How we organise our working hours as digitization progresses is currently the subject of controversial debate. The German White Paper Working 4.0 (which promises almost paradise-like conditions in which family, career, leisure and private life can be reconciled with the requirements of constant availability and increasing networking) looks at this in detail . It explores how companies are adjusting working hours models to meet the demands of digitization - 'Experiment rooms' for Working 4.0 being just one example.

The fact is this: it is now possible in more and more areas to work completely freely in terms of time and location. Employees are also increasingly demanding flexible working hours. According to a survey by digital association Bitkom, employees in four out of five companies aspire to flexible working arrangements, such as home office, family time and sabbaticals and time off to care for family members. Here we look at the risks of failing to comply with the working time regulations under German law and how companies are striving to keep up with digital change.

Liability risk: working hours violations

Violations of the Working Time Act under German law (Arbeitszeitgesetz) have long ceased to be a trivial offence. Anyone who takes risks in this area faces a potential fine of up to 15,000 EUR or imprisonment - not to mention further consequences (for example loss of profits, entries in company registers and reputational damage).

As the speed of digitization increases, including the speed of interactions, so too do the risks of committing a violation of the German Working Time Act. Managers must therefore closely monitor working hours, as the importance of working time compliance is likely to further increase.

How quickly a working time issue can arise can be seen by comparing the basic principles of the Working Time Act with the reality of life. In simple terms, German working time law can be summarised in three points:

  • maximum daily working time of ten hours
  • no Sunday work
  • compulsory eleven-hour break after end of work.

Of course there are exceptions to this, not least as part of collective bargaining arrangements.

However, in practical terms, if an employee chooses to enjoy his free time from 12:00 and to continue working in the evening between 20:00 and 00:00, this is contrary to the German law, as an employee must have an eleven-hour break before attending a meeting at 09:00, the next day. Strictly speaking, it is also unlawful for an employee to look at their phone on Sundays to quickly check the latest status of an ongoing international project. Managing this requires training and careful instructions so that violations can be avoided without demotivating employees or endangering projects.

How are companies adjusting to digital change?

As a result of digitization, there is an increasing need for HR departments to ensure working hours compliance. The challenge here is to take an analytical approach and assess the need for adjustment in a proportionate way. Working hours models are inherently linked to corporate culture – so implementing legal changes can be complex.

When considering how to meet evolving demands, companies should consider:

  • Where classical working hours models, such as shift work, can continue to be operated?
  • Where flexible working hours models (such as full or part-time working, core hours, flexitime accounts or annual accounts) could be used. If implementing core hours, consider too where these should be defined.
  • How compliance with statutory maximum working hours is currently monitored and whether any changes are needed to internal company processes. Consider whether any delegation of duties is needed to comply with working time requirements (for example, do the entrepreneurial duties of a managing director need to be delegated?).
  • Where are the synergies? For example, a change in attendance culture can lead to savings in the provision of office space.
  • Whether, depending on business needs, it might be possible to harmonise working hours practices throughout Europe (in line with the basic aims of the Working Time Directive).

Digitization requires not only technical investment, but also the rethinking of traditional working hours models. As is the case with almost every socio-cultural innovation, digitalisation calls for foresight and careful planning to reconcile changing social needs with entrepreneurial goals.