Illustration by Justin Tran

Work Culture

Haltung, the German answer to happier, healthier virtual work

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Published on November 16, 2020

Illustration by Justin Tran

Last year, German CEO Lasse Rheingans made headlines evangelizing a bold message, one which focus guru Cal Newport said “Yes, Please” to in The New York Times: Shrink the workday to five hours. To Rheingans, the standard eight—fought for by labor activists during the Industrial Revolution as an alternative to grueling shifts that could span 16 hours—was pretty senseless for the kind of work we do now. “In those years, we needed the force and power of man to build things, but we’re not made for that,” he says. “Our brains and bodies need rest.” 

His bet was that five hours would feel especially human. “After five hours of work, you always need a break,” Lasse explains. “You need food so you go for lunch and after lunch—I don't know about you, but then I need a break for an hour.” So he began asking the 16 employees at his Digital Enabler tech consulting firm to start their day around 8 and break at about 1. 

Like most attempts at utopia, some rules supported togetherness. Phones were stashed away, social media was blocked, and small talk was discouraged from meetings, which were 15 minutes or less when possible. It’s not that socializing was verboten so much as tabled for social events, like well attended Friday lunches. These habits supported longer stretches of deep focus. And while stragglers routinely lingered past 1PM, they did so in clear view of a digital clock that had completed the day’s countdown to Feierabend, closing time—a sensible hour when the sun wasn’t only still in the sky, but at peak glow. 

The policy began as an experiment but became permanent, because as his team began working less, they reported being happier. And their quality of work coasted upward, hitched to their moods. They didn’t get less done either. The same workloads carried over to their five-hour paradigm.

Of course, 2020 has disrupted their ecosystem a bit. It’s hard to promote norms like not small-talking during the first five-hours of the day when you’re working across 16 physical places, each with their own challenges, demands, and sizes of cohabitants. Meetings can remain slim, but when a kid cuts their finger making a Nutella sandwich, team members necessarily divert their attention. He knows these disruptions can extend the overall time spent accomplishing tasks. “I have the feeling most my colleagues are working more than five hours,” says Lasse. 

That doesn’t mean he’s thrown out the idea of a five-hour workday though. He’s embracing it in spirit, if not always in practice, with a principle he thinks is foundational to workplace happiness. Of course, like most things there’s a German word for it: Haltung

More than a feeling

It would be wonderful to say Haltung simply translates as attitude, which Google suggests to Lasse. “No,” he says, pausing in thought. “That is not it.” The full meaning amounts to something much deeper, more core. 

Mindset, as other translations go, is closer in a literal sense because your Haltung frames how you think. It also happens to be the German word for posture, a double entendre German playwright Bertolt Brecht embraced to describe a character’s mental state and physical embodiment in relation to circumstance. After a touching revelation, one that fundamentally changes a character, an actor may reflect that shift to their Haltung by softening their shoulders, smile, and tone along with their behavior. They see the whole world in a new way, and the audience can tell. 

This frame of mind is an incredibly personal compass in life. While two people may share beliefs, their Haltung would be made up of a singular set of experiences, perspectives, and values. When someone discovers their love of animals is greater than the pleasure of bacon and turns vegetarian or trades a corporate job to open a dance studio because ballet brings them boundless joy—how they got there, the intimate calculus that led them to align their interior and exterior lives, that’s Haltung in action.    

In Social Pedagogy, a humanistic approach to education and caretaking, Haltung is central, because one’s worldview influences behavior and, by extension, the lived experience of those receiving care. To cite a striking example, take Janusz Korczak, a Polish pedagogue and children’s rights activist who ran an orphanage in Warsaw during WWII. When Korczak was informed all roughly 200 orphans would be taken to Treblinka extermination camp, he not only refused to let them go alone. After the Nazis arrived, he walked with the kids, hand-in-hand, onto the trains and into the chambers. His Haltung determined that the thing of highest level importance was those children feeling hope when they most needed it, so he did what he could to realize that.

Few people have ever lived out such radical purpose professionally, but maybe you’ve been fortunate enough to have studied under a teacher who was deeply connected to their work and students. Whether they were motivated by a genuine love of people, a desire to positively influence society, or just wanted to pay forward the good karma they’d received in their own studies, that authenticity and dedication to their work probably permeated everything. If you haven’t been so lucky, you’ve certainly experienced the opposite—a teacher whose heart just wasn’t in it. Maybe that disposition was expressed outright or through coded means, but your work probably suffered as a result. This reflects another important element of Haltung: the people around you feel it and respond in kind. 

The same goes for bosses in their relationships with employees. As Lasse explains Haltung: “It’s in how you look at people. Do you approach people as a boss? Do they need to be screamed at and punished to deliver output? Or do you come at them as a servant type leader, who sees people who really want to do good?” 

There are plenty of companies who get solid business results from of both those approaches, but relentless punishment comes at a pretty steep cost: the happiness of your work community. 

