The surge in Working from Home in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic
What are the long-term potentials for academically and vocationally qualified people?
Alexandra Mergener, Stefan Winnige
Working from Home (WfH) has become a regular model for large numbers of employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. What future developments can be expected? The article investigates this question on the basis of data from the 2018 BIBB/BAuA Employment Survey and via evaluations of online job vacancies (OJV) from the year 2020. It outlines in which occupational groups long-term changes could be indicated for those with vocational and academic qualifications.
Working from Home – a working arrangement for everyone?
The proportion of employees working from home has risen considerably over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic (cf. e.g. FRODERMANN et al. 2020; SCHRÖDER et al. 2020). When the first lockdown came into force in March 2020, a working arrangement, which had long been primarily reserved for highly qualified staff or civil servants in leadership positions (cf. BRENKE 2016) very quickly developed into a standard model for large parts of the working population. This is likely to be particularly true for employees whose occupations contain a high degree of cognitive tasks, since these offer significantly more potential for WfH than manual tasks (cf. MERGENER 2020 a). “WfH potential” refers to occupational access to such an arrangement and therefore also to the opportunity of performing at least some tasks from home, regardless of whether workers actually avail themselves of this option or not (for more details on the definition of access to WfH cf. MERGENER 2020 a). Studies conducted on the basis of the 2018 BIBB/BauA Employment Survey (cf. Information Box p. 28) indicate that such WfH potential existed for around 57 percent of employees prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, although only 28 percent of these employees actually worked from home on an occasional basis at least (cf. MERGENER 2020 a & 2020 b). Both potential and actual use was higher for those with academic qualifications than for those who had not completed higher education (cf. ALIPOUR/FALCK/SCHÜLLER 2020). However, the tasks of just under half of employees with vocational qualifications (47%) also offered scope for WfH before the start of the pandemic. Nevertheless, this potential remained largely unused (own evaluation). Whereas the main reason for this was non-facilitation by companies of WfH for their staff, there were certainly also cases (just under 10%) where employees themselves rejected the notion of WfH (cf. MERGENER 2020 b, pp. 7 ff.). The studies also revealed that associated aspects such as work-life balance were also assessed differently in connection with WfH. Whilst those working from home mainly (52%) view work-life balance as a benefit of such an arrangement, most of those never working from home (56%) think that separation of these two spheres is important and that WfH is not therefore a desirable concept (cf. GRUNAU et al. 2019). By the same token, however, an unfulfilled wish for WfH can also definitely negatively impact employees. This may, for example, be reflected in a lower degree of work satisfaction than that experienced by those working from home (cf. MERGENER/MANSFELD 2021).
The lockdown during the pandemic has now led to changes on the company side. Technical infrastructure and work processes, for instance, were adjusted to meet the needs of the workforce in a broader sense (cf. BELLMANN et al. 2020). This leads to the question as to which changes will remain after the acute crisis has passed. In order to obtain initial indications in this respect, the present article uses the 2018 BIBB/BauA Employment Survey (cf. Information Box) to identify which occupational groups offer potential for WfH in the first place and to investigate how this potential was used or not used prior to the pandemic. Specific emphasis is directed to areas of potential for those with vocational qualifications (i.e. employees who have completed initial or advanced VET) as compared to persons holding academic qualifications (i.e. employees with a higher education degree). Against this background, an analysis is subsequently carried out of job advertisements (cf. Information Box) from the year 2020 in order to discover the scope to which companies offer opportunities for WfH or expect a willingness on the part of applicants to accept such an arrangement. This analysis is also conducted in a qualification-specific way so as to permit a final estimation of the qualification levels for which WfH could become more of a regular model, including in the long term.
The BIBB/BAuA Employment Survey (ETB) is a representative telephone-based questionnaire of more than 20,000 persons aged 15 and above (not including apprentices) who are in regular paid employment for at least ten hours per week. The 2018 ETB includes differentiated information relating to the potential for and use of WfH arrangements by employees in Germany.
