Why German Workers Outperform Americans While Spending Less Time at the Office

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The struggle to achieve work/life balance has taken on a new urgency in the pandemic. Now that more employees than ever have tried working from home, we can expect flexible hours, child-friendly policies, reduced overtime, more holidays, and remote work to be among job seekers’ key priorities going forward.

The most successful businesses deliver value to all their stakeholders: customers, shareholders, and employees. How does an organization meet the work/life balance needs of its employees while still attaining productivity and profitable growth?

Perhaps American business leaders should look to their German counterparts.

Germans Produce More — but Work Less

More than 1400 German companies are leaders in their market niches. Why? Because, historically speaking, strong German trade unions and work councils work together with employers to create circular business models in which profitable growth goes hand in hand with people initiatives. Neither business performance nor work/life balance is sacrificed for the good of the other.

As a result, Germans tend to produce more while working fewer hours than their international counterparts. According to the OECD, Germans work roughly 20 percent fewer hours than American workers. Annual leave of at least 20-25 days (excluding public holidays) is a given in your average German company. And employees return the favor with focused work, driving quality, innovation, and financial performance.

I experienced the benefits of a high-performing German work culture firsthand when I worked for Adidas. At Adidas, leaders treat employees like athletes; they understand that workers need inspiring and empowering environments to perform at their best. As Adidas founder Adi Dassler himself once said, “If you want a job done well, you must create the right conditions for it.”

So, Adidas has built the kind of people-first, performance-based culture in which you can go for a run with colleagues in the morning, hit the gym at lunch, and still get all your work done and leave the office on time every day. Once, during a period when I found myself regularly staying late at the office, one of my bosses asked me: “Is something preventing you from getting things done within normal work hours?” This illustrates the kind of work environment Adidas operates: People can get their work done during normal work hours, and consistently staying late at the office is seen as a problem rather than business as usual.

Crafting a People-First Culture

That said, it takes more than just a generous benefits package to achieve the world-class performance of which many German companies can boast. It also takes strategy.

Day after day, across the various companies I work with, I see one pervasive problem: Employees are “just not” doing what they are supposed to do. Nor are their bosses doing what they’re supposed to do. Instead of tackling big-picture challenges, these executive leaders are trapped working on daily business operations and sifting through their inboxes. As a result, their companies don’t have well-defined visions and strategies — and that’s why employees aren’t reaching the levels of achievement they should be.

Offering employees the most amazing benefits package in the world won’t do much to move the needle without a strategic roadmap that strives for profitable growth while making people a priority. As mentioned above, a business operates at full capacity when it provides the customer, shareholder, and employee with value. That’s why many German organizations design and implement mutually beneficial, people-focused business practices. When both the business and the employee benefit from the relationship, the employee is far more likely to put in the work to achieve great results.

So, the first step US businesses should take is to craft strategy roadmaps that help them weave together the following key components:

  1. Profitable growth
  2. Employee benefits
  3. Customer satisfaction and retention
  4. Social responsibility

Creating such roadmaps will require extensive discussions between leaders of every segment of the business. HR executives will play a vital role, as they are uniquely positioned to understand how performance pressures and employee needs can be connected in a single, cohesive strategy.

That said, finding and implementing the right strategy doesn’t have to be an exhaustingly complicated process. After all, German companies have already shown us that giving your people more freedom, free time, and clearer goals drives better financial results. Some decision-makers may feel the German approach is simply “too much,” but remember: Employees will repay the generosity of your new benefits by taking personal, proactive responsibility for reaching key business goals.

Well-being and productivity are the keys to sustainable, financially healthy businesses — and a sustainable, healthy society as well. Remember, the voice of the employee is as important as the voice of the customer. Take care of your people, and watch how they take care of you in turn with more motivation, higher-quality work, and a commitment to excellence.

Thomas Michael Hogg is the author of Profitable Growth Strategy: 7 Proven Best Practices From German Companies.

By Thomas Michael Hogg