How Work Culture Norms Cross Country Lines

A group of executives walk past a departures board.

For multi-national businesses and their finance professionals, these workweek hour variations can cause angst, drive up costs and impact productivity. What's the best way to run your workforce?

In Sweden, two years of experimenting with a shortened workweek to boost work productivity led to more confusion and conflicting results than actual benefits. In France and Spain, where shorter workweeks have long been the norm, some reports suggest these Europeans may get as much work done as their cohorts in the U.S. and U.K.

Still, while many of France's white-collar workers do work more than 35 hours a week, they're compensated for their extra time through overtime or paid time off. And, across Europe, total vacation days provided to employees are much higher than in other parts of the world.

For multi-national businesses and their finance professionals, these workweek hour variations can cause angst, drive up costs and impact productivity. What's the best way to run your workforce? Short answer: It depends on where you're working. But it's also worth looking at how other cultures operate to see if there's anything you can learn from their trials.

A Look at the Numbers

Bloomberg reports that Sweden's experiment with six-hour workdays ran into a costly snag — the costs of shortening the workday outweighed the benefits. However, the BBC reports that the 35-hour workweek in France was largely a myth, also noting that Spain's reputed slower pace and shorter workweeks were also more myth than fact. A possible cause of this misinformation, notes BBC, is that generally, only full-time staff are considered when looking at the average workweek, while in most of Europe many people work part-time.

The Pros and Cons of Various Models

1. Shortened Workweek
As Bloomberg reports, Sweden's study of a shortened workweek was conducted with nurses in an eldercare facility which, given the nature of the services provided, still needs to provide services on a 24/7 basis. The facility saw higher costs, but the nurses did see benefits including feeling healthier, taking fewer sick days and seeing an improvement in patient care. There are no plans, though, to pursue a shortened workweek, although the country's average weekly work hours have been decreasing over the past several years.

2. Vacation and Leave Time
According to Expedia, employees in Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and United Arab Emirates (UAE) are all offered 30 days of vacation time, while countries including Canada, Mexico and South Korea offer 15 days. The United States offers no paid mandatory vacation and leave time.

But it's certainly not clear if there's a positive correlation between work productivity, business results and employees working more hours. The International Monetary Fund's data on relative gross domestic product puts the U.S. in the top spot. Still, Hong Kong shows up in 34th position and Finland, France, German, Italy, Spain and the UAE show up at 44th, 6th, 4th, 8th, 14th and 31st, respectively.

3. Overtime Compensation

When it comes to overtime compensation, some employees say they'd rather have time off, or other benefits. According to Expedia, 51 percent of Americans would give up alcohol, 46 percent would give up social media, 41 percent would skip their morning coffee and 29 percent would give up TV for just one extra day of vacation. Not working overtime hours can hold benefits for both employers and employees. Employers can cut costs by minimizing or eliminating overtime hours, and employees can benefit from more down time.

HR Systems to Manage Variation

Todd Horton is the founder and CEO of KangoGift, an HR software firm that works with organizations around the world to implement recognition and reward programs. The firm works with U.S. multinationals with operations worldwide, and currently has users in 26 countries.

Horton says it can be tricky to launch global programs that balance local norms with corporate goals in mind. "If you give the local office too much latitude, it can be hard to measure a program or culture across borders," he says. Yet, imposing a culture on the population can risk alienating the workforce.

Martha Bird, a business anthropologist with ADP who focuses on workplace cultures and their connections to technology, agrees. Working with organizations around the globe, she makes it a habit of "deeply hanging out with people" to get a hold of how they work and why they work the ways they do.

"I'm a big proponent for respect of the local ways of doing things," she says. "No matter what you do, you can't fight local. There are just too many thousands of years of history behind it. But you can respect it."

What the cultural differences actually are, Bird says, should not be as big of a challenge as handling how to bridge the gap between them.

"It has to be authentically dealt with," she adds. "It's less about communicating messages to soften the edges than it is about actually finding authentic ways of celebrating both the local workforce and being part of the global family."

The trend Horton has seen is for organizations to "embrace a more casual workplace" to respect the local population where communication styles (like instant messaging vs. email), management styles (like frequent feedback vs. top-down performance reviews) and a focus on results vs. face time have made it easier for businesses to implement programs.

One of the firms Horton works with has made a technology tool available to all of its employees around the world. Then, each employee population determines when and how the tool will be used.

"The benefit was that everyone was using a common tool that helped standardize this HR process while letting each group specify how it would be used in their home market," he says.

Work Productivity Around the Globe

What's the right answer when it comes to adopting pay and benefit practices across multiple cultures and countries? There may be many answers to address the different social, cultural and business requirements that span geographies and industries. As Sweden's example illustrates, in industries like health care, staff must be present around the clock—if some staff hours are shortened, additional staff must be hired to fill the gaps. In other settings, where work could be done virtually, for instance, more variation and flexibility could be managed. The good news, as Horton notes, is that technology makes it possible for businesses to manage variations in benefits across locations and even countries.