The Future of Work: New Technologies and the Workplace

© DWIH Tokyo/

June 16, 2021

[by Toru Kumagai]

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis that began in spring 2020 is significantly changing how people work in Germany and Japan. The pace of digitalisation, the shift to working remotely, the spread of artificial intelligence (AI), and the adoption of robots are all accelerating. In particular, in Germany the idea that telecommuting should be retained as one working arrangement even after the COVID-19 crisis is over is a powerful one. Moreover, with the further spread and propagation of the oncoming Fourth Industrial Revolution (the so-called “Industry 4.0”), expanding telecommuting beyond the companies in the financial services and information technology (IT) sectors into manufacturing industry is becoming an important issue.

The Debate over the Interface between Humans and Machines

On April 6, 2021, the German Centre for Research and Innovation Tokyo (DWIH Tokyo) held an online discussion on the topic, “The Future of Work.” Eight researchers and thinkers participated in the talk, including Prof. Dr. Nils Madeja from Germany’s University of Applied Sciences Mittelhessen and Tetsuya Sasaki, Senior Director, Saitama City Foundation for Business Creation, Japan. The participants engaged in a lively debate over such matters as the merits and demerits of assigning to robots and machines tasks currently performed by humans in such areas as nursing care and manufacturing, and over what points we should take into consideration.
YouTube DWIH Coffee Talk #2: “The Future of Work: New Technologies and the Workplace”

The Telecommuting Revolution Underway in Germany

Germany is among those countries where proactive efforts are being made since the outbreak of the pandemic last spring to introduce telecommuting. I have been living in Germany for 31 years now, and the ways in which people have been working at many corporations, government offices, and research facilities since March 2020 have changed dramatically from what they were before that time. It would be no exaggeration to describe this abrupt change as a “telecommuting revolution.”
When the COVID-19 crisis erupted in spring of 2020, many corporations here expanded their telecommuting opportunities with surprising rapidity. Most managers at companies in the financial services and IT sectors have said that it was easy to transition to telecommuting-centred patterns of work. One of the reasons for this is that since the turn of the 21st century many companies have been signing agreements with their works councils to allow for telecommuting as a way to make working hours more flexible. At the same time, some companies also had already began building the IT infrastructure that would make it possible to work outside of the office. In short, Germany had already laid the foundations for the telecommuting revolution by chance.
According to an estimate released by Germany’s digital association Bitkom, as of December 2020 around 10.5 million company employees were doing all of their work from home and not going to their offices at all. This represents about one-quarter of all employed persons. When you include people who telecommute several days a week, the percentage of people who are working at least partly from home rises to around 45%.
At these companies, expanding telecommuting opportunities had produced no obstacles to their operations. To the contrary, many workers have said that their productivity had improved beyond what it had been at the office.
At the time the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was striking in spring 2020, German companies were proactively implementing telecommuting to a considerably greater degree than their Japanese counterparts.

Seventy Percent of Corporations Say They Have Adopted Telecommuting

From May 5 to May 22, 2020, the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (IAO) and German Association for Human Resource Management (DGFP) carried out a questionnaire-based survey about telecommuting targeting 500 companies. According to the results released that July, the percentage of companies who said they had their employees telecommuting prior to the COVID-19 crisis was at 32%. However, 70% companies said that after the crisis erupted they had been having most or all of their employees work from home.
Furthermore, according to a similar survey the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Berlin (CCI Berlin) conducted of managers at some 300 companies from July through August 2020, the percentage of respondents who said they had expanded their use of telecommuting since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis reached 65.8%.
Based on these attitude surveys, we can see that around 60% to 70% of German companies were having their employees telecommute when the pandemic’s first wave was underway. This figure far exceeds that of Japan.

