Surviving a German Office

Surviving a German Office

When I first came to Germany on a school trip in 1998, I was immediately surprised by how little it looked like the 1980s. For the 4 years leading up to the trip, I had been taking German lessons at school. Although the textbooks changed every year, the illustrations and photographs of teenagers buying fruit or of people going on overly descriptive skiing trips clearly showed that Germany was still rooted in the fashions and trends of the 1980s. Although I was disappointed back then, I have been pleasantly surprised to find that in 2017, within offices around Germany, the spirit of the eighties is still alive. Hang around a German office long enough and you will definitely hear some one state the Yuppie mantra “We like to work hard and play hard” without the slightest level of irony. At any given time, there are at least five men sporting Magnum PI level moustaches and don’t be surprised if you find yourself discussing the pros and cons of fondue. For the uninitiated, the German office can be an intimidating experience. Involuntary time travel is not the only thing newcomers to need to be aware of.

Timeless Fashion

generra shirt

Of all the trends that evoke a sense of the 80s, Generra Global Hypercolor t-shirts is probably the most famous. Although you would be hard pressed to find one today, the German office appears to be last repository of the now defunct Generra product line. Although out of fashion for decades, the recent resurgence in 80s fashion now ensures that your average German IT firm has become a hipster fashion hub. Other notable fashion statements such as leather jackets with tassels or the casual business mullet can also be spotted. I have yet to see a keyboard tie in the wild, but I’m sure it is only a matter of time.

You better be working your ass off


Germans actually work fewer hours than the European average. When I heard this, I thought 'finally, Britain is more successful than Germany at something other than tea consumption and sarcasm'. Not only do they work less, but Germans regularly score high on global productivity assessments. In the UK, this German double whammy is constantly discussed and theorised over; what could the Germans be doing that we aren’t? The simple and unsurprising answer is: they work. German offices are unnervingly quiet, except for the sounds of keyboards and the occasional remote meeting. Time is ordered and optimised. Much of this time management is thanks to the use of organisational principles, borrowed from Japanese companies such as Toyota and implemented on production lines, factory floors and offices. If it can optimise the production of family cars, it can certainly be used to ensure Helga in accounting remembers to clean the coffee machine.

Be direct or be forgotten


German is a direct language, and it takes some getting used to. German's have no problem telling you exactly what they think about you and your work. This can lead to some problems, but at least you know where you the corner, with a dunce hat on. It does have its upsides though. For instance, you rarely hear of the Anglo-American dilemma that revolves around a girlfriend asking her significant other about the relative size of her keister in various types of jeans. That's because German women know what the answer will be before they ask, and they don't need to hear it out loud. No self-respecting German woman wants to hear 'Yes, your bum looks like a sack of hammers in those jeans. You should stop eating so much cake...cakey'. In the work place, be prepared to hear the negatives as well as the positives, but mostly the negatives. If you have a tough skin, you'll have absolutely no problem. I don't, which is why you can quite often find me in a cubicle, huddled in the fetal position sobbing my heart out.

Small talk is for the weak

The British and Americans love a bit of small talk. It's what makes a dull meeting slightly less dull. The chance to discuss the intricacies of weather conditions or how various sports teams are progressing is what we live for. Both parties involved in small talk know the other couldn't care less, but it's the dance we do, like a verbal tango without the sexy bits. Germans know this too, and therefore see absolutely no point in asking about your family, the weather or if little Jimmy got picked for the football team. Ironically, Germans harbour a secret desire to be part of the world of small talk. They would love to tell you about their weekend or that little Jürgen scored in the recent handball game but the pressure to fill in those excel spreadsheets enforces a strict no small talk policy. If you do fancy confusing a German colleague, ask them about their weekend, or even better corner them to talk about what you did instead.

Is this an office or Sherwood Forest?


Not satisfied by adding ridiculous foliage to their houses, Germans will often find any pretence to adorn the office with a plant or ten. I found these particular examples in the above image, hiding in a long forgotten hallway. One I could have understood but for some reason his particular company opted for four. That is four trees in a hallway people rarely ever use. Within the actual office, be prepared to hack your way through all manner of flora just to simply have a meeting. It does make for a more attractive office environment though and a nice change from decorating the work space with underwhelming Dilbert cartoons and grotesque motivational posters imploring people to "Hang in There" or defining the word "Teamwork". They also can help employees hide from angry bosses. Simply put on a green shirt and blend into the background, as the boss searches high and low for that missing financial projection.

I think this is art, but I'm not quite sure

The working day of the German office spod may be intense and short, but they do get the opportunity to peruse the wide selection of curious art that litter the walls of many a sterile, tree infested office space. I particularly like these two. The colours and strokes remind me clearly of the last time I suffered from a chronic sinus infection. Sadly, these examples are not for sale, but I did see a number of similar ones for sale at around €200 which I personally reckoned was optimistic at best. Then again what do I know?  Not satisfied with making the office a cross between a botanical garden and the Tate modern, I imagine the next step is to start adding sculptures and then zoo animals. Just think how much more interesting work would be if when you went for lunch you could observe replicas of the Venus de milo, a rough estimation of modern art, take in the jungle and pet a zebra all before you even reach the canteen. After lunch, you can jog off your sandwich by running hell for leather as a tiger chases you to the elevator.

Work isn’t all work


The concept of burn out is taken very seriously in Germany, with companies going as far as to pay for month long spa trips for long serving employees. Not only that, but German managers will try to find other alternatives to make the work environment enjoyable. One popular initiative seems to have been to name meeting rooms after famous cities in Germany, Europe or the USA. The impact of this simple idea has been negated by the fact that most mangers and staff seem to have all decided on the same names. By now, every German office has at least one room called Paris or Berlin or even Bavaria. This does lead to disappointment, especially when you find out that the Las Vegas only contains a projector and a couple of worn out chairs or that New York is currently being used to store printer toner.

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