A 12-Step Guide To Surviving German Work Culture
Not all workplaces are the same and various factors can affect the culture of an office. As with in your home country, a legal or accountancy practice is probably going to be much more formal and stuffy than a design studio or a tech startup.
There are, however, some aspects of German work culture that tend to be typical of most workplaces, regardless of the industry, size of company or its origin.
This focusses more on the day-to-day, whereas we cover the topic of business etiquette in Germany in another post.
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1. Taking sick leave for minor ailments is normal
Us Brits like to think of ourselves as quite a hardy bunch. We go out in t-shirts at the first sign of Spring, and more often than not, we also go into the office when we have a cold (or, ahem, if we're nursing a hangover!). Not the Germans. The slightest hint of flu-like symptoms and they're banging down the doctor's door demanding a sick note for a week off work. The average German visits the doctor 18 times a year. I don't think I've seen mine 18 times since I moved here 10 years ago. In fairness though, they don't have a habit of going out for beers on a “school night” either, so it probably evens itself out.
2. Complaining about the office temperature is a national pastime
If the British love to make unnecessary small talk about the weather, then the Germans must be world champions for complaining about the office ambient temperature. Oh, and they all seem to be convinced that a slight draft from the open window on an otherwise pleasant Spring day is going to make them catch a cold. In the middle of Summer, when most men are sweating buckets in the office having to wear trousers and closed shoes, you can guarantee that a female member of staff in a light blouse and open shoes will berate you for wanting the air con turned up or the windows open. My survival trick was threatening to wear bathing shorts to the office the next day.
3. Scarves are routinely worn indoors
Following on from the above, the sensitivity to draught extends to the need to wear a scarf in an office, where typically, the temperature is around 20 degrees. You're sat reading emails, not hiking in the Alps for crying out loud. This includes men too, which I just find odd. I guess these are the same sort of blokes who would wear gloves in the Winter playing football. These guys would be ridiculed in any British office! Whilst on the topic of clothing in general, it is also worth noting that the dress code in German workplace culture definitely tends to be less formal than in the UK, and slightly less so than in the States. Smart jeans and polo shirts are quite normal for men, and women generally don't wear heels.
4. They start work really early
This tends to be more common in a manufacturing environment rather than pure service industries but there is nonetheless a culture of very early mornings in Germany. My theory on this is that it stems from them starting school at 7:30 in the morning and are thus used to getting out of bed at an ungodly hour from a very early age. A lot of Germans with families drop the kids at school on the way to work, so 7:30 starts seem fairly normal to them. I also know Germans without families who routinely start work much earlier than this. Being in the office at 6:30 here is not considered at all strange. The upside of this, if you're a morning person, is that ergo, leaving the office at 15:00 is also not considered skiving off (well, unless you start at 9:00!). This is great on warm Summer days, as it gives the opportunity to go to the outdoor pool or the lake, or just go and relax in the park before enjoying your evening.
5. The workplace is more formal
In a lot of instances, German colleagues will address each other formally as Herr and Frau X, even if they have sat in the same office or along the same corridor as each other for several years. Also, they love their titles. Not as much as the Austrians and Italians do for sure, but much more so than a British or American workplace. If someone has a doctor title, he/she will most likely use it and expect to be addressed by it. Whilst this is still fairly commonplace, it is starting to become more obsolete amongst the younger generation and certainly is more rooted in traditional industries, the public sector and small to mid-size German companies. In tech, design and more hip industries, as well as in most large non-German multinational companies, they tend to instil a much flatter hierarchy and the Du and Sie (informal and formal types of “you” for those who don't know) conundrum when accosting new colleagues has in most cases died out.
6. Open plan offices are much less common
Germans like their privacy and one of the ways this is exemplified in the German work culture is that you don't come across as many open plan / cubicle type office spaces as you see back home. The upside of this is you'll get more work done, as you're much less likely to be disturbed by a colleague passing by on his way back from the coffee machine or to be distracted by other people's phone conversations. The obvious downside is that it makes the workplace feel much less sociable.
