Working my Way through Berlin’s Office Culture

Some things are the same in offices all over the world; that’s why TV shows like The Office (you don’t say) are a huge success: colleagues who are always late, colleagues with the worst sense of humour, office romances blossoming at after-work drinks and complaints about the bad coffee/slow computers/grumpy boss. But I also noticed that so many things are different in German offices compared to Dutch ones. And that’s great, because I think it tells a lot about a culture in general. So here are my observations.


Leaving the home office

As you might be aware, I’m not paying any rent. I won an incredible prize last June and get to live rent-free in an apartment on Strausberger Platz. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have to work or that I don’t want to work. I’ve been doing some freelance copywriting from home and also spent quite a few hours in a company office in Kreuzberg – a start-up, as you would expect in Berlin. Let’s call it Hidden Travels (HT) for now. I can’t speak about an office elsewhere in Germany or even elsewhere in Berlin. But I’m betting it’s all pretty much the same. That is: totally different from how we do things in Holland.

It starts very early. Or no, it doesn’t. I once did an internship at a travel magazine in Holland that expected me to show up at work every morning at 8.30 a.m. That’s crazy. I took me more than an hour to get to work, so I had to wake up at 6.00 a.m. every day. That’s too early. When I’m working at the HT office, I sometimes just do some cleaning up or other work before leaving, because I don’t want to get there before 9.00 a.m. Not just because people would frown upon that (“Don’t you have a life?!”), but also because the door would simply be locked. Even when I show up between 9 and 9.15 a.m., most of the office is still empty. Starting work around 9.45 a.m. is perfectly acceptable.

The office at your doorstep

This might all sound quite unprofessional, but don’t get me wrong: people work for 8 or 9 hours a day nonetheless. Most of my colleagues don’t go home before 7.00 p.m., and by the end of the week (deadline approaching) it’s usually even later. I would have hated this in Holland, because add your travel time – for me often more than an hour – to this, and you’re starving to death once you get home. Not in Berlin. All my colleagues live in the city, within around 30 minutes from the office. I’m one of the luckiest, living only 15 minutes from the office – by bicycle. In Holland I was used to being away from home for almost 11 hours, even though I was working 8-hour days. In Berlin, I’m away for 8.5 hours for 8-hour working days.

So yes, I’m still using my bicycle to get to work. Which is totally normal in Holland, and totally weird/different/sporty in the rest of the world – or at least large parts of the rest of the world. Right now, I’m not the only employee arriving by bike, but judging by the number of bike stands in front of the building (there is enough room for around 15 bikes) and the number of people working in the building (60 just in my office – and there are 5 other offices in the building), it’s a negligible percentage. People use public transport here, even if it means that they spend more time walking than actually being on a train. In Holland you’d either bike all the way to work or use your bike to get to the train station and take another bike once you’re in the city you work in. Or you take the car, because you enjoy being stuck in traffic. That would be even stranger in Berlin; I don’t believe any of my colleagues uses a car to get to work.

The Dutch and lunch

Time for a sad story about Dutch people: we don’t like lunch. Or at least we don’t want to put any effort in it. We bring a small lunch box filled with cheese sandwiches (that means: two slices of bread with a slice of cheese between it) and eat those sandwiches behind our computer or, with a little luck, in a badly lit cafeteria. See, that’s sad. Germans don’t do that. They either cook an entire meal in the office kitchen – the HT office has two fridges, an oven and a stove – or they go out for lunch. Virtually all of Berlin’s restaurants offer special lunch deals, which means you can get a good plate of Vietnamese (or Japanese, Lebanese, Italian…) food for just a few euros. But I have to admit: sometimes I still stick with cheese sandwiches (although I now toast the bread), because it feels like home.

The Germans and small-talk

Time for a sad story about German people: they don’t talk. And they probably hate us Dutchies for talking non-stop. It’s a well-known fact (hopefully mostly in Holland) that Dutch people talk a lot and have loud voices. We’re big fans of small-talk, especially when it’s about the weather. “Man, is it cold today!” – “I know, right, but I’ve seen the weather forecast and they’re predicting sunshine for tomorrow.” – “Really? On the other channel they said we could expect more rain.” – “More rain? I think I have to emigrate. My sister is in Italy now and [add more small-talk]”. The Germans don’t do that. They walk into the office, they say hello and they start working. They have their very extensive lunch break every day, but even then there’s not a lot of small-talk or sharing. Except when a Dutchie is joining them, because we will just force them to talk about personal things.

And there’s so much more. The dress code, for example. People don’t wear suits in Berlin, not even when they’re managing an entire office. They wear jeans and a sweater. Not bad. They don’t take coffee breaks or copy machine breaks, as some sort of distraction. That’s a shame. They don’t work part-time, but always 40 hours a week. That’s really hard to understand (in Holland 50% of people work less than 40 hours). They get months and months off work after having a baby – not just the mother, but also the father. That’s enviable. Point made? Offices are not just offices and working is not just working. And me? I will just be the loud, cheese-sandwich-eating Dutchie who always shows up early and can’t let go of her bike. At least I’m never underdressed anymore.