What the U.S. Can Learn From Global Work Cultures

Business attire. A firm handshake. Happy hour with a few close colleagues.

Most aspects of business culture seem immutable, even when they’re as arbitrary as the 9 to 5 workday. New technologies (and, in many ways, the tech industry itself) have left their mark on the workplace, however, challenging even the most established norms. In many work settings, hoodies and jeans have replaced the suit and tie. Hugs and fist bumps have supplanted the handshake among familiars. And, well, we hope nothing ever replaces a good happy hour.

But for all the changes occurring within the U.S., it’s worth noting that different work cultures have always existed—not just in time but also in place. Read on to learn about how a few countries around the world do work differently, and what we can learn from them.

Social Capital in China

In a stunning infographic, designer Yang Liu illustrated the stark differences between her personal and professional experiences in China and Germany. Broadly titled “Ost trifft West” (or “East Meets West”), the piece conveys how, in China, opinions are expressed in a long-winded way instead of directly, punctuality is a more fluid concept, and the boss is clearly—not subtly—superior to the rest of the team. 

Several of the comparisons in Liu’s piece point to one of the most important factors in Chinese work culture: “guanxi,” pronounced “GWAN-she” and roughly translated as “relationship.” Rooted in Confucianism and extending far beyond our conceptions of work relationships in the U.S., guanxi describes the complex networks of influence connecting families, friends, and colleagues in Chinese society. Guanxi is so integral to business that it has been found to predict sales growth and provide access to markets for companies operating in China.

While guanxi has been criticized for contributing to corruption, it’s clear that businesses hoping to succeed in China must have an understanding of the relationships necessary to create that success. It is social capital on a grand scale, and it reveals something essential to the way we all work: underneath technology, underneath processes, and underneath policy, it is people that power our workplaces.

Off Time in France

It’s a classic stereotype: Americans live to work, while the French work to live. In 2000, France capped the legal limit for a workweek at 35 hours, with all work after the limit considered overtime. But as mobile and cloud technologies have made it possible for employees to work from anytime, anywhere, companies found it easier to get around the limit by requesting their employees’ time while not in the office.

Workers' unions fought back, however, leading to a deal affecting 250,000 employees in the technology and consulting industries. Essentially, the deal required that companies not pressure employees into checking their email or mobile devices for work purposes in their off-hours. Things have only advanced since then, with the newest law giving employees the right to ignore emails in off-hours.

Great news, right? However, sometimes it’s empowering to get work done outside the office—and folly to assume that a worker’s most efficient hours happen in the office at prescribed hours. Depending on the business, one solution could be to reduce required hours in the office, thereby allowing for some work to get done in the off-hours.

Gender Equality in Norway

In its latest Human Development Report, the United Nations ranks Norway as the number one country in the world for gender equality. Women in Norway hold 40% of seats in parliament. Additionally, 61% of women versus 69% of men participate in the labor force. For comparison, the U.S. ranked eighth in the same report, with women only holding 19% of seats in Congress. The labor force is less balanced too, with 56% of women versus 69% of men participating.

Notably, Norway’s work culture is equitable in another way: parental leave. Both parents—not just mothers—can divvy up 46 weeks of parental leave paid at 100% or 56 weeks paid at 80%. Here in the U.S., parental leave remains largely a benefit for mothers, and even then they’re only guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid leave. 

While it’s clear that Norway designed its laws to redefine traditional gender roles, the economic impact has not been overlooked. Granting fathers leave allows mothers to get back to work, helping more businesses hum along more smoothly. In 2012, Norway’s minister of finance compared the value of women in the workforce to its “total petroleum wealth”—valued at over $800 billion. The U.S. has certainly made its fair share of progress toward gender equality, but examples like Norway set the bar even higher.

Colorful Language in Australia

How often does your boss drop the F-bomb? In the U.S., we generally frown upon vulgar language in the workplace even if we curse like sailors amongst our friends. Australia, however, has no such reservations, with colorful language encouraged as a way of reinforcing camaraderie between employees and supervisors:

“The Aussies want their boss to join them in a healthy disrespect for rules and formalism, to lapse into broad speech and cuss a bit, and to be affable and ironic at the same time,” according to Richard Lewis, author of “Cross-Cultural Communication: A Visual Approach.” 

Of course, no one should take this as a blank check to swear up and down to try and strengthen your relationship with your boss. But it is a creative, natural method for forming and strengthening relationships, and reminds us of the power of language in daily discourse in developing those relationships. 

Cultural differences aside, there’s one common theme binding workplaces across the world: change. Over the past decade, technology has transformed the way people access information, collaborate with each other, and get work done.

To learn more about how these changes have affected workers in the U.S., download our report on the Era of the Anywhere Worker.

 
 
 
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