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 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.
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.
8. Don’t expect to be invited for after work drinks
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 which they invest more time and energy into.
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 your team 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
Following on from the mindset of (not) socialising with colleagues, 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
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 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.
When you consider how lean German companies are when it comes to manufacturing, their inefficiency with administrative processes and non-core tasks 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
I have a confession. I am hopeless at getting to meetings on time. So much so that I set my watch 10 minutes fast. It still doesn’t help. Perhaps unbeknown to me I have some Latin ancestry.
In a British company, the early birds will get to a meeting on the hour, chat about football, have a bit of friendly banter, make small talk 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.
Compare that with the Germans, on the other hand. They are there 5 minutes early, sat patiently, silently, and sipping coffee while slowly becoming agitated if the meeting does not start dead on the hour.
Be warned, lateness is a big no-no in Germany!
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 found in German workplaces.
It has both its advantages and disadvantages: the strong subject matter expertise valued so much by customers and partners, versus the risk of missing out on innovative new ideas through “outsider” penetration which can disrupt a given department or function, questioning long-standing norms.