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A World of Differences

We just had the pleasure of spending more than a week in Germany. It was a fun trip, so we didn’t spend much time thinking about work. But we did learn about a different work culture there and pondered how that would affect the way we and our clients do business.

The biggest one in our view is the mandated 38.5-hour work week limit for a company’s employees. Granted, that doesn’t affect business owners or partners, but it does apply to the people they hire. If an employee works more than that, he or she has to receive comp time for every hour worked beyond 38.5.

How could a startup tech business, for instance, manage in that environment? Over here, the initial core employees of a startup put in a lot of long hours. Often too much – we sure wouldn’t want to work that way – but they may put in 80-hour weeks for months at a time to get the company launched and profitable. There wouldn’t be enough comp time in a year to make up for that.

The short work week is a wonderful goal, and every company – wherever they are – should be considerate of their employees in that way and other ways. But you have to wonder whether this emphasis is one of the reasons we’re not seeing as much innovation from companies in Germany and other parts of Europe as we used to.

As Thomas Edison famously observed, “Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” Is there really enough time for perspiration in a short work week?

The other work-culture aspect is the role the government plays in employment decisions. People in Germany are more or less slotted at an early age into employment tiers, and their education is designed to fit their eventual level of work. So if you see that an administrative assistant at your company has great potential to move into product development or other areas, you can’t just promote them into that role.

You may be able to work it out if your admin takes another year or so of additional education – whether it is truly needed or not – to “qualify” for that new role. Which might be fine, but if you need a product development person now, that doesn’t really help you.

There are interesting differences, and from what we can tell, Germans seem happy with their arrangements. And if so, good for them. We’re just not sure that most Americans would be fully comfortable working there.