Telecommuting as Part of Future Working Arrangements

In Germany, the idea that telecommuting will take hold as one of the regular range of working arrangements even after the COVID-19 crisis has abated in the future is a powerful one. This is because both employees and their employers welcomed the telecommuting option during lockdown. Both labour and management saw telecommuting as something positive. Telecommuting produced a “win-win” situation that was a boon to both employers and their employees.
Working from home was well-thought of in particular among company workers and other employees. The biggest reason for this was that it meant their commute times had been reduced to zero. It also improved their work-life balance since they were now able to decide on their own when they would work.
According to the results of a questionnaire survey conducted by DAK-Gesundheit, one of Germany’s largest statutory health insurers, that were released in July 2020, some 77% of workers who got their first experience of telecommuting for a long time through the pandemic’s first wave that spring said that they would also like to at least do some of their work remotely in the future. Approximately 62% of workers who already telecommuted from time to time before then also said they wished to continue to do so.
According to a survey conducted in November 2020 by the office workers union at Munich’s city hall, 75% of respondents said they wanted to telecommute regularly in the future, too.
These survey results indicate that many workers in both the private and public sectors think that, while they do not want their jobs to be ones that are done from home all the time, it would be fine if they could telecommute to work a number of times a week. Incidentally, in the questionnaire circulated at Munich’s city hall, half of the respondents said that they would be fine if they had no desk of their own there due to wanting to mainly telecommute in the future. It would seem that they are quite satisfied with telecommuting.

Rush Effort to Develop and Improve IT Infrastructure

For all that, prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis in March 2020, even German corporations never made most of their employees work from home. Before COVID, the percentage of workers in Germany who telecommuted was low compared to that of Scandinavian countries. As in Japan, most managers in Germany thought of work as something to be done in the office.
However, the situation changed completely due to the COVID outbreak when of necessity many companies had most of their employees work from home in order to reduce the risk of infection.
To prevent work from going undone, business managers were forced to expand their companies’ IT capacity within a very short period of time. With many workers now conducting teleconferences using software like Zoom, Skype, Webex, and Teams, the volume of data going back and forth increased dramatically, and therefore so did the load on their IT systems.
Furthermore, their workers needed to be able to login to those IT systems from home and then work with documents stored in files on the cloud or perform accounting work just as if they were actually in the office. Upon this development, they then had to use such technologies as virtual private networks (VPNs) to create defensive tunnels that would protect the lines on which data was travelling in order to prevent cyber-attacks by hackers attempting to infiltrate their IT systems or seeking to steal data. Moreover, given that hackers keep coming up with new ways to launch attacks, the VPNs need to be regularly updated and strengthened. In light of the fact that the number of cyber-attacks on both companies and individuals around the world has increased since the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis, setting up such protections is extremely important.
Furthermore, it’s also important to make arrangements for workers to be able to electronically sign contracts and so forth from home, use a company’s official stamp, and so forth.
Many of the IT staff at German companies were engaged in a rush effort in March and April 2020 and succeeded within a short period of time in creating the arrangements that would allow the majority of those companies’ workers to telecommute. The use of digital signatures and digital stamps has also spread mainly at large companies. If the IT departments had not made the effort to expand and strengthen this infrastructure, implementing telecommuting on a large scale would have been nothing more than a pie in the sky dream.

Employees Say Their Productivity is Higher Now Than at the Office

As a result, excepting those in the manufacturing industry or retailers with shops, most companies have succeeded in maintaining sales and productivity even without most of their employees coming into the office. No major obstacles to operations have presented themselves.
To the contrary, there are now more than a few people who believe that productivity is better with telecommuting than it is with working at the office. More than half of the approximately 7,000 respondents to a DAK survey whose results were released on July 22, 2020 said the same about telecommuting productivity. Additionally, more than 80% of respondents said that when it comes to jobs that are suited to telecommuting, they can be handled from home in the same way they are handled at the office.
Likewise, more than half (57%) of the respondents to a Bitkom survey said productivity was higher with telecommuting, far above the 9% of respondents who thought it was lower.

