There are 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 guide aims to point out not only the more obvious, but also some of the more subtle ones out to you.
Not all workplaces are the same and various factors can affect the culture of an office. We focus here more on the day-to-day environment of office life in Germany, whereas we cover the topic of business etiquette in Germany in another post.
Don’t have time to read the post? Check out my video on YouTube instead!
A 12-Step Guide to Surviving German Work Culture
1. Taking sick leave for minor ailments is normal
The 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 bit of a cold.
Not the Germans. The slightest hint of a runny nose or a sore throat and they’re banging down the doctor’s door demanding a sick note for a week off work. In fact, the average German visits the doctor 18 times a year. Touch wood, I don’t think I’ve seen mine 18 times in the last 10 years.
Now, I’ve received a bit of stick in the comments to my YouTube video about this.
Let’s be clear. I’m not saying people should go to work when they’re sick. Absolutely not! I know that sick workers are not productive.
I’m just saying that my experience is that Germans tend to have a lower tolerance for minor discomforts. Which conveniently leads onto #2…
2. Complaining about the office temperature is a national pastime
The Germans must be world champions for complaining about the office ambient temperature. There is an old wives’ tale that a slight draft from an open window on an otherwise pleasant day is going to make them sick.
In the middle of summer, when most men are sweating buckets in the office because they have 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 and flip flops to the office the next day!
3. Office dress code is different
Compared to workplaces back home, my general observations have been that the workplace dress culture for women tends to be more conservative in Germany, whereas for men it seems to be more relaxed.
Men wearing jeans and more casual shoes to the office is pretty normal in Germany, even for sales people attending more formal meetings. This definitely wouldn’t happen in the UK or the US outside of the hipster tech start-up scene.
Women in Germany generally tend to wear less make-up to the office. Trouser suits are much more common and high heels are a relative rarity.
Obviously a law office or accountancy practice in general is going to be more formal than a software development business. The formality (or lack of) of various industries is pretty congruent with the rest of the world.
I still don’t get the concept of wearing scarves indoors though.
4. Get used to early mornings
My theory on this is that it stems from the Germans school system starting at 7:30 in the morning. As a result, they’re 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.
This tends to be more common in a manufacturing environment rather than pure service industries but the workday in general does tend to start earlier than in the English speaking world.
Being in the office at 6:30 here is not considered odd. The upside of this, if you’re a morning person, is that leaving the office at 15:00 is also not considered taboo (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 still address each other formally as Herr Y and Frau X, even if they have sat in the same office or along the same corridor as each other for several years. The Du and Sie conundrum when starting a new job can be a tricky one for foreigners.
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 less fashionable amongst the younger generation. In the public sector and small to mid-size German companies though, this is definitely still a thing.
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 this formality is dying out. The trend is only likely to continue, as younger Germans who have lived and studied abroad continue to enter the workforce.
6. Open plan offices are much less common
Germans like their privacy.
One of the ways this is exemplified in 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.
Job Seekers - Boost your chances of success!
Looking for a job in Germany?
You need to have a stellar CV, cover letter and optimised LinkedIn profile.
Your international format CV won't cut it. Cover letters in Germany are also an art.
Our templates and my coaching for job seekers like you will help you to get more interviews!
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.
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.