Why Germans need far less supervision at work than Americans

A new study has revealed that US engineering firms have one supervisor for every seven employees. In Germany the ratio is one boss for every 26 workers. What explains the difference?

Why Germans need far less supervision at work than Americans
An employee of a German engineering company. Photo: DPA

The study, carried out by the Hans Böckler Foundation and released earlier in April, looked at 22 engineering firms in Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the US.

Each of the companies had at least 50 employees and worked with comparable technology.

The results of the research showed that on average German firms had 26 employees per supervisor. In Switzerland this ratio was 13.6 to one, in the UK it was 10.3 to one, and US firms had 7.1 workers for every superior.

And while the German firm with the most supervisors per employee had roughly 17 workers for every superior, the US firm with the thinnest management structure had a supervisor for every 13 employees.

Infografik: Die Deutschen brauchen die wenigsten Chefs | Statista“Hardly any employees think positively about continuous observation by their boss. But supervision also comes with costs for the company,” the report notes, while making the case for less supervision at work.

The study’s authors, who visited all of the companies in the report and interviewed their management, were clear about the conditions which allow for loose supervision.

“A high standard of vocational training, a high degree of internal promotion, and worker representation are all necessary for firms to be able to have fewer bosses. As soon as one of these elements is missing, the need for supervision rises considerably,” they argue.

The study concludes that German companies don’t need to supervise their employees very much because Germany is a “controlled market economy” in which co-operational work relations, effective protection against redundancy, and rigorous vocational training are the norm.

“Solid vocational training creates qualified workers who need little guidance or control. And because highly qualified employees take on challenging tasks, their level of motivation is higher,” the report notes.

The report further argues that strong legal protections of worker’s rights in Germany tie employees to companies for longer, meaning that they gain more knowledge specific to the firm and are then able to take over leadership positions.

“There is also the positive influence of employee organizations. Participation strengthens trust between management and the workforce, meaning there is less need for control.”

At the same time, the report blames the US’s “liberal market economy” for leading to close supervision of employees.

It argues that there is little cooperation between employer and employee in the US, that US employees are not protected properly against redundancy, and that investment is made primarily in academic education.

“This means that companies are compelled to predominantly rely upon hierarchy, rules and close control of the workforce.”

READ ALSO: These German cities offer the best work-life balance

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Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

Germany has regulations on working during a heatwave - but does that also apply to people who work remotely? We take a look.

Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

The number of people working from home shot up during the Covid pandemic, and though employees no longer have the right to work remotely by law, many have chosen to stick with more flexible arrangements and set up a home office at least part of the week.

This is great news for people who enjoy a lie-in more than a long commute, but there are some downsides. One major issue is that it’s not always clear how Germany’s strict employee protection rules actually apply in a home setting. The rules for working during a heatwave are a good example of this.

How does Germany regulate working in extreme heat? 

By law in Germany, employers are responsible for creating a safe environment for their workers. This means that they should try and keep the temperature below 26C at all times and are legally obliged to take action if the temperature goes above 30C. 

That could include putting blinds on the windows to prevent the glare of the sun, installing air conditioning systems or purchasing fans. In some cases – such as outdoor manual labour – it could also involve starting and finishing earlier in the day. 

And in really high temperatures, employers may simply decide to call the whole thing off and give their employees a ‘hitzefrei’ day – basically a heat-induced day off – to go and cool down in a lake. However, business owners are generally given free rein to decide how hot is too hot in this instance (except in the case of vulnerable workers). 

READ ALSO: Hitzefrei: Is it ever legally too hot to go to work or school in Germany?

Do the heat rules apply to ‘home office?’

Unfortunately not. In most cases in Germany, the company isn’t directly involved in setting up the workspace for an employee that works from home, aside from possibly providing a laptop or phone for remote use. 

“The occupational health and safety regulations regarding room temperature do not apply in this case,” labour law expert Meike Brecklinghaus told German business publication T3N. “This is because the employer does not have direct access to the employee’s workplace and in this respect cannot take remedial action.”

That means that on hot days, it’s the employee’s own responsibility to make sure the environment is suitable for working in. 

woman works from home in Germany

A woman works in her living room at home. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Naupold

One duty employers do have, however, is to instruct their workers about the best way to set up a healthy work environment at home, for example by giving guidance on how to regulate the temperature. 

“In the end, it is the employee’s responsibility to maintain his or her workplace in a condition in which he or she can perform his or her work without the threat of health impairments,” Brecklinghaus explained.

What can home office workers do in hot weather?

There are plenty of ways to keep flats cooler in the summer months, including purchasing your own fan, keeping curtains or blinds drawn and ventilating the rooms in the evening or early morning when the weather is cooler.

However, if heat is really becoming a problem, it’s a good idea to communicate this to your employer. This is especially important if you have a health condition that makes it more dangerous to work in hot weather. 

In some cases, you might be able to negotiate for the employer to pay for the purchase of a fan or mobile air conditioner as goodwill gesture. If possible, you could also arrange to travel to the office where the temperature should be better regulated.

Another option for early birds or night owls is to arrange more flexible working hours so you can avoid sweltering at your desk in the midday sun, although this of course depends on operational factors. 

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