A tour of European work culture

A tour of European work culture

When you think of work culture in different countries, the chances are you have some preconceptions. The thought of Spain might summon visions of midday siestas and relaxed atmospheres. Think of Sweden and it might invoke envious thoughts of three-hour workdays and unrivalled wellbeing. Do the same with Germany and you’ll likely have dreams of a spotless factory, everything efficient, running just like Kraftwerk… sorry clockwork.

Are these stereotypes based in reality or are they just that – stereotypes, outdated misconceptions that are best left to the confines of fiction? Are the Germans really more efficient? Do the Brits actually work harder than the rest of Europe? Is the siesta even real? Come and join us on a tour of Europe’s many working cultures, for not only is it beautiful, but there also might just be a thing or two to learn on the way.

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Having a break in Scandinavia

According to the latest OECD better life report, Denmark has the second best work-life balance in the entire world, closely joined by Norway and Sweden in the top ten. It’s often assumed that this is due to shorter work hours that give employees more time to relax and spend time with friends and family. Looking closer, this isn’t actually the case. Indeed, the notion that the Scandinavians work fewer hours is simply the result of a widely reported social experiment run by the Swedish city of Gothenburg in 2015.

Although the study – trialling a six-week work day for select care nurses – indicated an array of positive outcomes for the subjects, the city deemed it too costly to implement within a “reasonable timeframe”. The reason the idea stuck is most likely due to the progressive, often experimental policies put in place by their respective governments. Only last year the Finnish government announced plans to trial universal basic income with a small group of its citizens, attempting to gather real-world data that such a concept could actually work. While deemed risky by other nations, it’s indicative of the attitudes prevalent in Northern Europe – namely that the onus is on governments to look after workers.

However, to find the real reason for those Scandinavian smiles you need to look beyond the workplace, beyond the generous coffee breaks, and towards the family. After having a child, Swedes are entitled to a huge 480 days (you heard that right) of paid family leave – in addition to 14 bank holidays. The scene is very similar in Denmark too, with parents entitled to 23 weeks of leave and an additional four before the due date.

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Woodworking in Germany

For the Germans, the phrase “sharpening the saw” is one that defines their work culture – the idea that more time needs to be dedicated to the self. After all, it’s better in the long term to take time out to keep a blade sharp than continue cutting with a blunt one. In fact, a growing concern about the “de-Germanification” of working culture has already led to industry leaders such as Volkswagen automatically blocking any emails sent outside of work hours, with others considering following suit.

However, when there’s a task at hand, the Germans tend to focus on it squarely. Expats have reported that the German business language is, to put it politely, direct. Sometimes visitors mistake it for rudeness, although it’s simply a means of avoiding confusion and aligning a task towards its goal. It’s this lack of so-called window dressing that gives the German office culture it’s rather unfair “cold” and “mechanical” reputation. Nevertheless, it does extend to a wider framework of unwritten rules than underpins consideration between all levels of the workforce. Perhaps the most prevalent of these rules is punctuality, which not only makes business sense, but also shows you respect your work and your fellow colleagues.

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Eating out in France

In contrast to the uber-punctual Germans, the French generally have few issues with turning up ten minutes late to meetings. Don’t see this as rude, though. It’s simply reflective of a more relaxed office culture – one where social interaction takes priority. Nowhere is this more evident that the infamous French lunch. Described by some as “a ritual”, a survey found that 43 percent of French workers spent over 45 minutes eating lunch each day, compared to the Brits (10%) and Americans (just 3%). The French are clearly onto something though, coming in at third place for work-life balance.

It’s important to recognise that time spent in the company of a cheese selection (and even glass of wine) isn’t time wasted. Not only does a leisurely lunch help you practise mindfulness, it’s also the first step in building business relationships – allowing people to approach workmates as friends, not merely colleagues. Powerful unions in France mean that any changes to their sacred culture – namely amendments to retirement age and job security – are met with fierce opposition, keeping the work culture at the heart of French life and their saucisson firmly on the table.

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Skipping siestas in Spain

It may come as a shock to many, but the Spanish siesta isn’t as widespread as many foreigners would think. In fact, a recent survey showed that the majority of Spaniards (60%) had never even taken one. In reality, the image of a midday ghost town is actually the byproduct of a post-civil war period, where workers would typically work two jobs to support their families. In the gap between the two (generally 12-2pm), people would take a tactical nap to refresh and recharge. Nowadays, modern jobs in urban centres mean that it’s more practical to work throughout the day, with the siesta mainly being seen as a rural tradition.

Counter to the prevailing image, the Spanish are actually one of the harder working nations in Europe, spending more hours in the office than the British, French, and the Germans. However, a lack of structural organisation and traditional hierarchical structures impede productivity, leading to questions over work efficiency. It should be noted that the Spanish also get less sleep on average than their European counterparts. Perhaps it’s time to return to the comforts of the siesta after all…

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Dreamwork in Eastern Europe

When it comes to working culture, Eastern European nations tend to share many values with their central counterparts, particularly Germany. But the hangover from decades of communist rule leaves a detectable feel beneath the surface. A rather illuminating paper published in 2011 highlighted the key difference between Western and Eastern European work culture, essentially finding that workers in both camps are broadly similar when it comes to most values; specifically politics, religion and primary relations.

The only significant difference was about how individuals view their work in the broader scheme of things, with Eastern Europeans generally being less likely to believe that their actions are having a wider impact on society. It’s not all doom and gloom though! Since working cultures in Eastern Europe tend to be geared towards the collective (rather than individual people making a difference by themselves), it gives workplaces a real sense of togetherness and comradery. If in doubt, just take a look back at the OCED report: no fewer than seven nations from the region jump in front of the United Kingdom.

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A Brighter Britain

Ahhh, home sweet home. Take a moment to step off the plane and put your feet up. But not for too long – here in the UK we have a reputation for taking our work seriously. Indeed, having opted out of the European working time directive, British workers can now routinely work over 48 hours a week. The scene is changing though, and fast! As more research comes out regarding the benefits of wellness and mindfulness for workers, UK companies are some of the first to embrace changes in work practice.

Remote working and flexible hours are just a few examples of worker-friendly policies that have become mainstream recently. Moreover, modern coworking spaces and smart offices are making the life of the typical Brit ever more efficient, giving them the opportunity to spend more time creating innovative solutions to common problems. Alongside excellent business support, it comes as no surprise that the UK has the 3rd most start-ups in the world, trailing only behind the substantially larger nations of India and the USA.

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An international takeaway

So what does the perfect working office look life? Well, there is right or wrong answer here: all cultures have a unique way of approaching their working lives. Whether that’s through embracing individuality or the collective, taking a coffee or taking time to sharpen the saw, all nations bring something different to the international buffet of work. It’s for this very reason that the ideal office is one in which cultures can learn from one another, where collaboration is king.

Coworking spaces at uncommon are a great way to meet and work with friends from all around the world, letting you share ideas and work together on projects you never would have thought possible. So next time you feel like getting some work done, just come on over. There might even be lunch on offer, 45-minute saucisson included.

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Uncommon takes pride in helping businesses thrive. Our workspaces are designed with your wellbeing in mind. Every single detail helps create an environment in which you can feel good about where and how you work. Visit our locations in BoroughHighbury & Islington, and Fulham to experience our unique vision of working life.

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