How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love German Work Culture
“Sorry, we’re late. We’re here though. Where are you?”
It was 9:01 and I was still on the train on my way into San Francisco, where I worked. Earlier that week I had promised that I’d lend a few desks of office space to these friendly German dudes I met at a conference a month prior. At the time, I was working at a small monetization startup called “Seeds” and traveling to conferences to meet prospective clients.
The Kolibri Games founders reached out and asked to borrow some office space while they were in San Francisco for the GDC (Game Developers Conference). I obliged, happy to help them maintain productivity while they were here and hoping this might lead to more business between our two companies.
When they asked what time they should arrive, I told them the standard Silicon Valley line of “around 9 AM”, which really translates to “I’ll be somewhere in the vicinity of the office around 10 AM, probably getting coffee.”
What I didn’t know is that if you tell Germans to meet at 9 AM, they will get there promptly and apologize if they were a minute late. Literally one minute late… I did some stalling for time and asked them to hang out at a cafe until I got there (a whole 40 minutes later).
Getting in Rhythm with the Kolibris
Despite my early morning mishap, I was later asked to join the Kolibri Team. The company was growing (and still is!), so I packed my bags and relocated to Berlin. In the first few days with Kolibri Games, I became intimately familiar with the timetables kept by the company. For reference, these are:
Daily Schedule at Kolibri:
08:45 until 09:00 — Arrive for work during this time:
The founders often show up even earlier, setting a good example and turning the whole concept of “Corporate Face Time” on its head.
11:45 until 12:00 — Lunch orders taken:
Figuring out what you want to eat before lunch saves time (a lesson in efficiency!).
12:45 until 13:30 — Lunch:
Eliminating working/eating overlap with different teams ensures smooth communication.
13:30 until 13:45 — Post-lunch all-hands:
After lunch, everyone quickly discusses their daily tasks. Then, it’s back to work and there’s no confusion or scheduling dilemmas.
18:00 — Leave for post-work fun:
Early to work, early to play, since no game developer should sleep at the office.
What’s with all this punctuality?
“Ordnung muss sein” (There must be order) — Frederick the Great
As Quora aptly puts it, Germany had a long road to travel before it developed this high a caliber of business culture. Early German tribes were a disparate and clashing bunch that bare little resemblance to the Germany of today. It wasn’t until the subsequent Roman invasion that principles like order and meticulousness were grafted onto the northern societies.
This would end up being enormously beneficial to the peoples of central Europe. For starters, this chromatic discipline enabled a better-timed harvest in a land that suffers from shorter growing seasons than its southern neighbors. Furthermore, order and timing are crucial elements for maintaining a strong army. With few natural defenses like mountains and a plethora of fearsome neighbors, this point can’t be overstated.
However, the German attribute of punctuality owes its existence to more than the historical nature of wheat cultivation and brutish warfare.
A System of Chaos
Although there is neither a war nor a whole season’s harvest on the line for us, we value punctuality as much as the old Germans did. At Kolibri Games, we plan projects for one week periods. With only five days to get something out the door, there is little room for a project to slip. Even a half-day delay can put the team behind.
Delays don’t just signal that an employee is not invested in a project, they also indicate a lack of respect for the other folks who are working on the project. This works both vertically and horizontally. A manager can’t expect his team to show dedication to completing a new feature if the manager isn’t in the office himself. Likewise, a team member perpetually late to meetings is secretly communicating that her time is more valuable.
Finally, with everyone on a different schedule, quickly resolving questions or troubleshooting issues is an enormous hassle. An early riser might wait several hours to resolve an otherwise simple issue. Likewise, a late-starter could toil into the night on something that has a quick solution.
Getting on the Same Page: Challenges and Advantages
While it can be a little painful to adjust to if you enjoy sleeping till noon (like me), being punctual solves more problems than it creates.
Meetings become predictable and easy to schedule. Long gone are “buffer” times that must be included before and after meetings to ensure that time-blocks aren’t overrun. Gone too are questions about when people are available — this is SUPER HELPFUL for a gaming company that often works with many overseas partners. Mornings are safe for conversations with Asian firms, while the late afternoon is reserved for bleary-eyed Americans.
Surprisingly, punctuality is the hidden solution to maintaining work-life balance. With just a little extra planning and a little less flexibility, employees know that critical tasks are completed within reasonable hours so that everyone can walk out the door while the sun is shining and the bars are still open.
With the strict self-discipline this introduces to one’s life, it is easy to feel like the master of one’s domain. Working with other German companies is a breeze, and keeping a strict schedule with regard to foreign companies (particularly at conferences) helps to maintain a sense of calm while everyone else is scrambling to juggle meetings. Trust me, you’ll wish you had adapted to this way of thinking years ago!
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