"It’s in how you look at your team. Do they need to be punished to deliver output? Or do you see people who really do want to do good?"

What Haltung looks like at work

Every decision a leader makes is in some way an expression of what they value, and, as conventional wisdom goes at least, there’s nothing more financially valuable than time. Many humans feel this way too—that their own unknown lot of the stuff is their most prized possession. This is precisely why it was so radical when Lasse decided to give roughly 60 hours a month back to employees with the implementation of a five-hour workday. What it said in short is his Haltung: I see you all as humans, and I see you all as adults. 

Operating this way provided a real leg up for Lasse’s team when the pandemic hit. A lot has been said about how “prepared” teams were in March, and preparation is often shorthand for the suite of IT solutions a company entered mayhem with. Had a team ever run a Zoom or downloaded Slack or developed sound workflows for sharing files? But what about how prepared teams were as a network of individuals? Had they developed social behaviors that prioritized autonomy, mutual respect, and focus? 

During the growing pains of learning how to do “eight hours” of work in five, Lasse’s team figured out personal strategies and disciplines. "I often talk with them about being in the moment and checking: What am I doing now? Am I reading the newspaper? Am I on Facebook again? Damn.” he says. By promoting this type of mindfulness, he encourages “a constant reflection on where time is spent.” On an individual level, this helped folks sort out what could be excised from their eight-hour routines. And while Lasse generally believes maintaining focus is the responsibility of workers, he recognizes there are barriers outside of their control, too.

To account for this, they created policies together that fit their needs. For instance, employees check e-mail twice a day. This shift helped cut down on endless threads that should be quick meetings and reduced dependency on a time-consuming form of communication. In fact, a recent Economist survey sponsored by Dropbox found that 70% of workers check e-mail at least once an hour. 18% check it every few minutes. This decision weakened an incredibly powerful antagonist of deep focus. 

Not being expected to constantly monitor an inbox also normalized the idea that people weren’t always available. As such, meetings can’t be scheduled on the same day—only the next day, at the soonest. As Lasse says like a German maxim, “To be efficient, every morning you must structure your day.” That wisdom is impossible to heed when your immediate hours are available for others to seize. This policy helps support another value that has always been bedrock to his operation: Workers should be in charge of their time. 

The future of virtual work (according to one German)

When the pandemic hit, Lasse met with the team and learned that five hours of work a day, while their golden standard, wasn’t always feasible. To design around their needs, he implemented a maximally flexible policy that allowed employees to set their own hours, often in shifts throughout the day that are visible to teammates. He acknowledges not sharing a common schedule can be annoying, but the payoff, another reflection of his own Haltung, is that his employees feel autonomous. “I shouldn’t have to tell them what to do and when,” he says. “I’m not their dad!” He has kids of his own for that, ones he enjoys playing with whenever he decides. He likes it that way.

Not being expected to constantly monitor e-mail normalized the idea that people aren't always available.

Lasse believes this is the future of work: a shift of power from the company to the individual and also from behemoths to small business. He believes small businesses can have an important edge: a Haltung that favors flexibility and human needs. “Why would top talent want to work for these old school places with management that take a command-and-control type of approach if they can just design their own schedule somewhere else?” he asks. 

Cut loose from the obligatory 9-5, one can decide when to walk their schnauzer, scrub the kitchen floor, or perhaps a bunch of other things that are important not because they’re dutiful but because they feed the soul: learning to play the banjo or completing Octavia Butler’s ouevre. In other words, the individual curiosities that are usually the first to go. “It’s important to me that my team has time for self-development, hobbies, and lifelong learning—for the mysterious,” he says. “It makes them happier and healthier. And that benefits the company, too.” 

Straighten out your posture

Lasse’s work model is not without tension. Like a lot of places, some people work more, some people work less. And sometimes people get promoted who spend more time working than others. Long hours, of course, aren’t regarded as reflecting quality, but still, it happens. It’s a balance. When these frictions arise, he encourages them to talk about it openly, so they can figure out how to preserve their culture, another benefit of being a small company. “Ultimately, I want to encourage being mindful of the time we put into work.” 

He knows their model is not for everyone, and, occasionally, Lasse has an employee who works way too much. He’s not anti-hard work in the least, and longer than usual hours happen when you’re an agency that has to meet the need of clients, particularly during a pandemic. But when working long hours starts to become a pattern, he talks with them. “I try and figure out what complex, what thoughts drive them.” In a way, he shakes them awake to their own Haltung. 

We can all use a little nudge to examine, maybe for the first time, whatever compass guides our behavior and decisions. You may find your current work-life equation leaves you feeling fulfilled or that you need to open up more time for the people you care about, which is great data for reorganizing your days. Meaningful life is a pretty constant calculation: time plus what equals the happiest version of me. And has there ever been a better year to keep up on that math—a year more appropriate for questioning why our lives are the way they are and imagining how they could be?