Office

Ten minutes for an email: how German firms are organising offices like factories

Text: Johannes Böhme
Illustrations: Joni Majer

Lots of things can go wrong in an office. Vases can tip over, glasses of water spill and telephones fall off desks. It’s all happened. Better safe than sorry, thought Pentair, a UK-based industrial group that produces cases for telephone exchanges in Germany. Coloured markings were painted on desks, showing where the phone, the screen and the computer should be. All nice and standardised. Now, anyone who puts their phone in the wrong place is reprimanded by the boss. And that’s not all. An office administrator at Pentair describes their morning ritual:

“We assemble around a whiteboard and have to report whether anyone has had an accident at work – whether they got their thumb caught in a drawer, a papercut on their finger or stumbled over their office chair. It’s like on a factory floor. And there’s an even stricter version, where we report any near misses – things that could have led to an accident at work. And this is in an office. I mean: what could possibly happen here?”

Yet there is a method to this madness. In recent years, office work has changed radically, especially in large companies in Germany. Sometimes for the better, but more and more often for the worse. Having interviewed 190 employees, the Munich sociologist Andreas Boes has concluded that we are seeing the “industrialisation of mental work”. Offices are becoming more and more like working in a factory: small, standardised steps are carried out under time pressure on computers, like a digital assembly line, and monitored by software. This also involves standardising office spaces themselves, to avoid unnecessary toing and froing, and keeping them as spotless as the factory floors of big carmakers.

Employees in the service sector with a high degree of control over their working hours, who often feel under pressure: 52%

Employees in the service sector with little or no control over their working hours, who often feel under pressure: 65%

Most people interviewed for this article reported that their jobs were becoming more and more breathless, no matter whether they were office clerks, engineers or programmers. All asked to remain anonymous.

This transformation is known by different names, such as “lean management” or “agile working”. It is always about making offices faster and more efficient: a promise made by most major German companies these days, from carmakers through to banks and insurance companies.

“Lean offices” have arrived in Germany, with the aim of dispensing with 20-30% of all  activities simply by re-organising office work. This is certainly what the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation in Stuttgart believes. Its researchers argue that all unnecessary procedures should be eliminated: if it does not add value for the customer, it should go. To determine what is dispensable, they carry out a form of analysis known as value-stream mapping, establishing what every employee is actually doing in their office all day.

Until recently, office work was a hazy affair – no one quite knew what employees were doing at their computers. For years, it was a place of relative freedom, especially compared with the meticulously timed work in a factory. And it was based on mutual trust. That is now over. “The manufacturing process has been so thoroughly rationalised that no further gains can be made there. So companies are turning to the office. A lot more people work in offices now, too,” says Bettina Seibold, from the IMU Institute in Stuttgart, who is examining this issue.

 

This means that many offices are now trying to determine how much time is spent every day on emails, on meetings, filling out order forms and everything else that needs doing. And afterwards they try to standardise the time requirements: 10 minutes on average for an email, 30 minutes for an invoice form, and half a day to fix a software error. Ideally, the employees themselves are supposed to say where they see time being wasted. They are supposed to compare notes and work more independently. At least, that is the idea of going lean. When it comes to the actual implementation, things often look different. “Many companies scarcely involve their employees at all. For them, going lean is primarily a way of squeezing more out of their staff,” says Seibold.

The companies that take this the furthest completely restructure the way work is done in their offices, cutting out unnecessary steps and reorganising what is left. This leads to niche specialisations: people who spend all day entering travel expense reports or who only write invoices: monotony in the service of efficiency.

There is demand for transparency. Every day, the staff meet in front of a board on which their tasks are recorded in different colours. Each person has to briefly report on how things are looking for them, and this is marked up in red or green. Red means deadlines are not being met, costs are being exceeded and problems are not being solved. Green means everything is going smoothly.

“If we don’t meet our targets, the project switches to red,” said an engineer at Mahle, a German automotive parts supplier. “That is, of course, visible for everyone. You can tell from the other side of the hallway how a department is faring, depending on how much red and how much green there is. And that is used to exert pressure, because there is no other way of saving money. So they adjust the performance parameters that we have to fulfil. Nobody says: ‘Fine, I’ll give you a few extra hours’.”

Such streamlining may be more efficient but it can be dispiriting. An office clerk at Siemens said: “Many people here are only in charge of a small sector now. Suddenly, you need to know a lot less. It becomes easier, but at the same time it is demotivating. Most people would find it more exciting to be responsible for more steps in the process.”

And, to some workers, the missionary zeal with which such management concepts are applied can be profoundly alienating. “All this rhetoric about the lean office comes across as being very religious: ‘We avoid waste!’, ‘We create standards!’, ‘We are customer-benefit oriented!’, ‘We don’t make the same mistake twice!’, ‘Zero mistakes!’,” said an employee in the development department at ZF Friedrichshafen, a German car parts manufacturer. “The Five Principles of the Production System, which everyone is supposed to hang up over their desk – it’s a bit like hanging the Ten Commandments over your bed.”

The “lean” approach began in Toyota car factories in the 1980s as a way of improving quality. But the Japanese manufacturer had a framework that cushioned the increased pressure on staff. The work was hard, but you were rewarded for it: production-line workers were guaranteed not to lose their jobs. In other words, their proposals for improvement were not used to make them redundant. There was a culture of thanking people for making mistakes – as a means of preventing them in the future. Workers could be relatively sure of promotion, with most eventually able to leave the factory shop floor for a junior managerial position.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied the Toyota model in the late 1980s and conceived the “lean management” model. Ulrich Jürgens, a professor at the Berlin Social Science Centre (WZB), took part in the MIT project. “The whole business was only made bearable by the context: the lifelong guarantee of a job, the opportunities for promotion,” he points out. “Employees were encouraged to view and comprehend the system as a whole. They were supposed to think in terms of alternatives.