Further information: www.bibb.de/arbeit-im-wandel
The company Textkernel provides BIBB with online job vacancies via an Online Job Vacancy Database. These advertisements are collected by aweb crawler, automatically adjusted and classified. This process also removes the duplicates which are created when one job advertisement is posted on different portals.
In order to flag up advertisements which facilitate WfH, texts were automatically searched for the German expression of the terms “home office”, “tele working”, “mobile working”, “tele working from home”, “tele work”, “working from home”, “flexible working”, “flexible work location” and other variants of these designations.
Working from Home before the pandemic – where are the areas of untapped potential?
The issue of whether employees can work from home is strongly dependent on the occupation and on the tasks to be exercised. Cognitive tasks such as research and the processing and documenting of emails are especially capable of being performed at home, whereas manual tasks including care, transport and repairs do not tend to lend themselves to a WfH situation (cf. MERGENER 2020 a). The same initially similarly applies to those with academic and vocational qualifications. Nevertheless, the extent of cognitive tasks the former perform within their occupation tends to be greater. For this reason, the work of those with academic qualifications is generally more likely to be suited for WfH. Another factor is that employees with academic qualifications have exploited the existing potential for WfH in a significantly better way up until now. According to the 2018 ETB, just under 70 percent of employees with a higher education degree and performing tasks with potential for WfH had already worked from home, at least occasionally. The corresponding figure for employees with a vocational qualification was just 37 percent. But in which occupational fields is the existing potential not being exploited? Where can changes be expected to occur if the acute pandemic is followed by broader dissemination of the WfH model?
Figure 1 shows average proportions of employees with an academic (left-hand diagram) or a vocational qualification (right-hand diagram) within various main occupational groups (2-digit code in the 2010 German Classification of Occupations – KldB 2010) who could work from home (X-axes) and actually do so (Y-axes). Occupational groups in which the potential for WfH is low in overall terms are located in the bottom left part of the diagrams. Those occupational groups offering a high degree of such potential appear in the upper right area. The further removed the occupational group is from the diagonal in the diagram, the higher the degree of untapped potential for WfH.
Tasks exercised by persons with academic qualifications, especially in the occupational fields of Construction scheduling, architecture, surveying (31), Technical research, development, construction, and production planning and scheduling (27), and Law and public administration (73), offer high degrees of potential for WfH. Only about half of this potential was used up until the pandemic. An enormous proportion of unexploited potential for WfH is revealed for persons with vocational qualifications who are working in occupations in Law and public administration (73). Just under 80 percent of employees with a vocational qualification state that their work could also be completed at home. However, fewer than 20 percent actually work from home on an occasional basis. The discrepancy is even larger in the occupational field of Financial services, accountancy and tax consultancy (72). However, persons with vocational qualifications have also been unable to exploit existing potential for WfH in Business management and organisation (71) and Advertising, marketing, commercial, editorial media design (92). The greatest amount of WfH potential is found in the occupational field of Computer science, Information and communication technology (ICT) (43). Just under 95 percent of employees with a vocational qualification believe that it is possible to perform their tasks from home. This figure is similar to that recorded for employees with an academic qualification. However, whereas 80 percent of those in this occupational field with an academic qualification actually worked from home, the corresponding proportion of employees with a vocational qualification was only 68 percent.
Areas of WfH potential are being significantly better exploited in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic because companies are more likely to permit WfH in circumstances where the occupational task permits this (cf. BELLMANN et al. 2020). This trend is also reflected in the analysis of company offers of opportunities for WfH in job advertisements from 2020.
Company provision of Working from Home arrangements during the COVID-19 crisis
A significant increase in online job vacancies (OJV) offering WfH arrangements can be identified from April 2020 as a consequence of the first lockdown. During the course of 2020, instances of companies explicitly mentioning WfH opportunities to rise by more than 1.5 times (cf. Figure 2).
