Against the background of the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic, changes in the working world have become widely discussed. The debate centers on care and nursing work, employees in retail and logistics, voluntary work, precarization and educational inequality, and, last but not least, the compulsion to work that certain occupational groups are confronted with.1 Comparatively rarely is the labor at home a topic, although many have had to come to terms with it in the past months. Mostly, in this respect the limited compatibility with care work and home schooling is pointed out. The shifting of work itself to the home environment however is hardly ever discussed. On the contrary: “Home office should be further promoted”, even the Swiss left-wing weekly WoZ (“Die Wochenzeitung”) wrote.

By Peter-Paul Bänziger (University of Basel, Switzerland)

Against the background of the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic, changes in the working world have become widely discussed. The debate centers on care and nursing work, employees in retail and logistics, voluntary work, precarization and educational inequality, and, last but not least, the compulsion to work that certain occupational groups are confronted with.1Comparatively rarely is the labor at home a topic, although many have had to come to terms with it in the past months. Mostly, in this respect the limited compatibility with care work and home schooling is pointed out. The shifting of work itself to the home environment however is hardly ever discussed. On the contrary: “Home office should be further promoted”, even the Swiss left-wing weekly WoZ wrote.

In fact, talking about the “home office” contributes to fading out the problems associated with working at home. It is not simply a matter of moving the office home; the relations of production are also being rearranged – especially the distribution of costs and profit. For this reason, I speak of home work when I present some critical remarks on the current situation. Using the example of academic labor, I firstly show that most institutions have so far fulfilled their obligations as employers only to a very limited extent. In addition to my own observations, I am basing this argument on a survey to which more than fifty German- and French-speaking colleagues have contributed.2 Against this background, I secondly ask about further-reaching changes that could affect academic work as a result of digitization. My focus is on Germany and Switzerland, but much of this may be transferable to other countries.

Home Work: Who Pays?

It is not completely clear whether employers are allowed to demand home work at all. In Germany, for example, the integrity of the home is protected by the Basic Law, but there are diverging assessments as to whether this also applies in the current situation. In any case, there is the possibility to speak of “mobile work”, which is the case in some academic institutions.3 In Switzerland, employers can rely on the right to issue instructions and their duty of care as well as the employee’s duty of good faith. In both countries employers must pay for the additional costs incurred.4 This is the first aspect I would like to discuss in more detail.

To date, none of the academic institutions at which the respondents are employed seems to have taken a comprehensive stand on this issue, let alone that any of them has really fulfilled its employer obligations. This is not at all surprising, as it could involve considerable costs. After all, universities in German-speaking countries do not suffer from a lack of funds, as is the case in Great Britain, where tuition fees have fallen sharply due to the declining number of foreign and domestic students.5

Where concrete steps have been taken so far, academic institutions have supported their staff in single areas. Most notably, this concerns persons with childcare obligations. The Max Planck Society, for example, grants 20 days off with full pay, while some universities offer a reduction in the teaching load. However, there are various restrictions. At the University of Zurich the “credit balance from overtime and holidays from previous years must first be completely eliminated”.6 There have also been demands for an extension of fixed-term contracts and grants, some of them with success. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research has announced that it will amend the law on fixed-term contracts in science so that contracts can be extended by up to six months. The Swiss National Science Foundation offers an extension of mobility grants by two months on simple request.

In addition, some institutions provide office supplies including printer paper and toner or headphones and microphones. Some of the respondents, especially professors and people in long-term employment, had already received a laptop before the state of emergency. Other indispensable working equipment such as printers and scanners however were not made available – apart from one case where the equipment was too heavy to be transported in the suburban railway. Nor does it appear that there has been any compensation at all for the professional use of private equipment or for telecommunications costs.

Within the individual institutions, the offers do not even form a patchwork. In some places there is even a lack of basic means of production. At one university, only a cheap license of a conference software was offered, which did not meet the requirements of professional teaching. Many employees therefore purchased a stable version at their own expense and it is still unclear whether the costs will be reimbursed. At the same time, the extension of fixed-term contracts often depends on the superiors, which opens the floodgates to arbitrariness. There is also a justified fear that the reduction in the teaching load will mainly benefit the professors because they are best able to assert themselves within the hierarchical structures of academia. Since at many institutes the number and variety of courses can hardly be reduced, this may imply an additional burden on other status groups.

