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Remote work laws: Why we (unfortunately) need more of them!

Corona is driving a long overdue change in the working world – that seems to be the general consensus throughout the past weeks and months. It is evident that through the lockdown, many companies have made their first significant experiences with remote working. Many of them were surprised how well it works and what a positive effect the elimination of business trips and the proximity to home have on people’s productivity. Managers have come to realize that they can rely on their employees even when they are not physically present at the office. These positive new experiences are an important foundation on which companies can build new forms of collaborations. So, do they still need policies then? Legal regulations that influence certain business decisions?

Ever since the German Federal Minister of Labor, Hubertus Heil, spoke out in favor of a law that would allow all employees 24 days of remote work per year, the debate about how much political interference in the economy is really useful started boiling up again. Employers in particular are criticizing the proposal. What is needed, in their opinion, is more freedom rather than an increase in legal regulations. This raises the question of how companies have been using their current freedom to develop further and keep up with the times in order to improve their employees’ quality of life and work, equal opportunities and digitization.

Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves: What purpose do laws serve? – Ultimately their task is to manage how all members of a society live together. In a free, democratic society the main goal of the legislature should be to secure a peaceful coexistence of all people, irrespective of gender, cultural heritage, who they love or whether they conform to social norms. To achieve this, lawmakers should include the most diverse perspectives from society and economy – in equal measure. In reality this only works to a limited extent, even in democratic societies like ours here in Germany. Many political measures, e.g. in consumer protection or in terms of subsidies, clearly show that when it comes down to it, the profit interests of individual large companies still outweigh people’s need for a good work-life balance and a livable environment. Companies don’t like it when politicians interfere – but they are quite happy to get politically involved when it comes to securing their profits.

This leads to the assumption that those who are most against a law on remote work are the “conservatives”. The fearful ones, who are afraid of any kind of change unless it leads to a direct pay-off on their balance sheet. The ones who fear having to give up the safe haven that their in-house lobbyists have so conveniently prepared for them.

A remote work law as a shackle – seriously? On the contrary, wouldn’t this law be the much-needed walking aid that eases the way for companies to move forward and prevents them from falling back into old patterns as soon as the corona-induced emergency situation is overcome? One might assume that those who fear such a law secretly (or not so secretly) long for the “old normal”. For everyone else it shouldn’t be a problem. Progressive companies and true innovators have little to no interest in a legal minimum (which is what the 24 days in Minister Heil’s approach represent). For years they have been relying on trust-based time management, remote work, and working from home and prove that it works very well, even without a crisis.

This requires a fundamental cultural shift in organizations which cannot be mandated by the government, but accelerated by it. Just like natural disasters force us to rethink our old ways of doing things, legal regulations can act as catalysts in defeating structures that cannot be overcome by paying lip service and holding one or two agile workshops during the year. It’s high time organizations recognize who is generating their profits – the countless people that offer up their time and creative power every single day. Companies that still have not realized that these people are their most valuable asset and that they have a personal responsibility as employers, make legal regulations for more flexibility all the more necessary, even in 2020. They primarily serve employees of companies that continue to adhere to the “old normal” (and there are still more than enough of these). When in doubt, it is easier to pressure lawmakers than an individual at the top of a pyramid whose goodwill your job depends on. Many organizations still operate according to this old hierarchical model and it is high time to change that.

If it were up to us, the government would and should be even more involved. Here some suggestions:

1. A right to fast internet

If we want people to be able to work remotely without sacrificing the quality of their work, an investment in a network expansion must be ensured by lawmakers. And this means in every corner of the country. Now!

2. A right to digital education

The foundation for digital working skills is laid in schools and universities. If companies want progressive and future-oriented minds that aren’t afraid of technology, but know how to use it to make our lives better, then it is up to lawmakers to pave the way for new educational concepts – unbureaucratically and with more creative freedom for the individual schools.

3. New criteria for successful political measures and the economy

How is it going in Germany? – Great, at least when you look at the GDP. But that alone does not tell you how the people in the country are really doing. How (mentally) healthy are they? Do they have a positive outlook on the future? How is the environment doing? How many fathers are taking parental leave? Do all people with good ideas start companies or are they afraid? If so, why? We need new transparent criteria and an open dialogue about them – both analog and digital!

4. A right to equal pay independent of gender

The Transparency Act of 2018 is extremely impractical in terms of its implementation and has not improved the wage inequality between men and women. We need a real law, not a toothless tiger. Iceland is leading the way. Let’s copy it. Copy-paste and move on.

5. A real law for equal opportunity

The case of Delia Lachance, founder of Westwing, has once again put the issue of “equal opportunity” into the spotlight of the media and hopefully also into the focus of lawmakers. It is the year 2020 and people in board positions can still not take a leave of absence – whether it be to care for a baby, to fight their own illness or to care for relatives. And yet again Germany lags behind on a global level when it comes to “women in leadership positions”, as a recently published study by the Allbright Foundation has shown. Legal requirements that rely on voluntary compliance, that allow targets to be set to zero and that only apply to a handful of companies have proven to be ineffective. So give us the gender quota – even for unlisted companies and their management boards! Other countries have shown us that a cultural shift is brought about more quickly if legal regulations break up old structures in which men only promote and support their peers. In the start-up world, we call this “proof of concept”. So we know it works – let’s get to it.

In conclusion: If in the year 2020 there are more men with the name “Michael” in leadership positions than all women combined, we need a new law. If in the year 2020 a woman named “Michaela” earns less then her male colleague named “Michael”, we need a new law. And as long as there are companies that consider it a problem to let their employees work from home even for one day every two weeks, we need the law on remote working initiated by Federal Minister Heil all the more urgently. If businesses don’t want lawmakers to interfere, they simply have to do better. With people in mind. Other countries and many great future-minded companies show that it is possible. It’s not patented either – copying is encouraged. #justcopyit

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