Siemens Adopted a Work Scheme Incorporating Telecommuting

Munich-based general electric devices and electronics manufacturer Siemens announced in July 2020 that the company’s Managing Board decided that, even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, it would establish a system that would enable more than half of the company’s employees worldwide to work on a mobile basis two or three days a week. Siemens is the first of Germany’s major companies to have announced that telecommuting would be made one part of its working model.
The decision to telecommute or not will be left up to the employee; they will not be forced to do so. Labelling the project its “New Normal Working Model,” Siemens said it will apply to around 140,000 (48%) of the company’s more than 290,000 employees working in 43 countries worldwide. An internal survey of its employees conducted after spring 2020 lockdown found that some 60% said they wanted to telecommute some of the time in the future as well. However, this system will not apply to those employees who work in factories and other such locations on the manufacturing frontlines.
Siemens’ then-COO and now-CEO Roland Busch said, “The coronavirus crisis has triggered a surge in digitalisation. Telecommuting worked extremely well for Siemens during lockdown. Employees worked efficiently and they were very productive. The bias that had held telecommuting to be bad for the company went up in smoke.”
As of July 2020, Siemens’ employees were taking part in around 800,000 online meetings daily around the world. Busch said, “We’re also looking into restructuring our corporate organisation to take into account the increase in telecommuting employees. We will also adjust the ways that managers assess employee results and their styles of leadership to ones that are not premised by work done in the office but rather that are more suited to the telecommuting age. The standard for evaluation in this case will be outcomes. Siemens is continuing to change its ideas about ways of working.” Such comments stressed his view that, as a company that has adopted telecommuting, Siemens recognises that the need to focus on results as well as on employee autonomy and personal responsibility will be all the more important.
That said, Siemens does not believe that all work will be transitioned completely to telecommuting. Rather, the primary view there is that the working arrangements will be of a hybrid model that mixes office work with telecommuting.
That is to say, when it comes to such tasks as bringing teams together to exchange ideas and brainstorm, employees will be coming into the office. On the other, when it comes to doing things like answering email, handling data, and so forth, they can telecommute from home. Moreover, employees will be able to decide for themselves what days to come to the office depending on the work and issues they need to address.
Given that most meetings and negotiations with customers will be held via teleconference, the number of actual business trips taken will be far lower than they were before the pandemic. For companies, this has the benefit of being able to cut the costs associated with going on such trips, while for employees it means they will no longer have to sacrifice their personal time spent with families to make such visits.

Telecommuting for Manufacturing Industries, Too, with the Spread of Industry 4.0

The issue for the future is how to increase the use of remote work in the manufacturing industry, a sector where at present telecommuting is difficult. Playing an important role here for Germany will be the “Platform Industrie 4.0” project that the government and scientific community have been pursing since 2011 to digitalise the manufacturing industry.
In the world of the fourth industrial revolution, components, machine tools, industrial robots, and IT systems will all be able to communicate with one another and exchange data in real time. Engineers will make digital twins of components and products, and then using these virtual copies they can conduct demonstration experiments and evaluate their designs and durability. If this is accomplished, then workers will not necessarily have to go the factory or laboratory.
In the smart factories of the future that have been digitalised and automated, workers will be able to leave all the physical labour up to industrial robots. Workers will be able to log in to computers from their homes, monitor the manufacturing processes taking place in smart factories, and handle creative tasks rather than those involving control. Given that a sensor-based monitoring network will be set up around the smart factory, administrators would be instantly notified of any signs of a malfunction, such as voltage fluctuations, and then humans would be able to take the necessary steps to deal with it.
In short, the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has made many managers in the manufacturing industry greatly aware of the importance of digitalisation in the form of remote manufacturing. This is due to how it would improve their business’ resilience for continuing operations even in a worst case scenario in which workers could not gain access to the factory.
In fact, according to an annual survey conducted by Bitkom, the percentage of companies who have or are planning to digitalise their manufacturing processes rose considerably after the pandemic’s outbreak compared to the prior era.
The debates over enshrining telecommuting into law also continue. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government issued a cabinet order this January obligating those companies for which telecommuting is possible to give its employees permission to telecommute so long as no special circumstances prevent it. In short, other than such sectors as the manufacturing industry in which telecommuting is not possible, all companies must allow their employees to work from home.
Under the cabinet order, workers could choose whether or not to telecommute. That said, when the German Infection Prevention Act was temporarily boosted this April, so long as it did not interfere with their jobs, workers themselves were obliged to telecommute. While this was for a limited period, it was the first time in Germany that telecommuting was made a de facto obligation.
Furthermore, Germany’s Green Party—currently ahead of other parties in the opinion polls and in a strong position to assume the mantle of government in the federal election to be held September 26—has proposed enshrining permanently into law the right of workers to telecommute.
The telecommuting revolution under way in Germany is giving us some important food for thought as we consider the models for how we work in the future.

Click here to read other articles from the series “Toru Kumagai’s report on R&D trends in Germany”.

About Toru Kumagai

Born in Tokyo in 1959, Kumagai graduated from the Department of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University in 1982 and joined Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), where he gained a wealth of experience in domestic reporting and overseas assignments. After NHK, he has lived and worked as a journalist in Munich, Germany, since 1990. He has published more than 20 books on Germany and Germany-Japan relations, as well as been to numerous media outlets to report on the situation in Germany.