Sustainable office – a rethinking of office concepts

Germany

Can a rethinking of the office drive the sustainability agenda forward?

Below we address the question of how the topic of sustainability can find its way into everyday office life. The main focus will be on the possibilities and the labour law framework conditions of working from home.

Working from home – the green paradise?

Whatever the eventualities and possible exceptions, one thing is clear: Working from home contributes to lower emissions. According to an empirical report from the German Economic Institute (Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft Köln e.V.), around 40% of people in Germany work in an office. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the vast majority of these people are likely to have worked from home at least once over the past two years.

Working from home can offer personal convenience for employees and can also have a positive impact on the environment. A report by Greenpeace shows that a large number of people working from home even sporadically can save several million tonnes of CO2, simply through the reduction in commuter traffic. In Germany, 68% of commuters still use their cars to get to work. From a sustainability point of view, reducing this traffic would represent a major adjustment that can be made most effectively through the broad participation of companies.

In addition, saving space in the office offers the possibility of setting up desk-sharing models. Especially in large cities, office space is an expensive commodity and working from home is a sensible starting point for saving costs and preventing cities from being expanded and built up. Moreover, the increase in employee freedom would likely create an increase in satisfaction, which in turn has a positive effect on morale and thus also on productivity. Nevertheless, professional sustainability is not only achieved through environmental concerns. Among other things, labour relations also play a role. In accordance with this, factors such as work-life balance, occupational health and safety or data protection must also be involved. HR must consider whether working from home is a sustainable working model.

Obligation to work from home and right to work from home

German law does not mandate either an obligation to work from home or a right to work from home. Unless otherwise stipulated in the employment contract, the employer will determine the place of work at its discretion in accordance with section 611a German Civil Code (BGB) in conjunction with section 106 of German Trade, Commerce and Industry Regulation Act (GewO). As a rule, however, an employee's home cannot be designated a work place, according to Article 13 German Basic Law (GG), which limits the employer's ability to exert influence. The instruction to work permanently at home is not covered by the employer's right to issue directives.

Conversely, it cannot be ruled out that employees in the future may be entitled to work a certain number of days from home. Last year, Germany's federal Employment Minister presented a draft German Mobile Work Act, which states that employees should be entitled to 24 days of working from home per year. It is highly likely that this draft law will be an important matter for the incoming German government.

Nevertheless, human resources management can push for these opportunities to be provided whereby workers cannot be compelled to, but can be permitted to work from home. In order to avoid uncertainties, companies should introduce legally binding agreements regarding working from home. This is important since the unregulated implementation of work from home could result in an entitlement to work from home based on company practice.

Legal aspects of granting work from home

For work from home, there are other aspects that require consideration. For example, the employer must ensure that working hours are observed when employees work from home. If it is not possible for working hours to be recorded digitally, Excel sheets can be used as an alternative and must be completed and submitted by the employees at regular intervals. By reviewing these sheets, the employer can ensure that workers are complying with maximum limits, break times and rest periods.

Employer are also responsible for worker compliance with data protection requirements pursuant to Article 4 No. 7 GDPR. This can be difficult to enforce in relation to work from home. Clear guidelines should be drawn up in this respect, which, in the form of works council agreements or individual employment agreements, can at least define more precisely duties and responsibilities. If possible, company-owned hardware must be used, which is connected via a secure virtual network. Employees should be prevented from using personal devices to perform work at home since employers have no control over these devices and the possibilities of influencing the proper form of data processing are insufficient in this case.

Another consideration is the additional costs that employees may incur when working from home. As a rule, employers will be required to contribute to any additional costs. This includes pro rata expenses for electricity, heating and also the employee's rent. In this case, it is advisable to agree on a lump sum to cover any additional expenses incurred by the employee.

What does this mean for HR? It is not enough simply to offer the possibility of work from home since this could lead to chaos and uncertainty. A formalised concept must be drafted that is coordinated with the company management and clarifies the legal pitfalls.

Green office as an alternative

The term "green office" basically describes a concept that encompasses all aspects of an environmentally friendly and resource-saving organisation as part of everyday office life. This model is currently practised mainly at universities. However, green offices may become an alternative to the conventional office workplace for companies in the free economy. The most relevant strategies for organising and reorganising everyday office life lie in the use of energy-efficient and durable technologies, resource-conserving organisations that promote well-being, and the practice of sustainable behaviour in society.

In addition to the use of equipment manufactured under fair conditions, the energy supply of office buildings is a massive factor. According to a study by the Vodafone Institute, CO2 savings from not using office buildings during the pandemic have been greater than emissions savings from reductions in commuter traffic. In addition to the obvious step towards energy sustainability (i.e. purchasing certified green electricity), attention should also be paid to sustainability in digital areas on a small scale. Search engines like Ecosia or Panda Search are sustainable alternatives to Google and Bing. Furthermore, where possible, excessive cloud use should be avoided. Considering the energy demand of server farms, local storage of files can help avoid unnecessarily high energy demands. In addition, end devices should always be switched off properly and radiator thermostats should always be turned down after work.

Regarding the use of green electricity, the focus is on the office. However, correlating with the previously mentioned aspect of working from home, there are other potential workplaces where organisations must be taken into account. Although an employer has no right to issue directives concerning the homes of its employees, it can create incentives. Regarding the additional costs of working from home, for example, employees who can prove that they use green electricity could be granted a lump sum increased by X amount. But caution is again advised. When using such incentives, the general principle of equal treatment under labour law must always be observed.

Consequences for the sustainability agenda

Wherever possible, a hybrid working model should be strived for that is a combination of traditional on-site work and decentralised work from home. The complete abandonment of on-site work may pose social dangers, and personal interaction at the workplace should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, the introduction of work-from-home models is an effective and perhaps necessary step on the way to greater sustainability. A company can take a further meaningful step forward by combining work from home with an environmentally friendly and resource-saving organisation of the office. Whether working from home, using a green office, or even both, a change in the traditional office model needs to occur. This is the task of HR, which must consider options, evaluate their impact and then implement them. The final evaluation must weigh environmental factors alongside labour relations. This is the only way to achieve professional sustainability.

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