Why Germans Work Fewer Hours But Produce More: A Study In Culture

When a lot of Americans think of Germany, they often think of WWII. But what many people don’t know is that Germany is the industrial powerhouse of Europe and a top exporter to developing Asian countries. In Volkswagen ads, we don’t hear about how great German engineering is for nothing.

Germany, which is the EU’s economic engine, saved the Eurozone all by itself in 2012. At the same time, German workers have better protections than most people around the world and work less hours than most people around the world. How is it that a country where people work an average of 35 hours a week and get an average of 24 paid vacation days a year can be so productive?

Working hours are what they are.
German business culture says that when someone is at work, they shouldn’t be doing anything else. Facebook, office gossip with coworkers, browsing Reddit for hours, and pulling up a fake spreadsheet when your boss walks by are all socially unacceptable things to do. In the United States, it’s clear that these aren’t good ways to act. But in Germany, peers will not stand for such useless activities at all.

In the BBC documentary “Make Me a German,” a young German woman talked about the culture shock she felt when she went to the UK on a working exchange.

“I did an exchange in England… I was at work, and people were always talking about their personal lives… “What’s the plan for tonight?” and drank coffee the whole time…”

She was surprised by how laid-back British workers were. After talking more, the Germans say that Facebook is not allowed in the office at all, and neither is private email.

Direct communication with a goal in mind is valued.
In German business culture, people are very focused and talk to each other directly. Germans don’t like to beat around the bush. Americans like to make small talk and keep the mood upbeat. German workers will talk directly to a manager about performance reviews, start a business meeting without any “icebreakers,” and use commanding language without softening the orders with polite phrases. A German would say, “I need this by 3pm,” while an American would say, “It would be great if you could get this to me by 3pm.”

When a German is at work, he or she is focused and works hard, which makes them more productive in less time.

Germans do things besides work.
The Germans both work hard and have fun. Since the workday is all about getting things done quickly and well, the free time is really free time. Because German businesses tend to be serious and focused, employees don’t always hang out together after work. Most Germans like to keep their personal and professional lives separate.

The German government is thinking about making it illegal to send work-related emails after 6 p.m. This would be done to stop employers from being able to reach their employees easily thanks to smartphones and constant connectivity. Can you picture President Obama doing something like this in the United States?

Germans have a lot of free time, so most of them join Verein, which are groups where people with similar interests get together regularly. Sportvereine (sports clubs), Gesangvereine (choirs or singing clubs), Musikvereine (music clubs), Wandervereine (hiking clubs), Tierzuchtvereine (animal breeding clubs, usually for rabbits and pigeons), and collectors’ clubs of all kinds are all popular in Germany. Even the smallest village in Germany has several active Vereinen that serve the interests of the people who live there. Most Germans don’t go home after work and watch TV. Instead, they spend time with people in their community and grow as people.

Germans also have a lot of paid vacation days. Many salaried workers get between 25 and 30 paid days (the law requires 20). Families can spend up to a month together on long vacations. They can rent an apartment by the beach or take a long trip to a new, exciting city.

Business Honors Family Life
Most working Americans can’t even imagine having a system like Germany’s Elternzeit, or parental leave. In the United States, there are no laws that require maternity leave. On the other hand, Germany has some of the best policies in the developed world to protect parents. The problem with these maternity leave benefits is that employers may be afraid to hire women for fear that they will take advantage of them. As a result, German boardrooms are always dominated by men at a higher rate than in other developed countries, although the government is working to change this. German mothers often can’t pass up the money they can get from Elternzeit and Elterngeld, or programmes that give money to parents. This can make their careers stagnate or stop altogether.

Since there is no such thing as “at-will” employment in Germany, everyone has a contract with their employer. Parents who have been working for the past year can get Elternzeit benefits, such as up to three years of unpaid leave with a “sleeping” contract. The worker can work up to 30 hours a week part-time while on parental leave, and they must be offered full-time work when the leave is over. Parents can also choose to put off their leave for up to a year, until the child turns 8. Either parent can take parental leave, and many couples choose based on how much it will cost them.

The employee’s contract will remain in place, and the state will pay up to 67 percent of the employee’s salary (up to 1800 Euros per month) for 14 months. The 14 months can be split up however the parents want. These benefits are the same for couples of the same gender.

Have you picked up your mouth from the ground yet?

Bring in some German to your office.
The way people work in Germany is very different from the way people work in the average American office, but we can still learn from them. The hard work that Germans put into their jobs is something to admire. Keeping work and play separate can help us live a more balanced life. When we put the phone down at the end of the day, we give our minds a break from worrying about work, and we can go back to the office in the morning with a clear head. When it’s time to get something done, closing Facebook and turning off push notifications help keep our minds quiet and the flow steady. Direct conversation can help team members work more efficiently and understand each other better.

Americans often think that working longer hours means being more productive and having a better work ethic. However, the German model makes one wonder if less time at work really is more.

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