Nevertheless, it is conspicuous that the proportion of explicit mentions of WfH opportunities in OJVs remains significantly below the potential and use of WfH identified via the ETB 2018. The main reason for this is likely that, during the lockdown, the possibility of WfH was not mentioned in all cases where such an arrangement is possible. Nevertheless, an explicit mention of WfH indicates that the company believes these jobs are easily compatible with WfH arrangements.
As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, the proportion of job advertisements in which WfH was specifically mentioned rose for both qualifications groups, academic and vocational. Even though the proportion of WfH mentions continues to be significantly higher for persons with an academic qualification than for those with a vocational qualification, a virtual doubling of the amount of WfH mentions for the latter can still be observed (from 1.5 percent in January to 2.9 percent in December), albeit on a low level.
A detailed consideration of the offering of WfH in OJVs for various occupational groups shows that this provision increased for office-based and service occupations in particular whereas virtually no growth is recorded for agricultural or craft trades occupations (own evaluation, no figure presented).
In which occupations can long-term changes be expected?
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees are working from home in order to minimise their risk of infection. However, not all occupational groups are able to benefit from this opportunity to the same degree. The extent to which a shift of work to the home environment is possible is heavily dependent on the occupation and associated tasks. Persons with academic qualifications enjoy a greater potential for WfH than their counterparts with vocational qualifications because the former perform a higher proportion of cognitive tasks. Even prior to the pandemic, employees with a vocational qualification exploited their existing potential significantly less effectively than those with an academic qualification. Before 2020, high and untapped areas of potential for WfH were present in office-based and service sector occupations in particular, such as in public administration or in financial services and accountancy. These then provided a recourse during the pandemic. The analysis of online job vacancies shows that companies are more likely to refer explicitly to the WfH option when seeking to recruit skilled workers. This applies mainly to office-based and service sector occupations. Although the proportion of mentions of WfH remains higher in overall terms for persons with academic qualifications rather than for those with a vocational qualification, a particularly steep rise is currently being demonstrated for service sector occupations and for office workers at the intermediate qualification level.
The expanded offering of WfH arrangements during the lockdown has also meant that companies have increasingly created general conditions (including with regard to technical infrastructure or concepts relating to virtual cooperation) which will continue to hold sway after the pandemic. Areas of potential for WfH within occupations should therefore be significantly better exploited in future than, and this is also something from which employees with vocational qualifications could benefit.
Studies of employees working from home conducted during the pandemic in 2020 show that this working arrangement is popular amongst most such workers. Over half of the respondents wish to continue working from home in the future, at least for some of the time (cf. e.g. BONIN et al 2020, KUNZE/HAMPEL/ZIMMERMANN 2020 and WSI 2020). Advocates of the idea of WfH also report on aspects such as greater productivity and efficiency and the improved chance of achieving a good work-life balance (cf. KUNZE/HAMPEL/ZIMMERMANN 2020). Notwithstanding this, WfH is not attractive to all employees. The main reasons stated by those wishing to return fully to their company-based workplace once the pandemic is over are that personal contact with colleagues is important to them and that they prefer a separation between their working and private lives (cf. BONIN et al. 2020). Negative experiences as a result of WfH also include a high degree of emotional exhaustion and of social isolation (cf. KUNZE/HAMPEL/ZIMMERMANN 2020). Employers and managers will need to face up to this balancing act of employee expectations and preferences in future and create suitable general conditions that will allow WfH to be extended and become firmly established as a flexible model whilst a physical presence at work should also continue to be facilitated for employees who prefer this.
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MERGENER, A.; MANSFELD, L.: Working from Home and job satisfaction: the role of contractual agreements, working time recognition and perceived job autonomy (BIBB-Preprint). Bonn 2021
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DR. ALEXANDRA MERGENER
Academic researcher at BIBB
Academic researcher at BIBB
Translation from the German original (published in BWP 2/2021): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin