We are family: why German work culture is a model of efficiency

Feb 06, 2020

5 mins

We are family: why German work culture is a model of efficiency
Anouk Renouvel

Freelance @ Communication numérique

Have you ever thought about working in Germany? Whether it’s Berlin’s legendary nightlife or Hamburg’s instagram-friendly architecture that is driving your wanderlust, our guide to German work culture will help make your transition as smooth as possible. Even though you might know a thing or two about Germany, working there is a lot different to working in other European countries.

The golden rule: group dynamics count

The period following the Second World War was a defining time for modern German society and culture, and that included forging the country’s very particular relationship to work and the workplace. In the post-war period, the Federal Republic of Germany, much like Japan, underwent an economic miracle, or Wirtschaftswunder. In order to rebuild a European continent that was largely in ruins, the Marshall Plan aimed to restore national economies by encouraging free markets, discouraging monopolistic power and reducing state interference in those economies. The effects of economic liberalisation—and with it, the notion that people were not just individuals but integral parts of society—were felt throughout the West German state. The message was that every member of society must take responsibility, not only for themselves and their families, but also for their country. Importantly, the Federal Republic embraced the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that state intervention will only occur when an individual is in immediate and serious need, otherwise leaving the individual largely responsible for the path of his or her own life.

To this day, Germans maintain a sense of collective purpose, to such a degree that it can seem surprising to a newcomer. Indeed, the importance of punctuality in German society can be traced back to this sense of the collective. When you arrive late to work, it is the company—and therefore the group as a whole—that suffers. The central importance of the group in relation to the individual has a name, Wir-gefühl, and it’s a major part of German work culture. In English, this equates to the employees of a company having a sense of community spirit. As such, Germans can often feel responsible for their colleagues’ responsibilities. For example, if an individual doesn’t do their share, then that individual’s workload will fall to his or her colleagues. This is not considered acceptable in a society where the collective good takes precedence.

The German manager: a mentor, not a master

History helps us further understand another key part of the country’s work culture. The Protestant Reformation of 1517, instigated by Martin Luther, had a profound effect on German society that persists to the present day. An almost immediate and direct consequence of this cultural revolution was a call for widespread literacy, as a central tenet of Protestantism is a requirement to read and understand the Bible without relying on a priest’s sermons. As a result, literacy was seen as an inherently spiritual pursuit. Luther encouraged the creation of schools and libraries for every level of society in the belief that the spread of education and Protestantism generally would benefit the whole nation.

The repercussions of this cultural transformation can still be felt today, particularly in schools. Indeed, the German education system was developed around the notion of Bildung—the idea of encouraging all German children to develop their own personality, creativity and reasoning skills. The responsibility for this significant task is assigned to teachers, whose role is closer to that of a mentor supporting students in their personal growth than the role of a traditional school teacher, passing on his or her own knowledge to a largely passive group of students. Group work and well-reasoned speeches are regular exercises that foster listening to others and careful reflection.

Businesses are structured in a similar way. Much like the relationship between the pastor and his congregation, or the teacher and his or her pupils, it’s a manager’s role to guide rather than command or control employees. Group work is particularly important, with employees and managers encouraged to work together on projects in order to create effective strategies. What’s more, work objectives and deadlines are usually decided together by both the managers and the managed, which helps to ensure that everything goes to plan. The German-style group dynamic therefore prioritises listening, discussion and debate in a collective search for efficiency.

Self-sufficient and efficient teams

When the time for collective reflection comes to an end, each team member works on their own tasks independently. Elise, who joined a German e-commerce company as marketing manager just three months ago, confirms this. She said, “I’ve already noticed that management regularly and systematically hands responsibility to the employees and then allows those individuals to work independently.” In a similar vein, but on a national level, the Federal Chancellor supervises the Länder, or German states, which nevertheless retain a significant degree of autonomy.

As you’ve probably heard, one of the most common words used to describe German work culture is efficiency. There’s a good reason for this: strategic decisions are made collectively, not just because the group takes precedence over the individual, but also to set realistic objectives and deadlines that can be met. Because of this, employees feel invested in what they’re doing and don’t need to spend countless hours at the office. Lunch breaks are short and coffee breaks are rare. You won’t feel obliged to chat about the weather with colleagues either—the office is for work!

Family first

Particularly since the Protestant Reformation, the family has been at the very core of German life, so much so that it was at one time referred to as the little church. Both then and now, a family with children is particularly valued in Germany, which is one of the reasons why overtime is virtually non-existent. That’s because finishing on time means more time to spend at home with the family, and is yet another reason for being as efficient as possible in the office. Moreover, because of the importance of family and social life, Germans are not generally in the habit of making friends with their work colleagues. While office exchanges are polite, they are usually limited to work matters.

Eight practical tips

Now that you know the main principles behind German work culture, here are a few practical tips to make sure that, from day one, you set off on the right foot:

  • Be punctual: showing up late is seriously frowned upon! Remember to put the collective before the individual.
  • Use the formal address of “Sie” when first meeting someone and don’t switch to the informal “du” until the other person invites you to. Remember, though, that “du” doesn’t mean you’re immediate BFFs, so always keep things polite and respectful. In general, Germans don’t feel they have to make firm friends at work. They prefer to keep their private and professional lives separate.
  • When answering the phone, always give your name first before entering into conversation. This way, the caller knows immediately who they are talking to.
  • Avoid unnecessary and excessivesmall talk so that colleagues don’t think you’re taking up too much of their work time. This is especially true before and during meetings, when everyone is keen to get down to business.
  • When negotiating your salary, don’t forget to take into account that the difference between gross and net pay is greater in Germany. Marketing manager Elise said, “For the same gross pay, the net will be lower in Germany because national insurance contributions and social taxes are higher.”
  • Lunch is not the best time to socialise with colleagues. Most Germans aren’t very receptive to hearing about your weekend when they’re in the canteen. “Instead, maybe suggest going for drinks after work, which is seen as a better time for people to get together,” said Leila, a freelance communications specialist who lives in Berlin.
  • Start learning German (if you aren’t already fluent). It will show colleagues that you’re there to stay and committed to fitting in and understanding the culture.
  • Don’t walk on bike paths, don’t cross the street on a red light and don’t jump the queue waiting for public transport. In short, respect the rules on your way to the office as well.

We hope this guide has cemented your desire to make a life-changing move. Now that you’re ready to start your career in Germany, viel Glück— that’s good luck in German!

Translated by Andrea Schwam

Photo: WTTJ

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