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What does flexible working time actually mean?

Terminology in the world of work has been growing for years as a result of digital progress in society. "Work-life balance" or "mobile workspace" are common terms in Work 4.0 and are already being practiced in many professional groups. When looking at job portals and job advertisements, one condition in particular seems to attract applicants: Flexible working hours.

But what is behind this promise and how exactly can rigid working structures be made more flexible?

When companies advertise flexible working hours in job descriptions, employees hope to have a certain amount of freedom when it comes to organizing their working hours. However, due to the growing opportunities in a wide variety of professions and the associated adaptation to contemporary lifestyle trends, the term "flexible working hours" leaves plenty of room for interpretation. The topic should therefore be clearly defined in initial discussions between employer and employee.

Metal and electrical industry on the rise

Depending on the industry, employees want different forms of flexibility. For employers in the industry, new, popular working models such as home office have so far been difficult to implement. Nevertheless, in the metal and electrical industry, modern working time arrangements are already a tangible subject. The M+E industry is ahead of many employers by applying the flexible component to longer-term scheduling. A new collective agreement in the M+E sector, which has been in force since this year, defines the option to extend and reduce working hours and at the same time grants the current entitlement to reduced full-time working hours. A study conducted by the Confederation of Employers' Associations of the Metal and Electrical Industry (Gesamtverband der ArbeitgeberverbƤnde der Metall- und Elektro-Industrie e. V.) surveyed around 1055 employees and 1153 companies in the M+E industry. In addition to the willingness of employees to waive legal requirements if this would encourage more mobile work scheduling and independent regulations, the majority of those surveyed stated that they already have a great deal of leeway in their work planning, despite fixed shifts. In many production facilities, working hours can only take place within the company walls, which is why fixed shift schedules are unavoidable. On the other hand, production and industrial workers often enjoy a clear boundary between work and leisure time. According to the study, only 2% of employers require their employees to be available outside of their working hours; 10% at least tacitly expect it. A production manager at Trumpf, for example, told the portal produktion.de that while he was still working 35 hours a week in 2018, he only worked 28 hours in 2019. The father wants to actively experience his child's first years and increase his working hours again when they start kindergarten. As a pioneer in its industry, the Trumpf Group has been offering flexible adjustment to life circumstances since 2011. Furthermore, a collectively agreed additional allowance for employees was agreed, which can be converted into eight additional days off under certain conditions. These can be taken by parents, people caring for relatives or shift workers. However, internal compensation must be guaranteed. According to the portal, these provisions are already having a positive effect on employee satisfaction.

Working from everywhere

The understanding of flexible working hours is different for employees who primarily work digitally. Today, they prioritize jobs where they can work completely independently of time and place or at least have the opportunity to do so occasionally. In Scandinavian countries, over 30 percent already work from home on a regular basis, and in the Netherlands there is even a legal right to work from home. In Germany, too, the trend is moving towards "working from anywhere". The digital association Bitkom recently conducted a survey of 855 companies on the topic of working from home. According to the survey, 40% of German companies now offer their employees the option of working from home. For the professional groups concerned, this is increasingly leading to a break with traditional working structures and the classic nine-to-five office day. While flexible working hours in industrial professions are within a fixed framework, it is more difficult to determine the actual time worked when working hours are completely flexible, which can be problematic for employers.

What is working time?

In Germany, working time is regulated by the Working Hours Act (ArbZG). The law protects the rights of employees in the organization of working hours and is intended to ensure health and safety. Working time within the meaning of the ArbZG is the time from the beginning to the end of work excluding rest breaks (Ā§ 2 Para. 1 ArbZG). Section 3 regulates the maximum limit for actual working hours of eight hours, in exceptional cases ten hours, on working days. Break times are also prescribed. For example, a 30-minute break must be taken after six hours of work and a 45-minute break after nine hours. Employers can then interpret their employment contracts flexibly within the framework of the Working Hours Act. The ArbZG applies to blue-collar and white-collar workers as well as those employed for their vocational training. Senior employees such as chief physicians or heads of public services are not covered by the law. If companies do not comply with the regulations, they face heavy fines. Despite the law, there are always uncertainties when it comes to deciding which activities may fall within working hours. For example, a cigarette break is generally not part of working time, but grabbing a quick coffee is.

Online before starting work

Commuting times are generally not part of working hours, but for many people the working day begins before they even get to the office. Thanks to smartphones and laptops, emails can be read at the breakfast table and small tasks can be completed quickly on the way to work. Employees with long commutes or commuters in particular often carry out their tasks on the way to and from work. This was confirmed by a British study conducted by the University of the West of England in 2018, in which 5,000 commuters were surveyed. The researchers involved believe that the journey itself should count as working time. In Germany, the journey is currently only considered working time if the employer expressly requires the employee to perform work-related tasks during the commute. In other words, if the employee works on the way to work, they should agree this with their employer in advance; otherwise, the additional time could not be remunerated. But it's not just commuters who often have unclear start and end times. With increasingly popular working models such as mobile workspace, home office or remote work, the boundaries between work and private life are becoming blurred, which can lead to additional stress.

Time recording: control vs. security

Time recording is often a sensitive issue in the world of work and often influences the working atmosphere - for the well-being of employees, for example, when they can show proof of overtime worked or deadlines met, but also because it is perceived as annoying monitoring or even mistrust on the part of the management. As a sign of trust, many companies have therefore so far refrained from keeping accurate time records. However, the latest ruling by the ECJ could make this a thing of the past for companies within the EU. For remote workers or mobile workspace users, on the other hand, time tracking has long been a cornerstone of the working relationship between employee and boss and is therefore essential.

Time tracking software is often multifunctional and covers several areas of responsibility. This can be a digital time clock, for example, where employees log in as soon as they start work; some tools also offer comparison with planned shifts or project-related time recording. These offerings help with basic coordination and do not just serve as a control function for management.

Employees should also keep an eye on their working hours. According to a study by the German Economic Institute, mobile computer workers work an average of ten hours a day. Computer workers are employees who spend at least a quarter of their working time on a PC, laptop or smartphone. In Germany, this was around 55% in 2017. As employees in this occupational group can also complete many tasks outside the office, they often work longer hours without realizing it.

Self-management is required

This can be avoided by using time recording software. shyftplan users, for example, can log in with their own ID on all end devices with Internet access. This allows working time to be documented online. In the long term, this leads to greater transparency, which means considerable savings for employers and at the same time offers the opportunity to implement flexible working structures such as remote work or home office. A regular exchange between employees and decision-makers is necessary in order to achieve the project goals despite the given flexibility. Employees should always coordinate their projects independently and draw a clear line between working hours and free time. This requires structured self-management. This is because working outside the office not only has a higher potential for distraction due to private matters, but can also lead to extra work due to poor time management.

To summarize, "flexible working hours" as a term leaves room for interpretation - the meaning can vary greatly depending on the industry and occupational group. Employers and employees should bear in mind that the understanding of flexible working hours must be considered on an individual basis. Internal company options should therefore be carefully considered and tailored to the needs of employees through detailed employee communication.