Blurring boundaries in the “new normal” of work – Rolf Schmucker

The good news is that “hybrid” work promotes employee self-determination. The bad news is that it’s hard to keep work at bay.

Coffee breaks? Those that were good (carballo/shutterstock.com)

During the pandemic, working from home has experienced an unprecedented boom. According to many observers, the associated changes in the organization and work processes will frame the work of tomorrow. “Hybrid” working in different places chosen by themselves (in the office, at home, on the road) is becoming the “new normal” of the world of work.

In addition to better protection against infection, working from home can have other advantages from the employee’s point of view. Avoiding travel can save time. And greater flexibility in planning and scheduling work can increase individual freedom of action and facilitate work-life balance.

Generalized desire

Various surveys indicate that most employees who have worked from home would like to keep this option even after the pandemic is over. Very few, however, would want to completely move their workplace to their own home.

There is a widespread wish to be able to decide the place flexibly, depending on the situation, whether to work in the company or from home. HR managers at many companies find themselves challenged to advertise the possibility of location flexibility in the competition for the skilled workers in demand.

Does this “new normal”, as a side effect, promote the union demand for greater employee self-determination over their working time? Do the changes mean more sovereignty over working time, at least for employees who can work from home?

The annual Good Work Index published by the Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB), the German trade union federation, helps to answer these questions. In 2021, 6,400 employees in Germany were interviewed for this representative employee survey. Two reference groups were formed: employees of the “new normal”, who communicate digitally and often work from home, and those of the same occupational groups who mainly work in a fixed workplace, referred to here as “the old normality”.

Conflicting results

The survey results highlight the adversarial nature of work in the ‘new normal’. Employees who frequently work from home enjoy greater self-determination over their working time: 78% say they can influence it to a (very) high degree, which is only the case for 58% in the world of “old normal” work ( Figure 1).

Figure 1: influence of workers on the organization of their working time

new normal, work from home, hybrid work

At the same time, the working hours of employees in the “new normal” are much freer. A third (32 percent) need to be frequently available to their employer, even in their free time – in the “old normal” this only applies to 18 percent. In addition, employees in the “new normal” work outside of their normal working hours without pay much more frequently (28%) than employees who cannot do their work from home (13%). And in the “new normal”, almost half (46%) say they often shorten their breaks, while only 29% in the “old normal” do so (Figure 2).

This loss of constraint on work in terms of time has psychological corollaries. For effective recreation, it is necessary to be able to detach from work-related matters in one’s free time. However, nearly half (47%) of “new normal” employees often cannot. In the ‘old normal’, only a third (34%) have problems mentally disconnecting from work.


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Figure 2: dissolution of working time

new normal, work from home, hybrid work

The “new normal” is therefore not only characterized by a loss of physical demarcation between work and the private sphere. Temporal and mental borders are also dissolved.

Work without limits

Why, despite greater self-determination over working time, do those in the “new normal” more often work without limits? Data shows that the more time pressure and deadlines there are at work, the more often people work beyond old boundaries in the “new normal”. While the proportion of those who often work without pay in their free time is between 10 and 18 percent, when they work very often under time pressure, this proportion drops to half (49 percent).

The loss of constraint in the “new normal” is therefore less the expression of a self-determined organization of working time than the result of an excessive workload. It is true that boundary removal also increases among “old normal” employees when working under high time pressure, but it is much less pronounced there.

The organization of working time is always linked to the determination of the amount of work and its objectives. Self-determined working hours that truly increase employee flexibility are only possible with realistic performance measurement.

The breaking down of boundaries in the “new normal” is facilitated by the loss of the physical boundary between work and free time. Work is no longer finished by leaving the workplace; mobile devices or home work room make it possible to resume work at any time.

Provisions undermined

Provisions that have been put in place over decades to protect employees from undue stress and health risks are often challenged in the case of mobile working. Norms for the organization of working time and its recording are neglected. This is less noticeable because the way work is done at home remains invisible to company representatives, colleagues and superiors. Designing good working conditions in the “new normal” therefore raises new challenges.

At the start of the pandemic, the work of many employees was often transferred to their own walls at short notice and without much preparation. Questions of working hours, technical equipment or ergonomics have often been left aside. It is time to learn from this experience. For healthy work design in the “new normal”, it is not enough to hand employees laptops and smartphones: human work design standards must also apply.

An important step is to create a legal framework defining the conditions and limits of remote work. The objective would be to reinforce the effective self-determination of workers on their place and their working time. Within these legal ‘guardrails’, the design of the ‘new normal’ could be embodied in specific organizations through collectively bargained arrangements. Data from the DGB’s Good Work Index also shows that the loss of work constraint is much less pronounced if company regulations on working from home have already been agreed.

The early and full participation of labor and workplace representatives is a prerequisite for overcoming the invisibility of work in the domestic context. Working in the “new normal” is not a program in itself to humanize it. Only by strengthening employee rights and designing concretely with the participation of those affected can it really be used to strengthen self-determination.

Rolf Schmucker is a social scientist and director of the DGB Good Work Index institute in Berlin. The institute conducts annual surveys of workers in Germany about their conditions.

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