Most Asians think of Germany as the “Japan of Europe”. Polite people, great technology and excellent beer. But there’s more to Germany than that. The industrial powerhouse of Europe, and is a leading manufacturer of goods for export to developing Asian nations, Germany has a reputation for engineering and technology.
The EU’s economic engine, Germany single-handedly saved the Eurozone from collapse in 2012. At the same time, German workers enjoy unparalleled worker protections and shorter working hours than most global counterparts. How can a country that works an average of 35 hours per week (with an average 24 paid vacation days to boot) maintain such a high level of productivity?
In German business culture, when an employee is at work, they shouldn’t be doing anything other than their work. Facebook, office gossip with co-workers and pulling up a fake spreadsheet when your boss walks by are socially unacceptable. In Germany, there’s zero tolerance among peers for such frivolous activities.
In the BBC documentary “Make Me A German“, a young German woman explained her culture shock while on a working exchange to the UK.
“I was in England for an exchange… I was in the office and the people are talking all the time about their private things… ‘What’s the plan for tonight?’, and all the time drinking coffee…” She was surprised by the casual nature of British workers.
German business culture is also one of intense focus and direct communication. While Americans tend to value small talk and maintaining an upbeat atmosphere, Germans rarely beat around the bush, speaking directly to managers about performance reviews, launching into a business meeting without any ‘icebreakers’ and using commanding language without softening the directives with polite phrases.
Whereas an American would say, “It would be great if you could get this to me by 3pm,” a German would say, “I need this by 3pm”. When a German is at work, they are focused and diligent, which in turn leads to higher productivity in a shorter period of time. Social niceties aren’t part of the culture, as it can be inefficient.
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Germans work hard and play hard. The working day is focused on delivering efficient productivity, with off-time being off-time. The focused atmosphere and formal environment of German businesses result in employees not necessarily socialising after work. Germans generally value a separation between private life and working life.
The German government has considered a ban on work-related emails after 6pm, to counter the accessibility that smartphones and constant connectivity give employers to their employees.
To occupy their plentiful Freizeit, most Germans are involved in Verein (clubs); regularly meeting others with shared interests in their community. Common interests in Germany include Sportvereine (sports clubs), Gesangvereine (choirs or singing clubs), Musikvereine (music clubs), Wanderverein (hiking clubs), Tierzuchtvereine (animal breeding clubs – generally rabbits/pigeons) and collectors’ clubs of all stripes.
Even the smallest village in Germany will have several active Vereinen to accommodate residents’ interests. Rather than settling in for a night of TV after work, most Germans socialise with others in their community and cultivate themselves as people. Germans also enjoy a high number of paid vacation days, with many salaried employees receiving 25-30 paid days (German law requires 20). Extended holidays mean families can enjoy up to a month together, renting an apartment by the seaside or taking a long trip to a new, exciting city.
Germany’s system of Elternzeit (“parent time” or parental leave) results in some of the most extensive parental protection policies in the developed world. The downside of these maternity leave benefits is that employers might avoid hiring women (with the fear that they will take advantage of the extensive benefits), and German boardrooms are consistently male-dominated at a higher rate than other developed nations, although the government is working to eradicate this trend.
The financial benefits of staying home (from both Elternzeit and Elterngeld Or parents’ money programs) are often too good to pass up for German mothers, and can lead to stagnant or non-existent careers.
Since “at will” employment does not exist in Germany, all employees have contracts with their employer. Parents who have been gainfully employed for the previous 12 months are eligible for Elternzeit benefits, which include up to three years of unpaid leave with a “sleeping” contract. The employee is eligible to work part-time up to 30 hours while on leave, and must be offered full-time employment at the conclusion of the parental leave.
Parents might also choose to postpone up to one year of their leave until the child’s 8th birthday. Either parent is eligible for parental leave, and many couples make the choice based on financial considerations.
In addition to the preservation of the employee’s contract, the state will pay up 67 percent of the employee’s salary (with a cap of 1800 Euros per month) for 14 months. Parents might split the 14 months however they choose. These benefits apply equally to same-sex couples.
German work culture is very different to the average Asian office, with lessons and best practices to be learnt from our German counterparts. The diligent focus Germans bring to their working life is to be admired. Separating work from play allows for more balanced lives. Putting the phone down after hours gives people a mental break from work, allowing a return to the office refreshed in the morning.
When it’s time to get tasks executed, closing Facebook and turning off push notifications keeps minds quiet and the work flows steady. Direct conversation can lead to increased efficiency and greater clarity of communication among team members.
Asians often equate longer hours with increased production and superior work ethic, but examining the German model makes one wonder: When it comes to time at work, might be less really is more!
Credit: Paul, E. (2014). Why Germans Work Fewer Hours But Produce More: A Study In Culture. KNote.
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