Cologne (Germany), July 7 (Reuters): Fun at work is over. Strict German discipline is back in. No more table football in the office, no more brainstorming sessions over fancy snacks, no more team-building events in mountain resorts.
“The office is not an amusement park,” says Judith Mair, the 30-year-old owner of a design bureau in Cologne and author of a book called Schluss mit Lustig on working culture, which translates roughly as “Back to Business” or “End the Fun”.
Straightening the tight skirt of her dark blue suit, the tiny blonde sits on a leather sofa in her spartan office and explains the rules governing her and her three colleagues.
The office day starts at 9 am sharp. It ends no later than 6 pm, and work on weekends is forbidden. Employees wear company uniforms, they address each other formally and are allowed to talk about private matters only during breaks.
“It is absurd to praise work as a substitute for home or as status symbol, which promises self-fulfilment and fun. Work is just work. And that’s exactly what it needs to become again,” she said.
In the western city of Cologne, many new advertising firms and Internet start-ups have appeared in the past few years. And despite the busting of the dot.com bubble and the weak German economy, some still sponsor extras and after-work events for employees.
Jan Antwerpes, 38, is a partner in a communications agency just a few streets away from Mair’s office. Based in a former factory building, the agency provides its workers with an all-day breakfast buffet and offers them a weekly massage.
Antwerpes had just returned from a weekend adventure trip with a dozen colleagues that included learning to climb ropes.
“People need to know each other to communicate better,” he said. “If two colleagues hold the rope for you while you’re climbing 10 metres up, that is truly team-building. It shows your colleagues that you care for them.”
But Mair says company holidays are poor attempts at binding workers and an excuse for making them work to the point of exhaustion.
“It’s dangerous if work and free time are being mixed up,” she said. “It’s a totalitarian system if my boss is organising my entire life, from providing breakfast to setting up my fitness training. I want to be the own boss of my free time.”
Mair and her colleagues used to work in companies adhering to the tie-less “new economy” culture before setting up their own business in 2000. They say they found it unnerving to display the image of their cool, young firms by dressing in the latest fashions and having company drinks in hip bars.
“You already have to sell yourself in front of clients. That is okay at presentations. But I don’t want to be forced to do that in the office too,” said Mair’s colleague Tanja Poepping.
To counter the fashion pressure, Mair and her colleagues wear company unif-orms — smart blue suits when meeting clients and blue-grey track suits when working from the office.
“Some people think the uniforms are ridiculous,” admitted Mair. “We had one pretty bad experience with them. We were at a pop music fair, all wearing the suits. People kept asking us where the toilets were as they thought we were receptionists.”
Mair says her strict working rules do not inhibit the office from coming up with fresh and creative design ideas. Her small agency provides marketing projects for a regional broadcaster, cultural institutions and local firms.
“Her Prussian standards have not been a criterion for us to employ the agency,” said Christiane Linnarts, head of communications at the Koelner Philharmonie concert hall, for which Mair’s office is designing a newspaper insert.
Mair’s conservative values on working culture did not seem to feed through to the agency’s design projects, she said.
Mair’s theories have provoked lively debate in Germany since the book came out late last year, but her workplace philosophies do not appear to have caught on yet among German firms.
Mair’s no-frills look is mirrored in her two-room office, a converted bakery in a lively district of Cologne. There are no pictures on the white walls, and no photos or personal items can be spotted on the simple wooden desks.
In sharp contrast, Antwerpes’ office features an orange, wave-shaped wall stretching through the factory hall. The 120 employees, none obliged to wear a tie, call each other “medianauts”, a made-up term alluding to their navigating skills in media affairs.
Mair’s colleagues address each other formally by their last name, and clear hierarchies govern the office.
She says she does not want to make her office homely or cosy, saying it is not her home after all. But she plans to make one exception to the office’s stark interior: “We are planning to have our own hall of fame in the toilet, decorating the walls with newspaper articles about the firm.”