Home office could be here to stay in Germany – if the internet in rural areas holds up

Feature

The coronavirus pandemic forced half of the German working population to work from home. A majority was happy with the move, an early study indicates. If the broadband expansion catches up in the countryside, many might never go back.

Johannes Gilbert is sitting at his desk overlooking a valley of rolling hills in different shades of green behind his house. He is virtually sharing a screen with a colleague in Bangalore, India, to discuss a piece of code he has just written. Gilbert is a software architect for SAP, Europe’s largest software company. Last year he moved from Karlsruhe to a village in Hesse, a state in Germany’s west. His plan was to work three days from home and travel 250 kilometres to Karlsruhe, a city of 310,000, once a week for two days. Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, he has been working from home full time. If possible, he says, he would like to work from home permanently.

Around the world, even as countries have started to gradually reopen, CEOs of various companies have encouraged their employees to stay home. Johannes Gilbert and his SAP colleagues are encouraged to work remotely at least until the end of the year. Twitter announced in May that its 5,000 employees would not ever have to come back into the office if they preferred working from home. Not every company may be taking it as far as the American microblogging network, but many others agree that we will not go back to the way things were. The CEO Jes Staley of the British bank Barclay’s puts it this way:

”The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.”

The head of Vodaphone Germany, Hannes Ametsreiter, recently said it boldly at a digital conference: ”A lot will change, I’m tempted to say everything will change. The coronavirus crisis is the biggest boost for digitisation in Germany of all times”. A spokesperson for the telecommunications company says they expect many meetings and conferences to remain online, and that companies are likely to “rely on a mix of office and home office in the future”.

Country living is back in vogue, thanks to the pandemic

Half of the working population in Germany worked remotely during the month of April. For many like Johannes Gilbert working remotely also means leaving the cities for the countryside. Life away from urban centres is experiencing a boom in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic all over the world. All over Europe, social media was teeming with pictures of 20- and 30-somethings who temporarily abandoned their flats in the cities to move back in with their parents in the countryside. This trend is not exclusively caused by the pandemic. A study by the Federal Institute for Population Research in Germany has just found that since 2014 more people have left large cities for their surrounding areas in the country than the other way around.

In a country that is often singled out as a slow adopter of technology, the major question has become: Will the rural broadband network pass the stress test? Europe’s largest economy currently only ranks 27th in worldwide broadband speed comparison by cable.co.uk and has failed its own broadband expansion targets in the past.

Yet it looks like Germany’s network is already good enough to keep millions of first-time home office workers happy. A study by the Frauenhofer Institute with over 1000 participants showed that 79 percent of women and 85 percent of men were satisfied with working from home despite Germany’s slow fibreglass expansion. “You don’t need a gigabyte of data to work from home”, says the software engineer Gilbert. He says he has not had any connectivity problems despite his comparatively low internet speed. “Videoconferences, screen sharing or sending and receiving files all work perfectly for me, also at just 25Mbit/s.” Gilbert expects that requirements will naturally increase in the future, but also thinks, “Few people will want to do conference calls in 4K, so we should be okay for a while.” 

It might be okay for now, but technologists will continue to innovate and soon higher data rates will be required. Expanding infrastructure is a laborious and lengthy process. At the moment, Germany’s rural areas are still leagues away from their urban counterparts when it comes to internet access. Only 75.1 percent of rural areas achieve 30 Mbit/s internet speed whereas cities are at 97.4 percent according to official government numbers. Ripping open streets to lay cables is expensive and takes a lot of time, and 5G deployment has its own challenges. The service relies on proximity. Signal strength decreases exponentially the further you are away from an antenna. This means, the higher the data rate, the higher your loss per metre. This is where the space you have in the countryside might turn out to be a problem. 

The German government’s stated goal is to have nationwide gigabyte access by 2025. Currently only 10 percent of German households are equipped with fibre optic cables, but almost two thirds have access to high-performance TV cable networks (HFC), which can be turned into high speed internet highways. Vodafone says this month alone it brought almost one million cable households in several hundred cities and communities gigabyte speed. But sparsely populated areas are often overlooked by the private telecommunication companies that are primarily responsible for the broadband expansion in Germany, for economic reasons.

Germany’s network proves good enough – for now

There are other issues that need to be resolved before Germany can become a bucolic rural high-tech world. Working in the home office comes with a myriad of new challenges. Companies might save money on rent, and employees save on housing and transit costs, but the utility costs for the individual will rise. The employability of the older work force and less tech-savvy people in general might drop substantially. Women are at risk of sliding back into traditional gender roles when both partners work from home, reports show. The coronavirus crisis might have catapulted the work place digitally into the 21st century, but whether social norms will follow remains to be seen.

For working in the countryside to be sustainable in the long-term, rural areas must become somewhat more urban. Good internet may be the obvious thing, but smart mobility solutions might be just as important, says Tristan Horx. He works for the Future Institute, a think tank and consultancy from Vienna focusing on trend analysis and research about the future.

“It would be a shame if people moved back out rural areas and we would increase the amount of cars.”

So, if a majority of people can work from home will we experience a renaissance of the rural? Will rural flight eventually turn into urban flight? Tristan Horx says we should stop thinking in dichotomies. “In the countryside you have a deceleration and that’s very appealing for people at the moment,” he says. But he also thinks that individual life phases have become more complex. Many people will be more mobile and move back and forth throughout their lives. And with the help of digital technology this will only become easier.”