My Boss Is Forcing Me to Work at the Office During Lockdown

We spoke to people who've had to choose between their job and their health.
Man at desk in office, head in hands, view through window at night
Photo: Getty Images/Chris Windsor. Collage: VICE

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

The vast majority of people who work in offices have spent the past ten months working from home. There is a deadly pandemic on: it clearly makes no sense to risk public transport and a room full of people if you can just as easily do your job at your kitchen table.


However, despite both common sense and government recommendations, some bosses are forcing people to show up in the office every day. I spoke to a few of these unlucky employees in Germany about COVID-19 office life during a nationwide lockdown.

Mia*, 24, case manager in public administration

I work on a computer all day, but I occasionally need paper files. We could solve this problem by having just one person in the office to look up the files that other employees need. Since the pandemic has been going on for almost a year, we could have also digitised all these files by now – but my boss hasn’t even tried to find a solution. They said we couldn’t work from home, period. 

For a while, I shared an office with three other people, then I had to fight to get an individual office. Our employer doesn’t provide us with face masks or disinfectants. I work in the office every day and I want to change my mask regularly throughout the day. That comes at a cost, which they refuse to compensate. [Some evidence suggests surgical masks are less effective after four hours, while other studies contradict these findings. Changing your mask more than every day is not currently recommended by the WHO.]


The other employees don't follow the rules, either. Some still eat lunch in groups in the conference room. Many show up to work with symptoms, or come up to my desk without wearing a mask. They let people work from home in another department, although two secretaries have to be present.

Julian*, 39, recruiter

My boss came back from a trip to Tyrol in Austria with his family, and he was coughing all over the office. The next day, he stopped coming to work. His wife, who also works for us, said he had a fever, but she came to work anyway. I wanted to go home straight away but she said I could face serious consequences if I did. Our IT manager then figured out a way to let me work from home.

For days afterwards, my boss called me into the office on the pretext that we had to discuss an urgent project. All I had to do was change the paper in the printer. After that, remote work wasn’t an option again. Our tables are now further apart and we keep our distance, but when my boss wants to discuss something, he comes up to my desk. 

Leo*, 31, clerk in public administration

I work in the office of a large public administration company. They’ve occasionally let people work from home, but only older employees. I've noticed many managers don’t want people to work remotely, they think people don’t do much at home. 

Now that our district has a lot of COVID cases and we’ve received quite a bit of public pressure, we’re working in shifts. Half of the staff work from home, the other in the office. Our boss accidentally sent the whole email chain about this policy change to everybody, which made it clear the decision had been made a while ago, but the managers were resisting it.

When we’re in the office, we often fail to keep the 1.5-metre distance. If you don’t want to eat outside, which is not great in the cold, you just have to sit down with five or six men in our ten-square-metre break room. I find it weird that I can only meet one person at a time in my free time, but I’m crammed in a room with a bunch of colleagues on my lunch break the next day.

David*, 21, insurance worker

I work in an open-plan office with about 30 people. I always wear a mask, but my manager keeps coming up to my desk without wearing one. Often there are three people standing in the printing room without a mask. We had to push for older employees to be able to work from home. Management only approved this after long discussions, but they still have to be present at the weekly meeting. It doesn’t make sense.

Since we all use work laptops, we could easily switch to remote work, but management thinks our performance would decrease. I could probably concentrate better at home because I wouldn't have to worry all the time. In my free time, I rarely meet people anymore – I’m afraid of putting them at risk.