“On the other hand, if the procedures within a company become a black box, in which you are simply faced with some data that you are no longer able to follow, then this is not going to work. That is a very fragile way of organising work. There’s a lot you can get wrong.” That is what is happening now among office clerks, and to some extent also in information technology and product-development departments.

There is a sense of employees becoming estranged from their jobs. An office clerk at Siemens said: “In our case, the entire administration has been affected. The personnel department, procurement, accounts. Steps are being eliminated, the work is becoming more fragmented and you lose sight of the bigger picture. That also affects pay, because the simpler the job, the less you get paid to do it.

“In our company, writing references has been centralised. In the old days, it was done by the local personnel department. Now we have people who do nothing else but write references all day long. First, the management executives enter a couple of details online, describing what the employee was like. And then the text modules are cobbled together. And they don’t even know the people.”

 

A programmer at the software firm SAP spoke of feeling infantilised by such a reductive reorganisation. “Five years ago, we programmers were still comparatively independent. Nowadays our work is divided up into small features, which you can get done relatively quickly. We have these meetings, where we have to get together once in the morning and report what we did the day before. It’s like sitting in a circle at nursery school, only for grown-ups.

“When I was given a complex task and then left to deal with it on my own, that was in a sense a sign of trust. Now this network of monitoring has been spread out over us. You work your way through these small tasks in a day or two and then you get the next. And so on and so on.”

What is happening in German offices is not new. In the 1920s, offices were also restructured along the lines of “Taylorist” factories, which had been organised on the eponymous American engineer’s principles of “scientific management”. Tasks were divided up into small steps; some employees just opened letters all day, others typed, others filed records or delivered documents from one section to another. Standardisation allowed managers to measure and compare employees’ performance.

Offices became open plan, making monitoring of staff easier. Unlike today, work was done in silence – conversations were wasteful. The work was stressful, monotonous and alienating. A young insurance clerk called Franz Kafka supposedly said: “The chains of a tormented mankind are made of red tape.”

Things changed fundamentally after the second world war, when companies tried to recruit office workers, who might otherwise have taken a well-paid job in factories, by offering a pleasant working environment. Employers came to realise that people tired more easily if they spent the whole day on repetitive jobs, made mistakes if they were constantly under pressure to perform and did not work as well if they were lonely and unhappy. Breaks were introduced and work was made more varied; conversations and collegiality were encouraged. Offices were now furnished differently, plants were brought in and individual offices or dividing walls were reintroduced. This new regime proved a boon to both sides: everyday office work became more agreeable for employees and their productivity increased, not despite but because of such concessions.

These accomplishments are now in jeopardy, particularly for those office workers in mid-level administration, often with commercial training rather than a university degree. Most of them are women. They face a real danger that their jobs could be taken over entirely by computer programs over the next 10 years.

 

Those threatened by such change are understandably fearful. An office clerk at Pentair said: “At the moment, I do very different things: I am in touch with our suppliers and I’m involved in technical developments. I do not simply record the orders.

“But the plan now is to break up these tasks and distribute them among different individuals, so I’ll only be left with simply recording orders. I’m really scared of that. I actually enjoy my job; I enjoy challenges. If I’m going to spend all day just entering item numbers into the IT system, and end up simply pressing a button so an order can be generated, it’s no longer the same.”

The unease created by management’s attempts to increase efficiency can become internalised by individuals, corroding their sense of self-worth and dividing the workforce. One employee in the development department at a large German company said: “With every new wave they are saying: ‘20 to 30% better!’ And each time, people get the feeling that their own contribution is to put in harder and less pleasant work. But they accept that. People here tend to relate this to themselves: ‘Oh dear, I’m not good enough. So I have to make more of an effort. After all, I only need to be better than the person sitting next to me.’ There is no solidarity with others who are facing the same problems.”

Essentially, the “lean” wave is a form of neo-Taylorism in the office. At least in those cases where the employees themselves are scarcely included, where they are prevented from working independently, where they spend entire days doing the same small tasks and where their bosses keep calling for higher productivity and better performance parameters.

Yet things could easily be different. Sabine Pfeiffer, a professor of sociology at Hohenheim University in Stuttgart, accuses many companies of lacking imagination – and a lack of faith in their employees’ skills. “There is a general contradiction here: If I really want to be innovative, that conflicts with the requirement of being as fast and inexpensive as possible. Even the best methodology cannot resolve this. The two things simply don’t go together. The question is, in which direction do I resolve the contradiction? Shall I trust my employees’ assessment that certain things cannot be done? Or do I just put on more pressure?

“As things stand at the moment, employees immediately lose their autonomy again as soon as things become critical. The management often knows perfectly well that this is an unhealthy development, but they have no imagination when it comes to doing things differently.”

Siemens and SAP both say they are trying to create precisely that sort of framework. A spokesman for Siemens argued that the claims made by the employees “do not reflect a trend at Siemens. The trend is in fact in the opposite direction: training employees and giving them more opportunities to get involved”. SAP said that solutions involving agile methods may not always be ideal but that the advantages outweighed the drawbacks; they led to better products that were more closely aligned to customers’ needs. And, the company claimed, many employees were perfectly willing to accept more work, because in return for this their teams enjoyed greater responsibility and autonomy.

Andreas Boes, whose study on the digital working world for the Hans Böckler Foundation led to the gloomy results cited earlier, makes one qualification: “Whenever companies rely on their teams to make their own decisions, the positive potential of this concept is indeed realised. In such cases, the employees always find the larger scope for decision-making and the greater individual responsibility to be a positive thing. And in those cases, work quite simply becomes more enjoyable.”