US versus Europe

Cultural Conversations: Workplace Differences, U.S. vs. EU

It’s officially August, and here in the United States, children are already heading back to school, a sign that summer vacation is a just a distant memory for most families. But in Europe, “out of office” notices are being sent and “closed for business” signs are being hung. For most of Europe, August marks a sort of “unofficial start” to summer vacation. Why? Well, it’s a combination of peak summer weather, tradition and the perfect time for families with school-aged children to take advantage of their paid time off.

According to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), European countries lead the world in guaranteeing paid leave for its workers. The European Union sets a vacation floor for all EU member countries at four weeks or 20 days per year. France, however, leads the pack with a mandated 30 days paid annual leave; the United Kingdom, 28; and Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, 25. The United States? Zero.

That’s right, U.S. law offers no guarantees of paid leave. The only exceptions are for government contractors and subcontractors covered under the Davis-Bacon Act. But hold on, put down your pitch forks my fellow American citizens. According to CEPR, 77 percent of private sector companies offer employees at least some paid vacation, which averages around 21 paid days off.

Outside of these obvious differences in mandatory paid time-off policies, I was curious to see what other differences there were between the U.S. and the EU when it came to not only vacation time, but flex work policies and cultural differences in the workplace as well.

To get the inside scoop, I reached out to our SVP of Marketing and Product for the PGi International region, Lyndsay Cook. Lyndsay was born and raised in England and is now living in Ireland, working from our Clonakilty office. Below is a rapid-fire Q&A session I had with Lyndsay, providing more insight on the cultural differences in our workplaces:

Q: In a recent PGi customer survey, we found that one-third of respondents were working more than 45 hours per week, occasionally taking work home from the office. How many hours would you say you work in a week? Do you ever find yourself taking work home with you?

A: I suppose it’s around 50 plus as a rough estimation. On a pretty frequent basis, depending on how busy things get around here, yes I do take work home. Whether there’s a certain event, reports or deadline that need to be met, you know, work can run into the evenings and weekends during these peak times. Of course, I try to make my days as productive as possible in order to avoid those types of situations.

Q: What is your perception of American’s and their working habits? Do you think they work more or less than employees in Europe?

A: I think they work very hard! The relationships that I have with my U.S. counterparts have shown me that they work very conscientiously. Everyone puts in the hours, everyone is committed and because of that we have a very strong appreciation for the U.S. team. That said, though we do have more vacation time, I think the U.S. and European teams are equally committed when it comes to getting the work done and putting in over time if needed.

Q: As a European who works for a U.S.-based company, what do you think are the biggest cultural differences in the workplace in terms of vacation time/time-off policies?

A: The U.S. definitely get less official vacation time, and of course over here, different countries and companies play into how much paid vacation time a worker will receive. It varies from region to region in Europe, in terms of the statutory time off, like France for example. It’s really not uncommon to have people in France taking two and three weeks off at one time, especially during August. I think though, having worked with people from various EU countries, everyone’s work ethic is the same, they just have different polices that allow them to take more time off than others.

Q: What are your thoughts on the Summer Hours policy (companies allow workers to put in more time Mon-Thurs, in order to take a half or full day off on Friday during summer months) that is often employed in the U.S.?

A: I’m not familiar with this policy, it does sound pretty appealing! Is that only in America? People would really appreciate that sort of policy over here. If the company has a very structured Monday through Thursday normally as it were, and keeping employees as productive as possible, I think allowing them to enjoy a half-day on Friday is a great perk.

Q: What months would you say most employees in the U.K. take off?

A: That varies. With the U.K. and Germany, it can fluctuate, mainly around when the children are off from school, which is typically July and August. But countries like France, Spain and Italy for example, strongly favor August for their holidays. That’s just sort of been a tradition for as long as I can remember. Our France office is definitely quieter during August, as a lot of employees could take off as much as 3-4 weeks.

I think there are a lot of pros and cons to that. As a country, if you collectively say you’re all going to take August off, and everyone knows where they stand, it can work. In the UK and Germany, it’s probably a little more fluid, people aren’t typically taking off a full month in those countries. For the Nordic countries, July is typically the month they take all of their holiday.

Q: How often are employees in your office allowed to work remotely?

A: That’s an interesting and topical question. Traditionally, European offices have been slow to adopt the work from home policy. Here in Cork (Ireland), we’ve got lots of huge tech companies like Apple, VMWare and Dell who definitely have some sort of work from home policy. I’d say it is becoming more common, but there aren’t a lot of companies who have official policies. More of a case-by-case basis, based on a set of certain circumstances. But yes, across the board, it is certainly becoming more accepted as a norm.

Q: What are some of the biggest benefits (in terms of vacation/time off policies) when working in a European country?

A: Yeah, outside of paid time off, I think we have the advantage of more public holidays than the U.S. Portugal, for example, gets the most public holidays on top of their time off allowance. There are all sorts of regional nuances.

Q: Forbes reported in 2014 that 52.3 percent of Americans are unhappy at work. Do you think changes in vacation policies or telecommuting policies make workers happier with their jobs?

A: Vacation time is a big thing to most employees worldwide. As a point of reference, at PGi, when we’ve done sales incentives, we have given a day off to our highest performing sales reps, and it has been really well received. People definitely value their holiday, and I think it can only have a positive impact.

Q: With the addition of bank holidays, the standard minimum paid vacation in the EU is four weeks. In the U.S., it is a part of your compensation package, but standard starting is around 10 days, and if you’re not a public or government employee or do not work in finance, you do not receive many “bank holidays” off. Do you think the U.S. should move their policies to be closer in line with their EU counterparts as a baseline?  

A: I suppose it really comes down to economic productivity to a degree. It’s a big decision for any country to change their overall standard work week policy. I do think that vacation time is important as well for overall productivity, it gives workers the chance to take a break and get refreshed. But yeah, I don’t think I’m really in a position to say whether or not the U.S. should move closer the EU policies, the U.S.’s economy is strong and productive as is, and I think that’s really what it boils down to.

Q: Do you feel these discrepancies in time off policies affect how you work with your U.S. counterparts?

A: No, I really don’t think it creeps into everyday life. I think it pretty much balances itself out, there’s no lack of communication or anything. I think the bigger challenge is just the time zone. A U.S.-based company working with an Asian counterpart, trying to get meetings scheduled and being collaborative, that’s a bigger hurdle than time off policies to me. But you work around that I suppose.

So, there you have it. Even though the EU does have the benefit of more paid time off and more national holidays, the variances between our workplaces and how we collaborate and work around these differences really isn’t that noticeable. What are your thoughts on the differences between the U.S. and EU vacation policies? Tell us what you think in the comments below, or join the conversation on Twitter by tweeting us at @PGi with the hashtag #SummerHours.



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