Three aspects of home work do not seem to have been addressed at all by the vast majority of academic institutions. Even critical voices from within academia as well as from trade unions have been rather reluctant in these respects, although they concern fundamental issues that will remain relevant after the epidemic.7 These are the payment for extra work, the compensation for privately provided rooms and the guarantee of occupational hygiene standards.

That the changeover to online courses involved an additional effort was not disputed by any side. Many also experience the teaching of the courses shifted to the Internet as a psychological and physical burden, which is not offset by the advantages of the new media. According to the respondents, this extra labor has not been paid anywhere. In the case of professorships and comparable positions, this can be at least partially compensated for by individual adjustment of the workload dedicated to specific tasks. This is not the case for lecturers, who are usually paid a flat rate for teaching a specific course, in some cases even only for the lessens they have actually given.

In Switzerland, the legal situation regarding privately provided rooms seems to be clear. In April 2019, the Federal Court ruled that employers must pay appropriate compensation for this, regardless of whether the rooms had to be rented specifically. It argued that the situation is comparable to the use of a private car for business trips, which is explicitly regulated in the civil law.8 The situation is similar in Germany, as long as home work is primarily for the benefit of the employer.9 Despite the fact that many people experience working in private rooms as an extra burden, this issue does not even appear to have been brought into the discussion by employee representatives.

The legal situation regarding occupational hygiene standards seems to be reasonably clear as well. It can also be derived from the employers’ duty of care.10 At the same time, many academic institutions have explicitly committed themselves to occupational health and safety, and the latter was the argument for closing offices and laboratories. Thus, independently of the legal situation, it can be demanded that workplaces must be provided for home work that are fully adequate in every respect. What exactly this means has to be examined on a case-by-case basis. Undoubtedly however, minimum standards of occupational hygiene include a large monitor and an ergonomic office chair. Only very few institutions have so far met such requirements.

These uncovered additional costs on the part of the employees are partly counterbalanced by the elimination of travel costs and the reduction of catering costs. The additional flexibility in terms of time and space can also be seen as a benefit, in particular the fact that many of the respondents do not have to commute. However, even if one were to argue that the costs of the state of emergency should be shared by all sides, there is a clear imbalance in favor of employers.

It is therefore not enough that the statements of communications departments, faculties and rectorates are full of praise for the achievements of their employees. As long as this praise is not accompanied by substantial compensations, it is impossible to avoid the impression that it is intended to take their place. This is not least because it has long been customary at academic institutions to keep monetary compensation as low as possible by appealing to the intrinsic motivation of the staff.

From this perspective, it is not surprising that the University of Basel offered its employees an online course on “Satisfaction and Productivity in the Home Office” on the weekend after May 1 – the Labor Movement Day – in addition to fitness offers such as a “boot camp”. It is no less typical of how academic institutions are dealing with the current situation that the management of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg wants to award prizes for “successful digitization measures that can be used beyond the 2020 summer semester”. Productivity-oriented training and voluntary prizes instead of monetary compensation and the provision of adequate means of production – that seems to be the motto at present.

Digitization: Who Profits?

Irrespective of the obvious importance of the protective measures it cannot be ignored that, from the very beginning, many academic administrations have seen the state of emergency as an opportunity. “The corona virus has given a positive boost to digitization”, the head of the IT Services is quoted in the newsletter of the University of Zurich. Many of the practices that have now been put into practice would continue even after the state of emergency. And according to one of the respondents, the project leaders at a German university were asked to discuss in the context of staff interviews “which additional activities (publications etc.) were made possible by the corona situation”.

The question that arises in the wake of such statements is a well-known question of the labor movement: Who benefits? Digitization is neither good nor bad. But against the background of the described reluctance of academic institutions to fulfill their obligations as employers, there is no denying the danger that the distribution of the rationalization gains will not be even. Where the additional expenditure remains uncompensated, the provision of the means of production by the laboring is taken for granted, and health protection at work is limited to instruction and boot camps, future scenarios must be critically examined.

