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Dancing with coworkers at a Lunch Beat party
Dancing with coworkers at a Lunch Beat party
Bob Geisler

HAMBURG — When Kathrin Fiesel talks about lunch breaks at her company, people can't believe it: "You do what? You go dancing!?"

Her employer, the e-commerce giant Otto, in Hamburg's Bramfeld district, has for several months now been trying out alternatives to the classic visit to the canteen. One of the things they’ve come up with is "Lunch Beat," an activity that is held at regular intervals and involves as many as 200 workers dancing away to songs like "Happy" by Pharrell Williams or "Monsta" by Culcha Candela.

"We went to a converted, darkened factory floor; there were finger foods, a DJ, and disco lighting," Fiesel says of her most recent visit to the company club. "Everybody was dancing. It was really cool because you got to know a whole other side of the people you work with."

Lunch Beat is just one of the events that take place in what is known as Loft 06 on the Otto grounds. Sometimes a speaker from the Modern Life School philosophizes about art, or poetry slammers read their works. The lunch breaks have also given staffers opportunities to try out innovations such as data glasses, 3-D printers and drones. Next on the agenda is a series of short films and readings by actors from the Thalia Theater.

"What we want to do is design the breaks differently so that they contribute positive energy to the working climate," says Otto's human resources director, Sabine Josch, who is responsible for about 5,000 workers in Hamburg. The idea is for staffers to take away new stimuli from the monthly events that also impact their lives outside the company.

Feel-good management

Otto is not the only company now providing alternatives to the cafeteria. Workers at Unilever meet over lunch to jog from HafenCity to the Planten un Blomen park. The firm also houses a complete fitness center that offers activities such as Qigong, Pilates and indoor cycling, and features a massage chair — a staff favorite — where employees can opt for either talk-led deep relaxation or a back massage with music.

Nivea maker Beiersdorf, also based in Hamburg, has a health management program called "Good for me" that offers weekly courses over lunch ranging from classic back pain prevention, yoga and autogenic training to mindfulness exercises, massage with a spikey ball and mental dream and fantasy exercises.

One Hamburg software developer even has a "feel-good manager" who, among other things, pushed for workers working on demanding programming projects to be able to do some power napping in company sleeping nooks.

Companies going to the trouble of organizing these activities aren't doing so only for the sake of employees: They also want to increase productivity. Doctors have long recognized that tuning out and doing other things during a break is regenerative as long as what’s on offer doesn’t put undue pressure on people or time them out too much.

Otto employee Kathrin Fiesel, for one, is convinced the strategy works. "For an hour you’re in another world and your head clears," she says of the Lunch Beat program. "Afterwards, colleagues and I were very upbeat when we returned to our work places."

Laid-back corporate culture

Lunch Beat is also a way for the Hamburg e-commerce company to liven up its image. For that same reason, Otto came up with a redesign for its latest company report, which now looks like a travel diary with handwritten notes as opposed to a place where data goes to die. The company also changed its hiring procedures. Job applications can now be submitted by smartphone, by annexing a XING profile. And for several months the group has been informing the general public by blog about internal developments and trends in their sector.

"Organizing lunch breaks differently is part of a different, innovative and more laid-back corporate culture at Otto," says human resources director Sabine Josch.

The change also aims to make the company interesting to the many IT and e-commerce experts that Otto urgently needs to complete its transformation from classic mail order company to online seller. In this the company is competing with Internet companies such as Google, with its foam rubber stress balls in offices and conference rooms, or with ambitious online game makers such as Goodgame Studios in Bahrenfeld, which uses its open-air pool and after-work beer policy to help lure the hundreds of new workers it hires every year.

"In the tough competition for the best people we obviously want to present ourselves as attractive employers," says Josch. "The most important thing is that we have exciting projects and jobs to offer through which staffers can make things happen. Additional options like Lunch Beat can possibly help with recruiting. But nobody is going to come work for us just because he or she can dance during their lunch break."

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