Theoretically, digitalization allows many people to work where and when they want to. As a result, the topic of working hours is creating new challenges for both legislators and companies. The German Federal Ministry of Labor has recognized the signs of the times and is currently working on new rules to permit more flexible working hours. For many years now, the chemical industry has been offering its employees flexible working hour models in order to do justice to the demands of the new world of work.
More flexibility is called for
Thanks to notebooks, smartphones and cloud computing, people can work together from virtually anywhere and around the clock. For companies, the digital transformation thus means a tremendous gain in flexibility. This is also necessary because in a globalized economy, companies need flexible employees. If sites are to work smoothly across time zones, then people must have the possibility to hold meetings and send e-mails outside the nine-to-five workday.
Greater flexibility offers advantages not only to employers. Increasingly, more employees want flexible working hours in order to better reconcile the demands of having both a career and a family. Sweden is a trendsetter when it comes to work-life balance. For many people in Sweden, it’s normal to work until the afternoon, then spend time with family and friends, and get back online at 9 p.m. to respond to e-mails.
Status quo in Germany
In Germany, the reality in companies looks a lot different. This is due not least to the German Working Hours Act, which dates back to 1994. That was when the Internet was still in its infancy. Legislators at that time could not yet foresee the possibilities created by the digital transformation.
In today’s world of work, the maximum daily working hours prescribed by the current German Working Hours Act and the eleven-hour rest period in between workdays are often no longer practicable. After all, even an e-mail check in the evening can be problematic if it takes place less than eleven hours before the employee is back in the office the next morning. This makes the dichotomy between the modern world of work and the current legal situation particularly clear.
In the meantime, German legislators have recognized the need for more flexibility and are working to liberalize the German Working Hours Act in this respect. According to the plans by the German Federal Ministry of Labor, by the end of this year employees will have better opportunities to work flexibly outside the workplace or from home. However, making it possible for millions of employees to work more flexibly by law is easier said than done.
Room for maneuver and the right culture are crucial
For example, a general right to work from a home office, as the Federal Ministry of Labor is currently considering, would not work for some activities for very practical reasons. A production worker cannot simply take an industrial machine weighing tons home with him. Unlike many of its European neighbors, Germany is heavily industrialized, which makes mobile work more difficult. A law on flexible working must therefore allow a certain amount of room for maneuver in order to take account of the diverse corporate landscape in Germany while also permitting more flexibility, not only for people who work in offices.
Another factor that will be crucial to the success of the new legal regulations is a receptive corporate culture. Managers will have to place more trust in their employees if they will not be able to look over their shoulders in the office as much in the future. Work must no longer be measured in terms of time spent at the workplace, but rather in terms of performance. At the same time, flexible working time models demand more self-organization and personal responsibility from employees.
More than just home office
The chemical industry is demonstrating what modern working time models could look like in practice. Since the currently valid German Working Hours Act permits individualized regulations in collective agreements, the German Federation of Chemical Employers’ Associations, of which I am President, and the German Mining, Chemical and Energy Industrial Union long ago agreed a whole series of flexibilization measures. These are now anchored in the collective agreements for the entire German chemical industry, and even apply to employees in production! After all, working flexibly means a lot more than just home office.
For several years now, we at Merck have been offering our employees the innovative working model mywork@merck, which gives them the freedom to independently decide their working location and hours within the limits of what is possible. If companies want to remain attractive to young talent and agile enough for global competition, then they need to address the topic of flexible working, regardless of their respective industry. A legal framework can provide an important foundation here; yet above all it should create room for maneuver and rely on company agreements instead of putting companies in a strait jacket – after all, every job is different.