Photo Gallery: The Stay-at-Home Dads

Foto: Tim Wegner/ Laif/ DER SPIEGEL

Corporate Wake-Up Call German Dads Demand Family Time

Family friendly policies in German business have been targeted at women in the past, but the tables are turning. Men are demanding more flexible working conditions in order to balance work and family burdens, forcing big changes in corporate culture.

Even just a couple years ago, Gerd Göbel likely would have come across as unreasonable to most human resources directors. It's very possible he would have surprised his colleagues as well. Göbel has a successful career at Germany's second largest bank, Commerzbank, where he heads his own team for portfolio and asset management. He also works part time, because he has a young daughter.

When his daughter was born a little under three years ago, the 47-year-old reduced his work hours, initially working 40 percent, then 60 percent and more recently 80 percent. In his division of 80 employees, the banker was the first father to take parental leave and the first to give up a full-time position. "At the time, I certainly asked myself whether it was even possible to work part time in a leadership position," says Göbel, who heads a team of five. But his experiment has proven successful, and he continues to spend one workday a week at home, although he remains reachable by BlackBerry even on those days.

Göbel is an exception -- at least for now.

The fact is that he is one of many fathers who are no longer satisfied working all week, only to see their children on weekends. He's one of many men who want, despite their dedication to their careers, to be a part of their children's daily life as well -- and who have at their side self-confident, professionally successful women who take it as a matter of course that both parents will participate in raising and caring for their children.

A Cultural Shift in Germany

When Jörg Asmussen stepped down from a top-level job as a member of the executive board of the European Central Bank (ECB) in mid-December, he cited "family" and his "two very young children" as the reasons for his decision. Family considerations are also said to be the deciding factor in the surprising end to the political career of Roland Pofalla, for years one of the most influential men at the side of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Slowly but surely, it seems, a cultural shift is taking place in Germany. For decades, a family photo on the office desk was the full extent of a man's expression of family friendliness in the work place. Men who made a point of taking care of their children may not have been denigrated as wimps, exactly, but they were certainly seen as strange creatures, acting in opposition to the traditional male role of the hard-working, career-oriented breadwinner.

But those days seem to be over. According to one study, 91 percent of fathers say they want to spend time with their families during the workweek as well. And after then-Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) introduced the idea of "partner months" to Germany's parental leave, or Elternzeit, policy in 2007, allowing new parents to take a total of 14, rather than 12, months of paid parental leave if that leave is split between both parents, the proportion of fathers taking time away from the office rose to a record high of 27 percent. In certain professions, fathers now find themselves having to justify themselves to their colleagues if they don't stay home for at least two months after their children are born.

Pressure to Change Grows

In Germany as a whole, men still make up slightly less than 20 percent of all part-time employees, but that number is rising fast. The proportion of men working part time has more than doubled over the past 10 years, while the number of women doing so has risen by around 30 percent. And the recently finalized coalition contract for Germany's new government contains, for the first time in the country's history, a passage addressing the role of "active fathers" and a call for "better conditions to allow fathers and mothers to share family and professional duties fairly."

Employers, too, are having to grit their teeth and accept this new reality -- and this after they had only just adjusted to the concept of better meeting the needs of their female employees. Now, suddenly it is the male employees who are asking their HR departments to allow new work hour models, and the men who are taking months of leave, blocking off entire afternoons in their work calendars because they have to pick the kids up from preschool or missing important meetings because of school events. "This makes men just as unpredictable for companies as women -- and that's a good thing," says Volker Baisch, a consultant who advises businesses on becoming more father-friendly.

The pressure to change is growing, with companies already struggling to find and retain good workers. It's no longer enough to simply offer employees a spot in the company preschool. Surveys of fathers show that the ability to make career and private life compatible increases work motivation and loyalty to an employer enormously. Personnel managers, too, now freely admit that being actively involved in raising their children can also be beneficial to a man's professional advancement, since working fathers often bring good social skills, as well as organizational talent and high work efficiency, to their work.

Men Find Greater Fault with Family Policies

Still, 85 percent of all men find fault with companies' family friendly measures being primarily directed at their female colleagues. And men rank their companies far worse in terms of family friendliness than women do, reveals a study by A.T. Kearney, to be published this month. "Companies need to take action. We urgently need new models, and in some areas we need to rethink work entirely," says Martin Sonnenschein, the consultancy's director for Central Europe.

German engineering and electronics giant Robert Bosch GmbH demonstrates one way this might play out. Under the rubric "flexible work models," the company offers its employees not only "flexitime" and part-time models, but also expressly encourages them to work from other locations. Executives are even allowed to organize their working hours as they choose, as long as they are producing results. Internal networks such as papas@bosch help with the exchange of information, and a pilot project has an initial group of 100 executives working from home or employed part time.

