14 December 2017

Germans prefer fixed working times in a fixed working environment

In a previous blog series, we used international research to highlight how one’s geographic environment and culture affects his or her expectations in the workplace. We reported that Europeans are quite reserved when it comes to work-related changes, whereas employees in the Asia-Pacific region are the most optimistic.

Now it is time to consider those findings in the context of Planon employees throughout the world. Malco Blümel, Project Manager at Planon in Frankfurt (Germany) shares his views on this topic in the blog below, which is the third in our series: ‘The changing work environment’.

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Is there actually a need for change?

Most German employees prefer their own desk, which they can leave at the same time every day when they go home – and preferably one displaying a picture of their children. That’s how it has been for many years and how it will stay, I presume. In general, most Germans are quite conservative and not really fond of change. The consensus is: why do we need to change when everything works well? The same goes for flexible working hours, for example, or the introduction of innovative technologies. Typically technologies such as contactless payments or paying for lunch with a credit card take a long time to get adopted by the majority.

These are just a few examples of our reluctance to change our habits. We are, in general, a bit more conservative than other countries around us I believe. We hold on strongly to our traditions, beliefs and values. That applies not only to our society, but also to the working environment. It took quite some time before the concept of flexible working hours was discussed and where other countries in Europe seem to embrace flexible working hours, the majority of German employees prefer fixed working times, according to this recent research (in German). Although it depends on the job, these numbers are an eye-opener.

A clear distinction between working and private time

It is probably in the DNA of Germans to work hard and long. Though employees have the flexibility to take time off, e.g. after a busy week at work, it is not very common to do that. Most employees also have the flexibility to work whenever they want, but prefer to work at standard times and leave the office at five every evening, even on really busy days. In my experience, Germans tend to do more than they are asked to by their employer and do not ask for something in return in the short run. However, they do make a clear distinction between working and private time. When Germans leave the office in the evening, they are usually not available for work anymore, high paying jobs or start-ups aside. The finding in the previous blog post on geographical differences, in which the clear border between work and private life of Germans was mentioned, is completely true.

German employees prefer fixed working times and fixed working places. When we talk about flexible working places, we are always afraid to end up in situations such as when flying with a discount airline – the later you come in, the worse seat you get. Some organisations introduced this concept and it meant that employees started to show up at work earlier each day, only to make sure that they could get hold of the best desk in the office. Another example is that of an organisation that had a clear workspace policy, meaning each employee had to clear his or her desk when leaving. Almost everyone in that organisation disliked the policy.

Flexible made inflexible again

Some organisations provided flexible working environments, after which the employees simply made them inflexible again. And to be honest: everybody was fine with that. One of the underlying reasons could be that hierarchy plays a major role in assigning working places in Germany: the more senior, the better the workplace. Whenever someone with a good place leaves the organisation, the next in line will fill up this empty place. That happens quite often, because in my perception it is quite common for Germans to switch employer every two or three years in order to climb the ladder, or to reinvent themselves.

One trend that is gaining traction in Germany is working from home. This started approximately three to five years ago and is increasing in popularity, because it positively affects our quality of life. It actually means that we don't need to waste time commuting from home to the office anymore. It took some time before Germans embraced the concept of the home office, but the evolution is progressing rapidly. We see a shift towards working with our mobile phone and modern digital ways of communicating, although it normally takes some time before Germans start using new, innovative technologies.

Regulations are a barrier

One of the main barriers to incorporating new technology at work is German legislation. There are tools to monitor the occupancy of meeting rooms which provide not only insights into the room itself, but potentially also about the employees using those rooms. This data has to be treated anonymously, as German work councils might forbid technology that breaches privacy. Therefore, adapting to new technologies always has to include adapting the regulations as well. And as we know, this can be a time-consuming affair and is a major blockage for quick changes. This might pose a risk to the development of Germany as a technological leader. Major political parties have picked up on this problem as it gains awareness.

A conclusion

My point of view perhaps seems a bit stereotypical and black and white, but stereotypes do come from somewhere. The often-praised German medium-sized businesses (Mittelstand), which are the backbone of the German economy, often have a “traditional leadership”. As technology helps people to be more productive or work better, big corporations will introduce changes over time to maximise profit and competitiveness. And then the medium-sized businesses will need to follow to keep competing. It will take some time to change all of that. Nevertheless, I am confident we'll get there.

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