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No bosses, unlimited holidays, same pay for less work: The Berlin start-ups putting workers first

New Work start-ups in Berlin are rethinking capitalism to put workers first over profits.
New Work start-ups in Berlin are rethinking capitalism to put workers first over profits. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By James Jackson
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Berlin is one of Europe's hottest start-up hubs. But companies setting up there are doing things differently and it starts with where the power lies.

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Unlimited holidays, no bosses, democratic salaries, and the same wages for less work. That’s the pitch vegan condom company Einhorn makes to potential co-workers.

Einhorn is a pioneer of what is known in Germany as "New Work": a re-imagining of the often hierarchical structures of the business world to make things more humane for workers.

The concept is based on individuals taking responsibility for doing their jobs themselves; job descriptions aren’t written in stone, and neither are working conditions.

When Markus Wörner started at Einhorn, which is German for Unicorn, he joined as "Head of Orgasmic Marketing," an important position at a company that marks itself out from its giant competitors like Durex through colourful branding based on crisp packets as well as championing a more ethical and sustainable product.

But having previously worked at a company where he had to punch a card to show when he started and finished his shift, Wörner quickly noticed how the flexibility made his life less stressful.

"For example, when I became a dad, I took more holiday days. When people move house as well, they might want to take some extra days off. You don’t have to fill in any form, or ask a boss for permission," he told Euronews Next.

A People's Council

Wörner enjoyed this new way of working - one that puts more trust in co-workers - and he ended up getting involved in the company’s "People-Rat" (rat being the German word for council), which Einhorn describes as a democratic way of dealing with human resources.

When I became a dad, I took more holiday days. When people move house as well, they might want to take some extra days off. You don’t have to fill in any form, or ask a boss for permission.
Markus Wörner
Marketing manager, Einhorn

Having a council like this means decisions are made by the company’s workers through long discussions, more reminiscent of politics than typical business meetings. "We talk a crazy amount. It can be tiring, but it’s part of the whole structure," he explained.

But it gets results.

Last year, the company decided to try something radical - going down to a four-day week for full-time employees. This was initially a six-month test, but the results were so impressive that they decided to make it permanent. How did they do this?

According to Linda Preil, Einhorn's manager of "fairstainability" and another member of the People-Rat, it was by cutting down on meetings.

"Do we really need every meeting? Could we make them 30 minutes instead of an hour? And bi-weekly instead of weekly?" she told Euronews Next.

"New Work" allows workers to be honest with each other about what they want from their work-life balance. But it can also put pressure on workers because they feel like they have a responsibility for the company.

That’s what happened with Cordelia Röders-Arnold, who built up Einhorn’s sustainable period product range, and felt like the work and constant responsibility for the company were getting her down.

She was the second person to take a paid sabbatical from work. At Einhorn, for every year you have worked for the company, you get a month off. So, what did she do?

"I withdrew very much into my private life. Before, I was a rather public person, with appearances on stages about entrepreneurship and new work, on my Instagram account or in interviews like this one," Röders-Arnold said.

"I took care of my one-eyed foster horse a lot, went for long walks with my dachshund, and read books I never had the time for before".

She appreciated the chance to spend more time with friends and family but admits she did also fulfill a few sabbatical clichés.

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"I drove with my husband, dachshund, and electric car all the way to Sicily and paraglided over Mount Etna - which was really great," she said.

Companies driven by purpose rather than profits

The key to why workers like Röders-Arnold are able to do this lies in the structure of the company, which sets this successful start-up against typical understandings of work, profit, and even capitalism itself.

Because most companies are shareholder-owned, any increase in productivity would be met with an increase in profits and dividends to the shareholders.

We have to ask ourselves, 'how do we justify growth? Do we all just want bigger salaries or work on our sustainability goals? How many people do we want to have working here?'
Linda Preil
Manager of "fairstainability", Einhorn

But Einhorn isn’t a normal company: it’s a "purpose enterprise". This means that they are driven by their purpose rather than being driven by the urge to make more money for shareholders, nor do they necessarily want to grow to be as big and profitable as possible.

"We have to ask ourselves, ‘how do we justify growth? Do we all just want bigger salaries or work on our sustainability goals? How many people do we want to have working here?'" Preil said.

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Because there are no bosses to make the decisions, this is usually long-running discussions inside the company; some workers want to focus on selling more sustainable products, while others want to have less pressure and a better work-life balance.

A purpose company cannot be sold by either of the two founders who do not own shares. The company effectively belongs to itself, with a few "stewards," people who are close to the company and make the big decisions.

Another Berlin-based company that follows a similar model to Einhorn is Ecosia, an online search engine that donates profits to plant trees.

"People misunderstand that very often and we have to correct it and say 'no, we give 100 per cent of our profits to solving the climate crisis, and this will be true forever. It’s impossible to take any profits out of the company. It’s impossible to sell the company," founder Christian Kroll told the GreenTechpreneur Podcast.

'The future of business'

Both Einhorn and Ecosia are part of The Purpose Foundation, set up in Germany in 2015. They’re following a tradition that already existed in Germany, with companies like Bosch and lens manufacturer Zeiss all owned by their own foundations rather than by shareholders, as is California-based Internet browser Mozilla.

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Though the founders of The Purpose Foundation had different backgrounds, one of their core motivations was helping companies that had introduced "New Work" structures become lasting by changing the model of who owned these companies.

"They were working with teams who had a 'New Work' concept but then the companies got sold and the new owners didn’t want to follow the 'New Work' structure. So, if the ownership model wasn’t aligned, then you can’t make these structures sustainable. Ownership is where the decisions about value-creation are made," Purpose Foundation researcher Maike Kauffmann told Euronews Next.

Their model is "steward-ownership" where only people close to the day-to-day running of the company get to make decisions, rather than far-off shareholders or family members who inherit ownership.

The Purpose Foundation now works with 100 companies across Europe, Latin America, and the US, with a total value of €250 million.

Outdoor-wear company Patagonia made headlines last September when they announced that "the Earth is our only shareholder" and they would dedicate all of the company’s profits to fighting climate change.

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The Purpose Foundation welcomed this, calling Patagonia a "lighthouse" that could share its radical business model with the world. But according to Ryan Gellert, CEO of Patagonia, “this isn’t woke capitalism, it’s the future of business”.

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