Bosch isn't the only major corporation trying in this way to make it easier for employees to combine career and family. German insurer ERGO, for example, offers its managers seminars on "family conscious leadership," sensitizing them to their subordinates' needs. The company has also launched a "part-time leadership" project and allows fathers to partially or entirely convert vacation pay or Christmas bonuses into additional vacation days, making it possible for employees to take up to 42 additional vacation days per year without it resulting in a cut to their monthly salary.

These are some astonishing changes taking place, and in Germany, of all places, a country not previously known for being at the vanguard of progressive corporate culture. "The German working environment is still very male oriented," says Stefan Reuyss at the Institute for Socio-Scientific Transfer, in Berlin. Performance is still measured by attendance, he says, with a culture that emphasizes physical presence rather than results. But, he says, young employees especially "are questioning this more and more often and calling for different models." And they're sharing ideas with one another, for example through a countrywide network for working fathers with families established a couple years ago.

Executives Tap Into Trend

Almost anything seems possible these days, even in management positions. Lutz Cauers, 49, is a good example. Cauers is the head of internal auditing at Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national railway company. He's responsible for over 100 employees and reports directly to the company's CEO. Cauers has his office in Berlin and a second one in Frankfurt. He is also responsible for three more locations in Germany and four in Europe, Asia and the United States. But he centers his life on Nuremberg, home to his wife and their three sons, the youngest of whom is just a few weeks old.

He's currently setting up an office at an affiliated company in Nuremberg and spends at least one weekday evening a week with his family. He often takes an early morning flight to Berlin or train to Frankfurt, and in a pinch, he takes the children with him to the office. "My wife owns a mid-sized business, so it was simply clear that she wouldn't be able to do all the homemaking alone," Cauers says. "And I wouldn't want that, either. I want to see my children grow up."

Cauers takes it as a given that his kids' parent-teacher conferences or soccer games need to be planned into his days just as much as important business appointments do. If necessary, he delegates tasks to the managers who work for him or works late into the evening himself. "But all that is only possible because my employer is onboard with it, rather than just paying lip service that isn't worth anything when it really comes down to it," he says.

A Growing Awareness of Fathers' Demands

More and more men are thinking the way Cauers does, and corporations are reacting in kind. Take the example of Lufthansa, which for years has offered its 70,000 employees across Germany part-time working models of all kinds. But here, too, it's becoming clear that this is no longer enough.

Bettina Volkens is the Lufthansa Group's head of human resources, and also mother of two children. "Inflexible models don't work," she says, explaining that a company needs to involve its employees directly. Her goal is to make Lufthansa's company culture more open to individual and flexible working models. One part of that is a pilot project called "New Work Space," in which 80 human resources employees share 50 workstations. Even the executives sit at a different desk each day. "Employees are allowed to work from home sometimes -- in fact, it's encouraged," Volkens says.

This sort of model only works when employees actually try it out, so Volkens' goal is to "encourage more men to take parental leave and to work part time," something she says is in her company's interest as well. "Taking on an active role as a father often fosters social and emotional skills that are also important qualities in a professional context and for us as a company."

Still, implementing such goals does come up against certain limits in the day-to-day realities on the job. "Personally, I'm happy for every one of my colleagues who looks after his children or takes parental leave, and I believe it's right that they do so," says one manager. "But as a boss, of course my first thought is, Oh, God, this means I'm going to have to do the tough work of making sure we keep running."

New Opportunities

This can quickly become a problem in small to medium-sized businesses in particular. "If one or two specialists in a business performing a specific trade is gone for several months, of course it's a catastrophe," says Baisch, the consultant. But, he says, there is definitely an awareness of these new demands. "Many owners of mid-sized businesses haven't yet figured out how to react to the requirements of this new generation of fathers," he says, but here, too, the first companies are starting to experiment with flexible working hours, models that allow employees to keep a running "account" of hours worked, parent-child offices or external childcare.

This keeps employees happy, but it has another positive effect for a business as well. When specific positions need to be filled for a limited period of time, it provides an opportunity for other colleagues to step into new roles, at least temporarily. This is particularly true for managerial duties, as Marcus Chromik, 41, knows well. Chromik is head of the credit risk management group at Commerzbank. He took parental leave after the birth of his son, now almost two years old, so as a boss he lends his full support to his employees who want to do the same. "For a company, that's always an opportunity to try out up-and-coming younger employees in leadership roles for a set time period, and test their abilities," he says.

Chromik says he enjoyed his time away on parental leave, and that the distance allowed him to clear his head and consider various things more strategically. And that was the case even though he wasn't entirely out of contact with his employer during that time. Once a day, he would switch on his BlackBerry, and his private telephone number was on file for emergencies. He talked a few times with the employee filling in for him.

"Ultimately, it's a give and take," Chromik says. Still, he believes that when a company is willing to accommodate its employees, those workers are also more willing to jump in when exceptional circumstances arise. "If the euro crisis had worsened dramatically during that time," he says, "of course I would have gone in to the bank immediately."

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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