If you are reading this, there’s a good chance you are considering or are about to start a job in the Netherlands.
I was once in your shoes. I read every article and watched every YouTube video that I could possibly find in order to prepare myself for the move. But as I’m sure you can imagine, nothing can truly prepare you for the simultaneous onset of a new role, new responsibilities, and new coworkers in a completely new country.
The Netherlands attracts expats from all corners of the world. Each of us has a unique cultural background and work experience, and this informs how our expectations vs. reality of working there will look. Let me give you some context about my background before I dive in.
I worked as an accountant in Toronto, Canada for 7 years. I spent most of my career working in the financial district in an office with approximately 200 employees. Prior to starting my full-time career, I worked in several other offices (with as few as 10 people) in similar functions.
Office culture in a large corporate environment in Toronto is much different from a 10-person office in a smaller city or town. Canada is an enormous country and office culture differs depending on the location, industry, among other factors.
In the Netherlands you can similarly expect some differences in office culture depending on the town or city it’s located in, the type of business, the size of the company and its values, etc.. I have only worked at one company (an accountancy firm) in Amsterdam, so this is where I draw my experiences from.
Long story short, please do keep in mind that even within the (comparatively) small country of the Netherlands, there can be variation in work culture for the reasons I mentioned above. These are my unique observations and not a generalization of office culture in Canada nor the Netherlands.
Let’s get into three expectations I had of working in the Netherlands, versus the reality after two years.
1. Better work-life-balance
Every Google search I did about working culture in the Netherlands quickly pointed out its excellent work-life-balance.
OECD defines work-life-balance as the ability to successfully combine work, family commitments and personal life for the well-being of all members in a household. It’s about being able to combine family commitments, leisure, and work – including both paid and unpaid work.
In their Better Life Index, OECD named the Netherlands as THE nation with the best work-life-balance in 2020.
Here, only 0.4% of employees work “very long hours” (more than 50 hours per week). This is the lowest rate in the OECD, where the average is 11%.
For comparison’s sake, Canada ranked 21st with almost 4% of employees working very long hours. Still well below the average! The United Kingdom ranked 28th and the United States 29th for best work-life-balance in the Better Life Index 2020. Respectively, 12% and 11% of employees in those nations worked very long hours.
Compared with the rest of the world, Canada’s work-life-balance certainly seemed reasonable. But I got the impression that a healthy work-life-balance was even more valued and ingrained in the Dutch culture.
“The ability to successfully combine work, family commitments and personal life is important for the well-being of all members in a household.”OECD Better Life Index
My work-life-balance in Toronto
Before I moved to the Netherlands my work-life-balance was suffering. The “busy season” (officially from the beginning of January to the end of April) started to creep later and later into the summer.
At my company you were not compensated for any overtime hours worked.
You were paid the same weekly salary regardless of whether you worked your minimum 40 hours per week, or you worked an additional 20 hours on top of it. Most professional service firms (law firms, investment banks, etc.) operate this way in metropolitan areas in Canada.
Therefore despite racking up a couple hundred overtime hours per year, I got no additional time off in lieu, nor additional pay. Thankfully due to my seniority, I did have four weeks of paid vacation — better than the three week entitlement as prescribed by Canadian labour law (for employees with more than 5 years consecutive experience with the same employer).
Work-life-balance in Amsterdam
When I received my employment agreement to work in the Netherlands in an equivalent role, I was shocked to learn that overtime could be accumulated towards time off in lieu, and if not taken as time off in the year, would be paid out in March of the following calendar year.
Despite this incentive, I did not observe my Dutch colleagues putting in insane hours and racking up hundreds of overtime hours. Partners and managers set the tone by working reasonable hours, and encouraging the same for staff.
I also noticed more colleagues worked part-time in order to better meet family or personal commitments.
One of my former colleagues, a new dad, worked four days a week so that he could better support his family at home. A client of mine works part-time every Friday to spend more time with his son. I noticed many e-mail signatures with different variations of “Wednesday is my part-time day”.
According to OECD, 37% of total employment in the Netherlands in 2020 was part-time (the highest in the OECD). Part-time employment is defined as people in employment (employees and/or self-employed) who work less than 30 hours per week in their main job. In Canada it was 18%.
The numbers don’t lie.