7. The office is for work, not to make small talk
Following on from point 6, Germans tend to knuckle down and get their work done when they are in the office. Statistically they are much more productive during their working day than the average British person. On average the Germans work 1.5 hours per week less than the British. However, productivity per capita is higher. It is too easy and simplistic to say that this is uniquely down to them not spending work time on Facebook or chatting to colleagues about last night's TV. Nevertheless, there is more than a grain of truth in the assertion that by not spending time on small talk next to the kitchenette, more actual work tends to get done. The flip side of this is that German workplaces can often seem quite stiff, humourless places.
8. Don't expect to be invited for an after-work beer
Socialising with colleagues outside of work is the exception rather then the norm in Germany. There is a very distinct split between professional and social relationships, which at first may seem cold to an outsider. In reality it's not, rather it reflects a subtle cultural difference that Germans tend to have fewer but closer friendships and don't pursue as many looser acquaintances as Brits and Americans tend to.
I see the merits of this to some extent, in the sense that introverts and private individuals do not feel forced to partake in work socials, which are usually arranged in the evenings. I can't help but thinking though that a couple of drinks with colleagues in your team, even your boss, often goes a long way to smoothen the on-boarding process. The “watch out for colleague X from department Y, he can be a stubborn little shit” or “the VP's Assistant is the Sales Director's girlfriend” kind of conversations tend to happen outside of work but are nonetheless important to understand what alliances and politics are the driving forces in the office.
9. Kiss goodbye to reading emails on holiday and at weekends
Linked to the above, this is another example of how Germans like to draw a firm line between work and play. Now I'm not saying you'll never, ever get a phone call when you're on the beach, especially if you are in a senior position. However, free time and vacation is respected by employers, colleagues and bosses alike in Germany and you are perfectly within your rights to put on your out-of-office that email is not being read and don't call my mobile phone unless it is urgent. Some large German companies, for example Daimler, even have formal HR policies which say that all email received during vacation time can be deleted or filed unread. I love that attitude and am firmly of the belief that nothing is that urgent that it can't wait until Monday morning or when you return. If a manager thinks you are so indispensable that his or her department can't function properly without you there, something is seriously wrong with their leadership or team structure.
10. German efficiency is a myth
Well, kind of. Let me put the record straight. German companies are extremely efficient at manufacturing, and also excel at planning and logistics. On the other hand, they seem to be champions at creating work for work's sake when it comes to any sort of administrative task. Support functions such as HR and IT departments from my personal experience are notoriously bureaucratic and inefficient. Many internal procedures and processes are paper-based and admin heavy.
Need to take a fleet car to go and see a vendor? You'll probably have to take a slip of paper for someone or other to sign. Want to book holiday time? Again, probably paper based. Your payslip? Probably still sent in the post each month. The canteen? Probably still staffed by company employees rather than a specialist catering provider. Which, when you consider how lean German companies are when it comes to manufacturing, just makes the mind boggle.
There is more than a grain of truth in the saying, “if you want to experience German efficiency, go to Switzerland”!
11. Be Punctual
10 years on and I am still hopeless at getting to meetings on time. So much so that I set my watch 10 minutes fast but it still doesn't help. It's one part of my Englishness which will never die. In a British company, the early birds will get to a meeting on the hour, chat about football, have a bit of friendly banter, talk about what they did at the weekend, have a moan with each other about their kids, wives, husbands, the weather, politics etc and then about 10 past probably start the meeting. The Italians will only start turning up at around quarter-past. And then they all have to get coffee and talk loudly for a while before commencing. The Germans, on the other hand, are all there 5 minutes early, sat in silence except for asking each other if they would like coffee, and slowly becoming impatient and agitated if the meeting does not start dead on the hour.
12. Flexible, agile career paths are less common
In Anglo-American firms, it is quite common for employee career development to be centred around gaining as much experience as quickly as possible, through holding different positions in various departments throughout the organisation. German work culture differs in that professional development tends to centre around somebody becoming a subject matter expert in one particular area. Indeed, it is not uncommon for staff to have been in the same job for 10 years or more and to further their career through academic qualifications in that field. This reflects the more conservative culture in general in German workplaces and has both its advantages and disadvantages, namely the strong subject matter expertise versus less “outsider” penetration to a given department or function and the associated willingness to think outside the box and to question long-standing norms.