Firstly, the rationalization potential of digitization is enormous with regard to the workplaces. In some new buildings there already are flexible open-plan offices.11 The social and cultural sciences will be under particular pressure, less so the MINT disciplines with their laboratories. It is not wrong to say that many use their workplace only occasionally. However, since informal exchange is a central basis for creative research, academic employers should not encourage this trend any further. The practical test of the past few weeks has also made this clear: the concrete objectives of the workshops and meetings that were moved to the Internet were achieved quickly and to the satisfaction of most of the participants, but at the expense of the no less important nuances and side conversations.

A second form of flexibility, from which academic institutions may benefit above all as employers, concerns teaching. Less interactive courses such as lectures, which can easily be held online, could increasingly be purchased from external providers as required. Already today, some academic institutions more or less officially invite tenders for some of their courses. So far, only the contents are traded on these marketplaces, not their prices. But this is by no means carved in stone. As the still widespread practice of unpaid teaching shows, the pressure to save money in teaching is considerable.

Indeed, digitization has an enormous potential for savings, especially with respect to courses that are offered in English. Global teaching platforms such as Coursera or FutureLearn are now in a position to undercut even those teaching appointments in Germany that are compensated with a few hundred euros. However, these providers have the major disadvantage that they cannot award recognized credit points and diplomas – at least in the German-speaking world. This could be a tempting opportunity for local universities, many of which having committed themselves to internationalization in the wake of the Bologna reform. They are also closer to their “customers” and able to offer a combination of face-to-face and Internet teaching.

Both processes could reinforce the existing dichotomy in academic employment. A small, permanent core workforce having its own offices and teaching face-to-face would then be contrasted by a larger number of people whose products are purchased via global platforms or institute-based tenders. Unlike in the factories and large firms of the 19th and 20th centuries, the two groups would no longer work in the same place, which makes exchange and solidarity difficult. Apart from a few luminaries of the international science scene, who in this way – similar to the global market for op-eds – would earn an extra income, the latter group is likely to be recruited primarily among those who are already living more or less precariously from teaching and research.

From the “Home Office” to the Historical Analysis of Capitalism

When we talk about the digitization of the academic working world in the wake of the epidemic, we have to take into account both of the issues outlined here: the current situation as well as possible developments in the near and more distant future. In both cases, it is not so much the digitization itself that is at issue, but rather the politico-economic questions associated with it: it is about the relations of production, especially the distribution of costs and profit.

The widespread talk of the “home office” obscures this. It limits the description to the obvious, the moving of the office to the home. For a critical analysis, however, we should rely on a long established terminology: we should speak of work and home work. Here, in turn, we can distinguish whether the productive activities are carried out on the basis of an employment contract and thus fall under the labor law regulations described, or whether they are offered as products on academic markets by self-employed persons, as is sometimes the case with teaching appointments.

Anyone who has studied the history of work knows the concept of “homework” very well. It describes the domestic production in the putting-out system of the beginning industrialization. Merchants procured the raw materials and sold the products, but they were largely absent from the work process itself. Some of them also provided some of the means of production, the looms for example. The rooms however were usually provided by the homeworker families.

This is not the place to systematically ask about similarities and differences between early modern homework and the academic home work I have described above. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that many academic institutions are increasingly resembling trading companies for academic products. If working at home again becomes a typical mode of production, the differences to knowledge fabrication and distribution in the industrial societies of the 20th century, for which the main building of Bielefeld University is probably the prototypical example, cannot be overlooked, nor can the similarities with modes of production of the industrialization era.12

In this sense, the concept of home work helps to link the description of our current experiences with the historical analysis of capitalism. Among other things, scholars working in the latter field have shown that the possession of the means of production can also be a means of power on the part of the workers. Whether and under what circumstances this could also be possible today has yet to be found out.


1 See <>.

2 I am grateful to all respondents for their answers as well as their supportive words, and to Juliane Schiel for commenting an earlier version of this text.

3 See <> and <>.

4 See <>; NZZ, 29.4.2020, S. 17.

5 See <>.

6 Universitätsleitung der Universität Zürich: Weisung »Mitarbeitende mit betreuungspflichtigen Kindern an der UZH« (Prävention Coronavirus SARS-Co-2), April 28, 2020.

7 See however <> and <>.

8 See <>.

9 See <>.

10 See <> and <>.

11 See <>.

12 See <>.