Virtualisation for Distancing Purposes
Hybrid Working Worlds

A man is sitting in his garden at home and works at his laptop. Photo taken: 13.09.2021.
A man is sitting in his garden at home and works at his laptop. Photo taken: 13.09.2021. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/dpa | Silas Stein

Due to the pandemic, a third of the German workforce is mostly working from home. The concept of “new work” allows for flexible work models and a new work-life balance. David Wandjo, a research fellow in the Globalisation, Work and Production research group at the Berlin Social Science Center, takes a look at the future of the working world.

By David Wandjo

In the wake of measures to prevent the spread of a COVID-19 infection, many people in Germany have experienced a drastic radical form of physical distancing from other people and their usual workplaces. Since the first lockdown in March 2020, a widespread shift has been observable from office work to working from home or mobile working – with percentages fluctuating according to recurrent changes in the pandemic situation. Roughly half the jobs in Germany could potentially be done from home, and about one third of employees actually worked entirely or partly from home in the first half of 2021.

This physical distancing was made possible by the extensive use of digital communication tools such as video conferencing software, messaging services and various collaboration tools. So the pandemic-induced shift from working physically close together with others to remote work is primarily characterised by the virtualisation of collaboration. This shift is often referred to as “new work”, a term coined by Frithjof Bergmann. Nowadays, the term is mainly used to mean flexible models of working and a work-life balance, for which digitalisation is considered an essential element.

It should be noted that much of the German labour force is only slightly affected, if at all, by this virtualisation. Many people in system-relevant occupations continue to work in person with an elevated risk of infection. Most wage-earners in the manufacturing and catering industries are also required to be physically present in the workplace and cannot relocate their work. So the discussion about the virtualisation of work primarily concerns white-collar workers who do “brain work”.

Collective labour and shop agreements are currently being negotiated and concluded in many German industries to regulate the organisation of the new working world(s). Mobile working is a core element of these new models, which in turn raise questions about time tracking and the provision of working tools and equipment. Under the coalition deal of the German Federal Government under Olaf Scholz, the parties have agreed on employees’ right to discuss the matter with their employers, though not a basic right to work from home. The deal draws a distinction between mobile work and teleworking, which is heavily regulated by law, with a view to providing greater flexibility for employees and employers.

The outlook for hybrid work blending in-person and remote working

So the question arises as to what changes ushered in by digitisation processes are going to lastingly influence the workaday world when the pandemic is over or the pandemic situation allows for infection control measures to be lifted.

In future, much of the labour force will probably work according to hybrid models, with some days spent working at the office and a certain number of days spent working from home – or even places like cafés and parks. Physical presence will still be necessary to ensure more social interaction between co-workers and that employees continue to identify with their company. A lack of in-person contact can undermine a company’s organising capabilities as well as staff solidarity. Under this model, there will be less in-person interaction, the whole team will seldom get together in one place, and more and more meetings and events will go hybrid.

Under these configurations, we’re also likely to see a reduction in office space, for businesses have a strong economic incentive to save on rent by reducing the number of staff working on their premises. New office environments with flexible spatial concepts such as open-plan offices and desk-sharing will increasingly catch on to suit these new working conditions.

Thanks to shorter in-person office hours, commuters in particular will be spared what are sometimes long daily commutes back and forth to the office. Generally speaking, in-person contact with customers will be virtualised in many domains, including field service, trade fairs and conferences. In addition to potential savings of time and money, reduced business travel holds the potential to significantly shrink our carbon footprint.

“New Work” challenges and opportunities

While most workers seem to prefer mobile working in some hybrid form, working from home can be problematic and even burdensome for some people. And conflicts may arise if, particularly at companies that have scaled down their available office space, not all workers are entitled to a permanent workspace. This points up other potential problems that are unlikely to be resolved in the medium term by society as a whole. For example, working from home is more difficult for people living in close quarters and it imposes a double burden on working women who also carry out most of the household chores. Another critical factor will be the cost of equipping employees, for example with laptops and ergonomic furniture for working from home.

In the scenario of a new, hybrid post-covid working world, corporate leadership culture is likely to change. Since the pandemic, many companies have required executive staff to take seminars on virtual leadership skills. Given the reduction of physical presence as a precondition for conventional forms of supervision, we are likely to see a long-term increase in trust in workers’ performance. Increased personal responsibility is liable to be accompanied by a flattening of hierarchies in the working process. On the other hand, the new collaboration tools, unless their use is restricted by co-determined rules or by law, can potentially be used to supervise and monitor workers remotely.

So far, most employees feel that flexible working hours have made it easier to reconcile work and family life. But increased accessibility and flexible hours when working at home are also blurring the line between working hours and free time. Under the terms of the coalition deal, the new Federal Government have committed to the principle of the eight-hour working day whilst nonetheless allowing so-called “experimental spaces” for more flexible models under industry-wide or shop agreements. It remains to be seen whether such regulatory frameworks will allow in future for working arrangements tailored to the needs of individual companies or entire industries.

The virtualisation of the post-pandemic working world holds promise of a more human-centric way of working, at least for the sectors concerned. On the other hand, “new work” models also hold potential risks of remote monitoring, the blurring of work-life boundaries, and the return of traditional gender roles for some workers. The exact configurations will differ along various axes such as industry and concrete activity and will continue to be subject to conflicts and negotiations.