This article was originally published in September 2020.
Around 15 million people work in around 410 million m² of office space in Germany. Although many people used to work occasionally from home prior to 2020, the home office only became the available option for many workers in the course of the coronavirus pandemic. People’s experience during this lockdown period has certainly been mixed; daily commutes have been shortened, coordination work has had to be conducted electronically in a new system, work-life balance has been renegotiated hour by hour, and not just based on landmark decisions concerning family and career planning.
Above all, however, many companies and their managers have had to set aside their fears of addressing the issue of working from home and have had to embark on a learning curve that was previously often avoided, be due to caution or prejudice; what’s more, employees have not had to put their head on the line to voice their wish to work from home. Experience is like the mythical genie in the bottle; once released, you cannot undo the experience. The genie stays outside the bottle for good. This is where the analogy between experience and the genie in the bottle ends because it is primarily up to us to make what we can of our new experience, i.e. how we continue up the learning curve. So, the first message of this essay is that everything we have learned about working from home over the past few months represents just the first steps on a longer journey.
What could the next steps look like? In a recent study, analysts conducted by Catella (2020) found that two in every three respondents prefer one to three flexible days, and 20% of those surveyed even prefer complete freedom in terms of how they structure their working hours and place of work. This additional flexibility could enable companies to economise on fixed office space and this, in turn, could significantly reduce the demand for office space. If, for example, every employee were actually to work from home for two days, and if only half of this space thus temporarily freed up were then to be planned more flexibly in existing office premises, e.g. in the form of shared office workplaces or by leasing more co-working space, this could reduce demand for office space by one-fifth in the long term – 80 million m² rental space or seven times the office supply in Frankfurt (all other things being equal).
However, the point of this paper is not to estimate how much the demand for office space might (or might not) dwindle in the next few years, but rather to argue that there should be a wide range of different answers to the question of an appropriate home office ratio in a company and that government intervention can do more harm than good here. At the end of the day, it all depends on individual learning steps and the specific needs of teams and companies.