German work-life balance

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_DEU_IGMetall.jpegBERLIN – Hani Ewald, 48, a nurse in Berlin who regularly puts in more than 40 hours a week, would gladly slash the time she spends at work if she were guaranteed her full-time salary.

"Why wouldn't I work less?" she said in Berlin recently on a rare afternoon off. "I could use that time to relax and maybe sleep in for once."

Such a proposal sounds like a pipe dream for Americans who worked the most hours among the world's seven largest economies last year, according to OECD statistics.

But for Germans, designing a work schedule to accommodate a healthy work-life balance could soon become a reality thanks to the nation's largest union.

German metal workers and electricians can now opt for a 28-hour work week for as long as two years without taking a loss in wages after around 1.5 million metalworkers and electricians went on partial strike in January and February demanding more workplace flexibility. Under the new labor rules that took effect earlier this year, taking the shorter workweek poses no threat to their full-time positions.

Industry leaders caved to most of the workers' demands, giving the workers a 4.3 percent wage hike in addition to the option of a shorter workweek for up to two years.

In a country staring down an aging workforce and the rapid digitalization of traditional industries, the optional shorter workweek and other measures may keep the German economy humming into the future, economists said.

"Both employers and employees should have the freedom to jointly find the ideal arrangement for their specific circumstances," said Christoph Schmidt, president of the German Council of Economic Experts, which advises the government.

In return for the 28-hour workweek option, employers can introduce a temporary workweek of up to 40 hours per week for as much as 18 percent of their employees in order to compensate for less staff. That's five hours more than the mandated 35 hours per week for metal workers and electricians. But employers can only demand more time on the job when the average workweek per full-time employee reaches 35.9 hours per week.

Proponents of the arrangement said it helps even out an "enormous polarization" in the workforce, where some employees work longer hours while those who'd like to work more are shut out from extra shifts.

"Reduced full-time hours for all would mean less work for all those who work too much already and more work for those who would like to work more," said University of Jena Sociologist Klaus Dörre.

Flexibility in work schedules is becoming the key benefit employees seek out nowadays when starting a new career, especially given the rise of remote work in a digitized economy, Dörre said. "They demand time sovereignty, such as more individual control over free time," he said.

Heeding such demands and weaving them into Germany's already strict protections for workers could be key to meeting the raft of challenges the world's fourth-largest economy faces in the future.

In Germany, traditional, family-owned enterprises adhering to a strict 9 to 5 work schedule have dominated economic output for generations and facilitated Germany's current status as the world's exporting powerhouse.

But such firms spread across the country in rural enclaves are no longer attractive to a new generation drawn to the bright lights of Berlin and Hamburg, where a startup culture of home offices and flexible work schedules is the norm.

It doesn't help matters that, by 2030, declining birthrates and disinterest in traditional industries like metalwork could leave Germany needing as many as 3 million skilled laborers by 2030, according to a 2017 study by Swiss economic research institute Prognos.

Presenting workers with flexible work arrangements like the temporary 28-hour week could make traditional enterprises attractive again and help them to meet the challenges of globalization and digitalization, said Dörre.

But in Berlin, where creative professionals have flocked for generations to the city's laid-back lifestyle, nurse Hani Ewald said that a disadvantage of the scheme could be that "I'd get too accustomed to not working as much and I may not want to go back [to full-time work]."

At the same time, workplace flexibility would require loosening strict German legal restrictions in order to allow digital nomads to work longer than the current 8-hour workday with an 11-hour break in between as codified in German law. That’s a highly controversial move, said Schmidt.

Despite the unknowns, Dörre remains confident that traditional German industries are already reading the writing on the wall that the future of work in Germany means more workplace flexibility – and an arrangement where workers can choose to work less.

"Considering the effects of digitization, what we need is a markedly more radical, collective reduction in working hours," he said. "Initial debates within the trade unions are already pointing in such a direction."

Photo: May 30, 2018 - Giffhorn, Germany - IG Metall workers striking in Giffhorn, Germany.
Credit: Courtesy of IG Metall official Twitter page (05/30/18)

Story/photo published date: 08/23/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.
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