What it’s REALLY like to work in Berlin

As an HR professional who has now worked in 3 different countries, I think I can give you some pretty interesting insights into what it’s really like to work in Berlin. As you’d already know from reading our previous blog posts about Berlin, it is a city with a culture all of its own. Even Germans will admit that Berlin is unlike the rest of Germany, and our recent trip through Bavaria via the Romantic Road definitely confirmed that idea for us. Germany as a country also has a long history that cannot be isolated from the office culture that has developed today. Naturally, the combination of these two differences has resulted in a work environment that is extremely unique and does not come without its challenges, particularly for an expat like me. Since I completed my first month of work I’ve been itching to write this for you, I’m sure you may guess a few of the most obvious things – but there are also even more surprising differences that no one adequately prepared me for!

1) The Language Barrier

So you’re an English native speaker and you want to work in Berlin. Of course you’ve read about the huge start up environment here and that there are plenty of opportunities for work in tech companies. Well, that’s if you’re in programming or software development. Most other roles are filled by Germans, and require a high level of German speaking ability to work in those roles. You are probably asking yourself, how did I get a job in HR? I’m very lucky, I got a job with one of the bigger startups where their working language is English. But it doesn’t just end there.

People revert back to their native language on lunch breaks and after work, wouldn’t you?

Depending on which department you work in, most of your colleagues will still be German. On the one hand this is a brilliant opportunity to practice your German on a regular basis. On the other hand, when you’re already living in a place that is culturally so different to anywhere else you have ever lived, it can be exhausting to exercise another part of your brain when you are supposed to be having down time. I can tell you that no matter how real your intention is to learn and practice your language skills, it can be a very intimidating experience when seated at a lunch table with 10 native speakers all looking at you, waiting for you to speak!

Quite often I will find myself in meetings with an accurate cross section of the European Union.

Given that Berlin is a multicultural haven for the widest range of (mostly) European nationalities I have ever encountered, mastering German is not your only challenge. Walking around the office you will hear Italian, Spanish, Polish… you name it. On my first day the first five people I met were from five different countries. My first chat was with a Russian. I had never met a Russian before! But it is important to realise that because Berlin is multicultural on a whole different level, the prevailing language will not always be English (unlike London). As a side note: this means diversity of background is hardly even an issue, which is already a huge difference compared to companies I have worked in from the Southern Hemisphere.

2) Making friends at work

Of course the language thing can be a very real barrier to making friends – alcohol is definitely needed to get up the courage to chat with big groups in German, even for an extrovert like me. Unfortunately it doesn’t help that the drinking culture is nowhere near the level as it is in Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

After work drinks are a rare occurrence, often only happening when it is someone’s farewell, birthday, Christmas or a team event.

There are a few people who are comfortable enough with their english that they will happily speak to you, which is of course a welcome relief. But just as you will be able to speak only in Basic German to them, most of them do the same in English. So you need to speak slowly, clearly and sometimes use words that might seem out of place because the German equivalent is the same, so they can understand you. This can be an exercise which some grammar purists (yes, I have had to stop myself saying “Grammar Nazi” several times) will find hurts at first. Eventually you find yourself doing it automatically.

As your German gets better your English gets worse. Go figure!

Finally, I will touch on something I rely heavily on as a way of connecting with people… Sense of humour. The German sense of humour is an odd one. I am not quite sure how to explain it, other than to say they find brutal honesty hilarious. I guess this is good for me, because I am sometimes a brutally honest person, so they find me hilarious without me even trying. This can inhibit your ability to laugh along with them, even if they are your own jokes!

In the same way that American movies make us fantasize about exotic Europeans, ironically being from the butt end of the earth makes Aussies a rarity over here.

While I encountered many Londoners who informed me that there was more than enough Australians in their city and they were bored of us, in Germany we are considered almost as exotic as an exchange student in an American 90’s high school movie. We are considered strange creatures from a foreign land and you often find yourself answering 21 questions about Australia. Are koala’s real? Is the weather really 40 degrees? Have you ever been bitten by a snake? How big are the spiders? How do you survive the flight home? Yes these are all real questions I have been asked!

3) Qualifications and work experience

Most Germans not only complete their Bachelor’s degree, but also their Master’s degree and potentially a PhD without going into the workforce once. My manager politely explained this to me after I expressed my confusion with why we were having so much difficulty recruiting for entry level roles when it is the other way around in Sydney. She said there was a German saying for it, which literally means “horny for qualifications”. This is the reason why I have noticed that most entry level positions are being filled with 27 year olds with the same amount of experience I had when I was 22.

On the flip side, there are many more opportunities for work experience in Germany, where they might work paid internships for a few weeks or months while they complete their studies.

