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Working in Cologne
Working in Cologne
Angelika Slavik

MUNICH In an effort to loosen up, the Otto group, a mail-order company based in Hamburg, Germany, has taken the bold step of doing the "du."

In German, "du" is the informal version of "you" — something to be used among friends, but a no-no when it comes to formal work environments, especially when addressing the boss. A few months ago, however, Otto Group's chief executive officer, Hans-Otto Schrader, decided to dispense with such formalities and invite all of his many employees to address him on a first-name basis. Now, anyone who crosses paths with the big boss can shout: "Hansi, hold on. I have a question for you" — as in "du!"

Schrader says he quickly got used to people using his first name. But Karl-Heinz Grussendorf, head of the employee representative committee, says his people are still "a little confused at times" and that some employees "aren't enamored with this new concept."

The changes at Otto Group reflect a larger trend in Germany, where the success and increasing influence of digital industry start-ups have fundamentally altered expectations of workplace behavior. The more often Germans read about swings, indoor slides and relaxation lounges at Google offices, the more they feel that having to wear a suit, having a receptionist announcing one's arrival at the boss' office, and having an office to oneself are simply obsolete.

There is also a new generation of young employees who don't much care for traditional perceptions of power and office etiquette. And so to win these people over, many companies with rather traditional values are trying to adopt a more relaxed image — doing the "du" is part of that.

The problem, though, is that not everyone feels comfortable with these shifts. Tanja Baum is a management consultant. Her company, Agency of Friendliness, serves large companies such as Daimler or Deutsche Post (German Postal Service). "The question of whether to adopt the informal you has been a recurring topic in our most recent assignments," she says.

There's also an argument to be made that adopting an informal style can actually harm a company — because of the confusion it creates. A "du" environment might work well in a small company, where everyone's on board with the idea, Baum explains. But it can be tricky in medium-sized and large companies, which tend to have a more heterogeneous employee base.

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