future.