This is a great initiative and something that needs to be encouraged a lot more in Australia. But their first real job can often be after age 25. Incredibly different to me, who already had 5+ years experience in my field at their age. While they may have a lot of great theoretical knowledge, the effect of office experience on attitudes towards things such as constructive feedback, strategic thinking and ways of working is undeniable. It provides for an interesting challenge on an everyday level (think team meetings) to company wide projects (think key motivators for working).

4) Employee entitlements

Pinapples basket

Of course the type of industry you work in also has an effect on employee attitudes in a company, but Germany’s strong public sector history also prevails here. The employment legislation is largely skewed towards the employee’s side, with basic entitlements such as unlimited sick days, privacy laws that inhibit reporting capabilities, a heavy presence of unions (“work councils”) and entitlements for contractors creates a very interesting mix. Ironically, more entitlements can lead to some employees becoming even more self entitled than those I have previously encountered in my Financial Services experience. Fruit baskets, unlimited soft drinks, Foosball tables, bringing your dog to work… this is the norrm.

Not providing vegan options at company events is considered a major faux pas.

Your typical Berliner also has an aversion and a general distrust of large corporations and capitalism, which doesn’t lay the best foundation for a positive employee and employer relationship. Berlin is Germanys centre for the arts and the prevalence of artist and freelance visas clearly encourages them to continue to move here. You may encounter the idea that there is more pride in being a struggling artist who works part time in hospitality than working for a big corporation. Again, this is completely different to Sydney or London where working for a well known company is something to be bragged about.

5) Work ethics, working hours and office etiquette

Post its

The working hours are 40 hours per week. Yes read that again… 40 hours. Most start and end times are flexible beyond core hours and it is quite normal for people to get to work at 9-9.30am and not leave until 6-6.30pm. While Germans may be known for their efficiency, focusing on fitting in your 40 hours per week rather than actual output or quality of work definitely leaves more room for “busy” work (work for the sake of working. The temptation to procrastinate also increases when you’re counting the clock rather than focusing on completing your most important tasks for the day. Being used to the autonomy of leaving whenever I think I am done and moving flexibly with the ebbs and flows of my workload, I have continued to operate this way here because I have a manager who trusts me to deliver what I need to, however I see fit. Despite this, you can’t help but feel guilty when you sometimes arrive after and leave before your colleagues.

Another huge difference is the lack of general office banter.

In London, most visits to the kitchen turned into a 20 minute chat and 2 cups of tea. I definitely miss this part of work, it was a welcome break in between tasks and gave you a chance to actually get to know your work mates outside the context of forced team bonding time. I’d say it played a key role in my ability to get all the things I needed to get done with speed and ease in the past. “Hey Millie, how’s your cat Rufus? Just wondering if you can get this thing done for me tomorrow, sorry about the rush…”. There’s none of that here. The emails are short and to the point. Cut the fluff that was an absolute must have in any email to a Londoner or you wouldn’t get a reply for a week. All you can do in Berlin is say thanks 1000 times and hope they don’t already have 1000 emails in their inbox that day!

6) Dress code

I still remember like it was yesterday, my housemate going off to work in her consultancy firm in a playsuit, similar to something I would consider wearing to the beach. Dress codes are pretty much non existent, particularly in the start up or tech industry. Given that casual Friday was removed from the last place I worked because the CEO didn’t like everyone walking around in jeans in the lobby, this was the biggest shock to the system that I have encountered. Piercings, tattoos, coloured hair is totally acceptable.

Everyone wears jeans, runners, hoodies or whatever you want in the office, irrespective of whether or not you are client facing.

The 5 corporate dresses I bought to Berlin with me were completely useless. I have since sent them home. I wear the same outfits to work as I do on the weekend. Sure it’s comfortable and practical (also a very German way of reasoning), but a part of me does miss the power dressing, high heels and classic style dresses. Undeniably clothes can change your attitude or confidence, and sometimes I find that making my point in a hoodie is not as compelling as it would be in a suit. Alternatively, I appreciate the ability to hide my food baby under my hoodie after a big lunch.

My Conclusion…

Working in different countries and with diverse people has always fascinated me. The differences you discover even from company to company can provide you with a great learning experience, a challenge to overcome or a new way of thinking – depending how you look at it. Be prepared for the culture shock though, process it, then use it. Even if it’s only use is for a laugh – and remember, if you point it out in a brutally honest way you might even get a laugh from your German colleagues in return!

Do you work in Berlin, somewhere in Germany, or just in a country other than your own? What are the interesting differences, nuances or just plain strange things you’ve noticed? Leave us a comment below!

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