Mobile Working - At the Office, at Home, or on the Train

Vision of mobile working becomes reality with the signing of the TU Berlin/Staff Council agreement

Ms. Gliem, the coronavirus pandemic and sudden shift to working from home for more than 8,000 employees brought about a number of new experiences and fueled the vision of mobile working. What does this vision look like at TU Berlin?

We have just signed an agreement on mobile working, which essentially allows employees to work from anywhere. Once the pandemic has ended, our plan is for staff to be able work remotely for up to 40 percent of their monthly working hours. They can choose to do so for any reason and from anywhere, whether at home, on the train, in a café, or even another country. The model is flexible, allowing you to work remotely two days a week or a whole week each month instead. Mobile working is completely voluntary. However, you must arrange the details with your supervisor or manager to ensure that all tasks and operations are completed without complication. Other TU Berlin/Staff Council agreements and regulations remain in effect, such as DV-Flex, which allows staff to work between 6 and 19:30. It is important to note that mobile working is not a "free pass" to work at night or on the weekend. Our aim is for mobile working and in-presence work to be equal formats which can be easily combined.


How will the use of mobile working be managed? Is this even necessary?

Our mobile working model is based on mutual agreement and trust. For some time now we have offered the option of teleworking, which will remain in place. Teleworking requires you to work from home on fixed days. In both models, regular working hours apply and employees must be reachable. This requires a great deal of self-responsibility and initiative in structuring your work. On a similar note, it is important that remote working does not lead to a dissolution of boundaries, where staff start working late at night, when ill, or when on vacation, simply because it is possible to access work or join a meeting at any time from anywhere. It is the responsibility of management not to require or suggest such practices as well as that of staff to ensure they actually turn off their computer or phone and walk away from work.


What advantages does mobile working offer the University?

We view this instrument as a win-win situation. As an employer we want to be sensitive to the multitude of personal circumstances our staff represent as well as offer an improved option to balance personal life and work and allow employees to individually organize their work, thus increasing their satisfaction and motivation. At the same time, by introducing a clear mobile working agreement, we increase our competitive advantage as an employer and raise our profile, particularly in the public service sector.


Is mobile working available to everyone?

The agreement applies to all staff. However, as I previously mentioned, no one will be required to work remotely. There are people who aren't interested in the option. In addition, some areas of work are not suited to mobile work, such as our information desks or craft and trade. In such areas though, it could be possible to identify work packages or administrative tasks such as writing reports or invoices, which can be bundled and then completed remotely. Clear communication within the team will be key to successful use of the instrument. Hybrid work is also a question of work and management culture. Mobile working and in-presence work must be treated on equal footing, so that being in the office isn't more advantageous or viewed more favorably.


Have you received any feedback about how staff feel about working from home?

Our current experience of working from home due to the pandemic is different than the envisioned mobile working option during "ordinary" times. Everyone's personal situation and thus experience is different. Some staff are homeschooling several children while working at home while others are not. We can't compare this to mobile working after the pandemic. However, we were able to form a general impression based on the messages we received in response to President Thomsen's weekly bulletin asking staff to share their current experience of working from home. These had a positive impact on our plans to introduce mobile working. Many people also struggled to find a balance though, particularly given the sudden transition to working from home. They weren't prepared or equipped for the shift. For example, several people wrote that they were working from their kitchen table.


How is mobile working different from teleworking?

In the future, both instruments will be offered as they do differ in some key ways. Teleworking is more binding, as employees arrange fixed working hours with their supervisors or managers. Employers, in this case the University, are required to ensure that the home workspace is conducive to working and examine aspects such as lighting and ergonomics. In contrast, mobile working does not require fixed equipment as employees may work from a range of locations. Rather, the idea is to pay closer attention to mobility when the need to replace technical equipment in office workplaces arises, such as purchasing a laptop with a docking station that employees can take with them instead of a desktop computer. This affords the greatest degree of flexibility and requires communication with the team as well as more autonomy. Employees will of course still have a desk or workspace on campus as remote working is voluntary. Mobile working also introduces new challenges for management. Managers must learn to lead people they don't see. While some team members may work well independently, not all may be capable of organizing their day and work themselves. It will be necessary to find a management style that addresses all these needs.


How can staff make use of mobile working?

Staff members submit a general digital request for mobile working. The relevant supervisor or manager approves the request, and it is forwarded to Human Resources. If a conflict arises, we have developed a mediation process which includes representatives such as the staff council and an individual solution will be sought. We are optimistic, however, that this process will work in many areas of the University. The past year has shown us that working from home can be an option even for those areas where it previously wasn't conceivable. Mobile working is an innovative instrument we need to test and assess. The experiences gained will allow us to adjust processes as necessary. For instance, pursuing digitalization is key to allow mobile working, as in-presence work and mobile working can only be compatible when our workflows are as digitalized as possible. We cannot rely on inter-office mail any longer.   


When does the new agreement take effect? How long is it valid for? And who was involved in developing it?

The staff councils, Human Resources, Office of Staff with Disabilities, women's representative, Occupational Health and Safety Services and Environmental Protection, Health Management, and the data privacy team have all worked together for several years to develop this instrument. The experiences gained during the pandemic, however, fueled efforts so that the agreement could be signed in June 2021. It won't be possible to truly and fully apply the instrument until the pandemic has ended. Until such time, the University continues to recommend working from home wherever possible. The staff agreement is planned to be in effect until 2025 and hopefully also thereafter. Annual evaluations by the staff council and Executive Board are planned as well as an in-depth evaluation and survey. President Christian Thomsen has also requested that I head a new mobile working taskforce to help guide and promote the introduction of the instrument.  


What exactly does the taskforce do?

The taskforce has four working groups. The first focuses on qualification, that is: What does good collaboration look like? How do I manage a mobile team? How do I use different tools? How do I set boundaries? The second working group is tasked with creating guidelines for mobile working, a sort of etiquette manual as it were: When can I call colleagues? Is 6 in the morning ok if I'm already working? There is also a group focused on guiding principles: How should mobile working develop? What is the end goal? And finally, the fourth group is dedicated to technology: Which conference tools can we use? What do we still need? How can we work in hybrid formats or hold meetings with participants present both physically and virtually? Which requirements do we need to fulfill? What about data protection and security?


Have other universities adopted a similar instrument?

I believe our mobile working agreement is unique to TU Berlin. I am not aware of comparable instruments at any of the major Belin universities, except for those similar to teleworking. However, it is possible that other universities in Germany have adopted such a model. We are certainly not the only ones to have recognized the potential mobile working holds.


Thank you for the interview, Ms. Gliem!


Interviewer: Patricia Pätzold