If there ever was a lapel pin recognizing corporate expats, I would have earned it. You see, I’ve been around the block a few times. My initial move, from East Germany to West Germany, claims the shortest distance of all my expat moves; it was a mere 200 miles. Then I was off to the States and later Scotland, Switzerland, Spain, Jersey, the Isle of Man, and London, England. And boy, are there different working styles and cultures to consider.
There are differences in working styles even within the UK. Let me highlight the most prominent working style differences I have experienced. If you get a job offer in a country away from home, these might come in handy and help save the day.
Israel and Islamic Countries
It’s Sunday-Thursday for Israel and Islamic countries. Friday and Saturday make up the weekend.
The Rest of the World
Monday-Friday is the workweek. Saturday and Sunday, that’s our precious time off. Yay!
Example: If you have a client in the Middle East, it will take but a short time to realize that their weekends start on Fridays. Keep that in mind when calling someone. It’s also a good idea to be aware of prayer times and not interrupt during these periods.
Northern Europe/Central Europe/North America
13:00 means 13:00, especially in Germany. You will be seen as delinquent if you’re not on time for meetings.
Southern Europe/South-Central America/ Northern California/India
4 PM can mean anything between 4 and 4:20. Coming late to a meeting counts as being on time. Insisting on actual punctuality will most likely be nodded at, but ignored.
Why the obsession with punctuality in northern Europe, and not so much in the southern hemisphere?
If you ever traveled to Europe, particularly to northern parts like Germany, Sweden, or Denmark, you will find their public transport system is nearly always on time. People in these countries get upset and call a train or bus LATE when it’s arriving or leaving just a minute after schedule.
Europeans arrive at meetings five minutes before the start. They’re taking minutes seriously. But why is it that the citizenry in some southern parts of Europe, such as Spain and Portugal, are laxer with punctuality?
Because the lives of everyone in the northern hemisphere depend on punctuality. Freezing temperatures in icy-wet winters historically did not afford them the luxury of waiting outdoors for long periods of time, especially when transport was infrequent. Now it’s in their DNA, it seems.
Northern Europe/Central Europe/North America
Getting to the point and opening with agenda item 1 straight out of the box is standard. No small talk during the meeting. It’s seen as time-wasting.
Southern Europe/South-Central America/ California
The attitude here is more laid back. In Central and South America and also in Spain, it is considered rude if the conversation doesn’t include inquiries about the family, the past weekend, the bowling game, etc. Personal first, then move to the professional agenda. Doing otherwise may be seen as rude and not-caring. It’s a great way to build rapport, though.
Example: I have a weekly meeting with a client who is based in Ecuador. One of his colleagues calls in from the States. I am the German expat in Panama, sandwiched in the middle. We often have 5-15 minutes of small talk, sharing weekend photos, chatting about the good ole times until we realize there are 12 points on the agenda we need to get through. It’s always fun, and it builds great rapport, even friendship among colleagues.
#4 Email Response Time
If you don’t get a response to your email after hours from your teammate in France or Spain, it’s because the French and Spanish have a right to disconnect from their corporate accounts after hours.
A near-immediate response is often expected. When I meet new colleagues and establish rapport with them, especially peers or reports, I make a point to tell them my expectations, so they don’t hover over their email accounts all evening or weekend long. When I mark something URGENT, it’s urgent, and only then do I require an immediate reply or action.
P.S. I love Spain and France…
#5 Lunchtime and Coffee Breaks
Switzerland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy/Sweden/Jersey, CI
Taking an extended lunch hour can mean 2-3 hours as I have witnessed working in Geneva, Toulouse, St. Helier (Jersey), and Mallorca. It’s great fun, but honestly, I rather finish my work and go home early. But when the team is having fun, it’s good to go along sometimes. Sweden is very particular with coffee breaks, or FIKAs. It’s probably based on the Pomodoro Timer principle, which aims to increase productivity.
#6 Alcohol During Work Hours
Switzerland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy/Jersey, CI, Texas, Central/South America
No problems for the Swiss, French, Spaniards, and Portuguese, even the folks in Jersey, –Channel Islands–during breaks, though.
Central and South America also have relaxed rules about lunch with alcohol.
Rest of the World
I haven’t been in all conceivable places, but needless to see, it’s off-limit in Islamic countries, and not tolerated in Germany, the UK, and most of the countries with a Western HR department.
Bamboozled about all this? Just follow the boss. If they order wine or beer, then you could, too. Stay sober though, even if your boss doesn’t. Ask our knowledgeable Alliance team about these and other topics. We’ll be glad to find answers for you.
by: LP Wirth