Home office obligation ends in Berlin

Photo by Luke PetersFor many Berliners, their own four walls have become the center of their work over the past year. Instead of working in the office, they open their laptops at the kitchen table or in their own study. At the end of March 2021, Berlin became the first German state to enact a far-reaching home office requirement.Since then, a maximum of 50 percent of office employees have been allowed to carry out their work at their place of work if the situation did not absolutely require more staff in the offices. The rest had to work from home, the regulation instructed employers. Now the home office obligation is passé - and will remain in many places after all.

At the end of June, the regulation expired as part of the "federal emergency brake" that was limited until then. The deadline for the obligation to work from home also ended on this date in the Berlin Infection Protection Ordinance. The fact that the ordinance expired despite the current good infection situation is not without controversy. "I could have imagined an extension of the existing home office regulations," Labor Senator Elke Breitenbach (Linke) told the Daily Mirror. "But the federal government decided otherwise, and we didn't want a special regulation for Berlin either."

The business community in the capital region, on the other hand, is pleased to see the end of the regulation. "In view of the further declining incidences, it is right that the obligation to work from home is dropped and that employees can once again work more locally," Henrik Vagt, managing director of economics and politics at the Berlin Chamber of Industry and Commerce (IHK Berlin), told the Daily Mirror.However, he said, it is to be expected that the Corona crisis will permanently change the way of working in quite a few companies. "We know from company surveys that more than 40 percent of Berlin companies want to integrate mobile working firmly into their corporate culture," Vagt said.Where it is possible and also supported by the employees, up to 50 percent of work performance is to be performed from the home office, he said. "Now finding the right balance between different needs of employers and employees will therefore be the challenge of the next few months," he said.

In places where it has worked well, he said, the home office remains "an integral part of the way we work." It is important, he said, that companies do not suffer any disadvantages: The high health protection requirements would remain in place. For example, it would also have to be considered whether private rooms were at all suitable for working from home on a permanent basis. "Here, more support from the authorities would be necessary in the preparation of occupational health and safety concepts or the classification of risk situations," said Vagt.The same applies, he said, to the costs incurred by those companies that participate in the vaccination campaign with their company doctors, who should not be left alone with the costs of staff or storage of vaccines.

From the beginning, the Berlin-Brandenburg Business Associations (UVB) were not enthusiastic about the home office obligation and the Berlin Senate's interpretation. "The obligation to send half of the employees to the home office has irritated many companies," said the deputy chief executive, Alexander Schirp.With the special way of the 50 percent quota, the Berlin Senate has caused additional bureaucracy and uncertainty, he said. "After all, most employers have made extensive home office offers to their employees since the pandemic began," Schirp said. He added that Berlin's rigid quota has even complicated operational processes and depressed productivity at some companies - especially those with many production-related office jobs. "In any case, the Senate's assumption that the 50 percent quota would not affect operational processes has proven untenable," Schirp said.

From feedback, he said, the UVB knows that many employees now view permanent home office work critically. They are pushing to be able to return to their workplace. In the future, the associations expect a mixture of presence and home office work.So far, such models have been voluntary. But a legal right to work from home has been discussed for some time. Labor Senator Breitenbach is in favor of such a right. "I welcome a federally regulated right to home office and mobile working. We have had good experience with this in the pandemic."However, there must be flexible and individually adapted design options and suitable time windows for this, he said. "And the regulations for occupational health and safety must of course also apply in the home office," the senator said.

The Berlin-Brandenburg branch of the service sector union Verdi takes a similar view. "There should be a legal right to home office for employees," said spokesman Andreas Splanemann.Crucial here, he said, is that companies and employees put questions of work organization in writing. "As a union, we recommend concluding company or service agreements," the spokesman said. "These regulations are the be-all and end-all. Only when there are precise rules of the game do you know how to behave." Employers and employees otherwise often move on the edge of legality.This starts with workplace ergonomics, he said. Splanemann said he had heard of several cases where employees were now complaining of serious damage to their health because of working from home. Liability issues also need to be clarified, for example in the event that a company laptop containing important company documents is stolen during a break-in, or employees fall down the stairs on their way to fetch coffee.

It is not easy to get the entire workforce back into the office, said Martin Lützeler, a specialist in labor law and partner at the CMS law firm. "If, for example, distances cannot be maintained in the multi-person office and other protective measures cannot be implemented, it will have to remain the case that only some of the employees can work in the company at the same time."So far, some Berlin companies have not always complied with these protective measures. The Berlin State Office for Occupational Safety, Health Protection and Technical Safety (Lagetsi) has carried out more than 2,500 checks on this since the outbreak of the pandemic, according to a spokesman. "In the process, we have looked at all corona-related occupational health and safety measures, i.e. also questions of distance-preserving work design, ventilation, hygiene, and later also the obligation to offer tests."In around 200 cases, the Lagetsi has had to intervene through verbal and written requests. Since the end of March alone, the office has received a total of 770 questions and complaints from employees by telephone. Since then, the Lagetsi has received a further 14 complaints and 200 questions from employees by e-mail



Photo by Luke Peters

 


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