It’s not easy for Americans to work with Europeans during the summer months. Paid vacations slow down the pace of work significantly, leading to misunderstandings on both sides of the Atlantic. How and why should you overcome this challenge?
A few days ago, I was at a concert with a couple of friends. My husband and I had just returned from California where we spent three weeks. As a general rule, taking three weeks of vacation doesn’t really impress Americans. In fact, they’ll look at you as if you are lazy, idle or useless. Of course, they are far too polite to say anything disrespectful, so they use a word that kills any inclination to share anything more: “Interesting”. Virginia and Mikael, on the contrary, were very curious, enjoyed hearing about my wonderful experiences, and left this weekend for three weeks of hiking, cycling and rafting in Colorado! I told them that they were completely atypical Americans for vacationing for so long. The reason is simple: Virginia works in the academic world and Mikael for an international organization. Both have work contracts with: 1. Paid vacation, which are 2. Relatively long.
Employers are not required to provide paid vacation in the United States
The United States is the only economically developed country in the world where there is no legal obligation to provide paid vacations to employees. Employees working for big companies often have two weeks of vacation (paid vacation), but it’s far from the reality in SMEs. Basically, I noticed that the number of vacation days is positively influenced by their qualifications, their seniority and the size of the business in which they work. An American government study found that the lowest paid employees working in SMEs or on a part-time basis have less vacation than those with good salaries working full-time in large corporations.
Americans therefore work more days per year than their French or German counterparts. This is particularly evident in August when French factories and Paris offices are closed. This phenomenon is virtually non-existent in Germany, but the pace there also decreases in the summertime. It’s not that easy for Americans to work with Europeans in the summer!
I see two problems:
– A lack of market understanding
– A lack of understanding of the cultural dimension
which systematically leads to poor summer planning. Furthermore, the team based in the United States may become frustrated because it cannot make progress, while the French or the German teams may feel like their American colleagues are abrupt.
Often multinational teams work on a common business project without considering each other’s cultural differences. It seems easier to grasp technical differences like the voltage and the electrical outlets than those about paid vacations and holidays!
For the last 20 years, I have worked for and with French, German, Swiss, Polish, Dutch, British, Italian and American companies. Only one of these companies ever organized a two-day intercultural training session for the German team. In another case, I attended a one-hour presentation about the Dutch management style. That’s not much considering the level of almost daily interaction required during inter-border projects.
I still always work with my own checklist that I gradually complete before, during and after a project:
– How do you hold a meeting? Is the agenda important? North Americans follow agendas to the letter, whereas the French and Italians tend to follow the current needs of the discussion.
– Who makes decisions? Does a leader have the final say? Can decisions be made on the fly during meetings? The Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries are consensual. Decisions will be made during meetings while the French or American participants may not even be aware of it. The Germans will easily make decisions during meetings while the French will need to report to their hierarchy first.
– What degree of accuracy is required? The Germans want 120%; the French are content with 90%.
– Timing or Quality? Is it more important to meet deadlines or to have a perfect product? Here, the Germans drive both the Americans and the French crazy. Their drive for perfection makes them involve more departments, which requires a longer project duration.
– Can a decision be changed once it has been made? Considering the number of people involved in making a decision in a German company, it is difficult to make them change their minds once the decision has been made. With French companies being more hierarchical, it is easier for them to change their position…if the boss agrees.
– Until what time can I reach someone at the office? It is useless to call a French person before 9am or a German on Fridays after 3pm. Lunch breaks are fast to non-existent in English countries but sacred in France and other Mediterranean countries.
– Does the person I’m working with have a replacement, assistant, or colleague as well versed as him? This is the only question for which I cannot generalize. In my career I have met as many “I don’t share information” people as I have multitasking teams. I can simply say that in general, a reduction in headcount leads to extra personal workload and therefore less availability for other people’s workloads.
– Who leaves for vacation when, and for how long? In France, Italy and Spain, factories close for two to four weeks in the month of August. Offices often close for two weeks during this period, so it is useless to expect a prototype or any samples during this time. Germany is a federation with 16 Länder, each of which provides different vacation timeframes for children that run anywhere from the end of June until mid-September. There is a definite advantage: the school holidays last only six weeks in the summer…but for three weeks around Christmas, when the Germans like to go skiing.
– When are the public holidays with extended weekends that could drastically reduce a workweek? The month of May is filled with holidays. In Germany, single people and childless couples tend to take their vacations in May. In the United States, however, public holidays always fall on a specific day of the week, like Thanksgiving day which is always the last Thursday in November. European holidays can fall on every single day of the week. In both France and Germany, many people will “faire le pont” when they have a Thursday holiday, which means they’ll also take the Friday off to enjoy a four-day weekend. Keep in mind that public holidays are not harmonized in Europe.
– Which people on the project can be reached during their vacation? This is a sensitive question you should avoid asking! Vacations in Europe are made for relaxing, spending time with your spouse and children, and especially for recharging your batteries. If your European partner does offer to be available, pay attention to their conditions. It will usually be a case of “You can call me in case of a real emergency”. The higher this person in the hierarchy, the more likely they are to suggest this. Otherwise, observe if he/she writes emails, calls the office and monitor their behavior.
How to work with European colleagues during the summer?
8 tips for working with Europeans during the summer months
The key to success when working on a project with colleagues from France, Germany or anywhere in Europe, in general, is to know and understand from the beginning of the project that the pace slows down significantly in the summer. For this reason, you must:
– Accept that Europeans see vacation as a time for rest…not for working.
– Explain to your European colleagues that paid vacations don’t exist in the United States and that you never go on vacation for more than a few days in a row. Make them understand that it is no problem for you as you can make the most of it!
– Integrate school breaks into the calendar. They are the best indicator of downtimes - don’t plan any important steps during these periods.
– Also integrate the public holidays, and don’t make your European colleagues attend meetings the day before, during or after their extended “pont” holidays. They will appreciate it and return the favor at Thanksgiving.
– Six months in advance, plan for the respective vacations of the project’s key people and integrate their absences into the calendar. Many employees with children plan their vacations far in advance.
– Assign someone to handle any emergencies over the summer, if necessary. But don’t rely on them to fill in for everyone else who is absent!
– Two weeks before summer, organize a meeting to clarify expectations and to define realistic steps for the summer. It’s a good time for Americans to make progress with product development, market studies and data analysis to present when everyone is back.
– Schedule an update meeting for the first week after the summer break in order to rebound quickly.
Here is some final advice to help you build quality relationships with your European colleagues. Ask them about their vacation plans before summer arrives, don’t forget where they are going and ask them about their vacations when they return. They will appreciate your interest and will be even more motivated to work with you!
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