Thursday, August 2, 2007

Working in Dutch Land

By moving to Europe, I was of course expecting to have an “international work experience” – Little did I know just how international it would be! Our office is located in Amsterdam, so of course we are surrounded by the Dutch culture (and its interesting idiosyncrancies, but I’ll get to that later). Our department serves as the financial “support team” for ING’s Central Europe Region, which includes: Spain, Greece, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech & Slovakia, Hungary, and Russia. In our department of only 30 people, there are 13 different nationalities represented!, including Hungarian, Greek, Australian, Indian, Romania, etc., and of course American (me and one other). So, obviously there is always a chance to be around people who see things from a different perspective, and to learn about how people do things in different parts of the world.

I feel very fortunate that English is my first language (ok, my only one!), since it’s already a challenge to explain things like market consistent embedded value without having to translate it at the same time. I’ve been working on several projects which are in some ways similar to what I have done in the past (e.g. embedded value, financial projections, product development). Of course, the approaches are different in many ways, and the markets are very different as well. But many of the same issues still apply, such as having to predict financial results more often and more accurately (at this rate we’ll be moving to daily financial reporting before too long!), and developing new products better and faster.

So, what about the Dutch traditions… There are so many little differences that every day something comes up - such as just saying something a different way (instead of telling someone “Good luck” when they’re getting ready to try something challenging, they say: “Success!”) – So I have decided to make a “Top Ten” list of my fave (or at least most interesting) things about Dutch office culture to share with you:

Number 10: In the office, the custom is that when you want a cup of coffee, instead of getting up to get one for yourself, you ask all your colleagues whether they would like any coffee or tea (there is a machine where it is free on each floor). Each person specifies whether they’d like coffee with cream, or maybe a cappuccino with sugar, or extra strong espresso, or some tea extra-mild… and you get to test your memory to remember these details as you head to the machine with a tray to carry the cups back. Then the real test is when you get back to your desk, you have to remember who ordered what as well as recognize each drink on your tray!

Number 9: The office work area is representative of Europe in general – lots of people in a small space. As a result, there are very few separate offices, which are occupied by only the most senior people, and more often than not are shared between at least two people. Most workers sit out in the open, at folding tables – no cubicles, no separators of any kind. It definitely is a test of one’s concentration skills (at least mine), trying to work with people talking all around! But it also is nice at times for supporting a “team” feel when you really need to work together.Number 8: A common phrase (translated from Dutch) is: “The Final Word Has Not Been Spoken”, referring to the fact that an issue is still being discussed (and discussed and discussed…). It is common for a topic to be covered from every angle very thoroughly, with each person’s opinion fully expressed and considered. This is also referred to as the “Polder Model”, as an example of how their focus on reaching consensus works successfully, as poldering is the process of creating land space by building dikes to hold back the water (and they obviously have done a very successful job of that!). In short, it can make for some painfully long meetings.

Number 7: After the Christmas and New Year holiday time, when each person returns to the office, they walk around the department and greet each other person in the department with the traditional three kisses (alternating cheeks), and ask about how their holidays were, etc…. This can take 10 minutes or more per person in the department, but it is considered very important. Needless to say not much work gets done during that first day back from the holidays!

Number 6: Let’s imagine it’s morning and you’re standing in an elevator full of other workers traveling to their work floors… When the elevator stops and the doors open for someone to get off, you hear them say “Eaaaggghh” as they leave, and you think: “Wow, they really don’t sound very excited about getting ready to work”, and then the elevator stops at the next floor and the person leaving says it again: “Eaaaggghhh”. What’s this about? Are people already stressed out about their day before it even really starts?? Well they’re actually saying “Dag”, which means “good day” (be sure not to face them or you’ll have spit in your eye!).

Number 5: Lunch time is always exactly at noon, and everyone always goes to the cafeteria together at the same time -- Even though the elevators take longer and the lunch lines are longer because everyone goes then. Even though you look at your colleagues for 9+ hours each day (since as I mentioned there are no walls between you), you also get to look at them every day at lunchtime too!

Number 4: Typical Dutch lunch consists of the following: 6 slices of bread, a small pad of butter, 1 slice of cheese, 1 tube of some type of meat spread that you really don’t want to ask what kind it is, and one box of chocolate sprinkles (kind of like the ones you might put on cupcakes in the U.S.). You make 3 sandwiches, each of which have butter and only one of each of the other ingredients, and you eat them with knife and fork. Sometimes you substitute a slice of meat for the meat paste. But you never, never combine the cheese and meat. If you ever see a sandwich like that, it is referred to as a “luxury sandwich”. You eat the sandwich with the butter and chocolate sprinkles last, with some yogurt, followed up by a huge glass of milk, juice, or karnemilk (a thick pasty-like milk similar to buttermilk). Mmm,mmm! (or as they would say, “Lekker!”)

Number 3: Birthdays are very important and celebrated by everyone. When it is someone’s birthday, the tradition is that the person having the birthday brings mini-cakes for everyone in the department.(At least this way the birthday person gets the kind of cake they want!) Each person in the department goes up to the birthday person and sincerely congratulates that person, while shaking their hand or exchanging the traditional three alternating-cheek kisses. It is very much acceptable to discuss age (which is even included on people’s resumes, along with their marital status and sometimes even the ages of their children!).

Number 2: The office is virtually paperless – No one has drawers, cabinets, or shelves to keep files or binders. The only thing we each have is a small locker with a metal briefcase, in which is stored our laptop overnight. There is enough room leftover for maybe three very thin files of just a few papers. It definitely teaches one how to avoid printing items and keep it all organized electronically. But it also seems extreme sometimes – There’s not even a drawer where we can each keep things like pens!

Number 1: Biking to and from work, in a suit/skirt and heels! Or biking to buy groceries or pick up the dry cleaning. Biking all the time, everywhere! (see separate blogs from Jeff and pictures on this) It is hard to believe just how many bikes there are here. You can literally bike anywhere in the entire country and be on a bike path, trail, or lane 99.9% of the time. The bike garage at work is always full. How can we spread this mentality to the U.S.? It makes getting to and from work every day a little more fun!


Beth said...

I laughed at your description of the Dutch lunch because it brought back memories of a business trip I had to Amsterdam many years ago. No one told me the lunch protocol so I proceeded to make a "luxury sandwich" and grabbed my usual diet coke to drink along with it. As I picked up the sandwich with my bare hands to take a bite, the young man sitting across from me couldn't hold back his laughter any more. He was fairly amused at my choice of food/drink, especially the lack of milk. But touching my food with my hands really sent him over the top.

John said...

One of the reasons, I believe, for the spartan conditions (not having a cubicle at least) at the office is because everyone supposedly has a right to be able to see out a window. Becky, check that for me!

Also, I spent 3 months on a project outside of the Hague, they never gave me any issue about eating with my hands, although, I did drink a ton of mile there.

BTW - if anyone says to you "Lekker Ding", you might want to slap their face.

Thanks for the post, brought back some great memories.



Blake Mitchell said...

Hah, I misread #1 as biking within the office space. You've really assimilated the Dutch culture there, which I would say is a healthy mix of strict professionalism and social interaction. Especially interesting here is that office space which is shared by employees of many different nationalities and backgrounds.