More people in the Netherlands work part-time (as a % of total employment) than anywhere else in the world in order to achieve a better work-life-balance.
Full-time employees seem to achieve a good work-life-balance as well. Work is taken seriously, and sometimes extra effort and hours are needed, but it’s handled in a healthy manner.
2. More structured work hours
As a manager at an international public accountancy firm in Toronto, my working hours had veered far from the 9-5 ideal. In the busy season, it was not uncommon to order yourself dinner to the office and continue working until later in the evening. Shutting down at 8:00 PM or 9:00 PM became the norm.
From my interviews with Dutch companies, I got the impression that regular working hours were more closely adhered to. I heard that most people would prefer to be seated for dinner with their families between 6:00 PM and 6:30 PM.
Within the first couple weeks at my office in Amsterdam, I could see that many colleagues were quite regimented about their working hours. By this I mean that there would be small, distinct waves of people shutting down and heading home in the evening.
The first small wave strolled out at 4:30 PM, another at 5:00 PM, then the main wave at 5:30 PM. The early waves of people had of course started their days before the rest of us. Only a small handful of people remained in the office after 5:30 PM, and it was typically me and other expats.
Unless the circumstances called for more, many of my colleagues stuck to their standard 8 hours per day (9 hours in the busy season). That may sound obvious, but for me personally it was a change from the environment I came from in Toronto.
I rarely ever left the office before 6:00 PM from Monday to Thursday. Come to think of it, unless I had specific plans, I never really gave myself a cut-off time. Which explains why dinners in the office became a ritual.
Adapting to the Dutch way
Unless you already follow a strict 9-5 structure, you probably will not adapt to the Dutch way immediately. Moving to the Netherlands in and of itself will not make your work habits suddenly change.
Me and my expat teammates admired our Dutch counterparts for their discipline, but faced internal guilt when we tried to do it ourselves.
But chances are, if you’re looking for better work-life-balance like I was, it won’t take long before you settle right into this way of working.
3. More direct communication style
In between all the articles about work-life-balance, your Google search results about work culture will also warn you about the directness of the Dutch people.
You often read stories about their “tell-it-like-it-is” communication style, which might mean that if you ask somebody what they think of your outfit, you may not like the answer.
Canadians on the other hand, are known for being overly polite. This was true in my workplace, where we learned the “sandwich method” of delivering feedback. Instead of directly giving peers the sometimes critical feedback that they need, it was always sandwiched between two things that they did well.
“No” is also an answer
What I seldom see people writing about is how this direct communication style can actually work to your benefit in many ways in the workplace.
Me and my expat colleagues (especially from South Africa and Eastern European countries) came from an environment where you were less likely to say “no” to a superior about whether you could take on additional work. In my case, saying “no” usually just meant that a half assed effort would be made to find someone else before it inevitably came back to me as a request, and no longer a question. You eventually start to default to “yes” to circumvent the back-and-forth.
I developed a distrust with telling my employer “no”.
At my company in Amsterdam, you are expected to be completely honest about your workload, and only take on what you can handle. And they don’t just claim this — there are actually systems in place to redistribute work when a team member expects their workload for the week to exceed 45 hours.
Not unlike the structured work hours, this took some getting used to for certain colleagues, myself included. The partners at my firm who had worked with other expats in the past knew all too well that this is one of the biggest culture differences for many of us. They would often remind us that it’s OK to say when your plate is full (or if something is not within your expertise).
The main goals are making sure employees are happy, and finding solutions for all the work to get done.
When employees are realistic and direct about their workload, only then can the company achieve those goals.
When it comes to feedback, your Dutch team members will give you the specific feedback you need in order to improve and progress to the next level. But don’t expect it to be sugarcoated (or sandwiched).
Don’t get me wrong — if you’ve done a great job then you’ll definitely hear about that too. Keep the mindset that feedback is intended to help you, and you will probably come to really appreciate the straight-forward approach.
All of the expectations I had prepared myself for did turn out to be the reality when I touched down in the Netherlands. Even though I was totally ready to dive into a better work-life-balance, I wasn’t actually programmed to work that way.
The workplace habits of the Dutch exist for a reason. Sticking to your 8 hours and telling your boss when you need an extra hand will help tremendously in cultivating the balance that you’re after. But expect to make some conscious efforts in getting there.