What It’s Like Working in the Netherlands As An Expat

Shockingly I’ve lived in The Netherlands for 6 months now. After getting my bearings, I’ve had a decent amount of time to get adjusted to living and working in an entirely new culture. One of the questions I get the most is about what it’s like working in The Netherlands at a Dutch company. Is working here different in the ways I expected? What was surprising about the work culture here? I’m going to take a crack at describing what it’s been like working in The Netherlands as an expat from the U.S.

First, it’s important to note that so much of our experience at work is dependent on the people around us. From our coworkers to our bosses, who we interact with has a pivotal influence in how we feel day-to-day. Differences also arise simply from working in small companies vs. large ones, companies with different products and missions, and our specific role at work. This is my crack at explaining the biggest differences for me, while also acknowledging that there are tons of factors that influence how we feel about work.

A Diverse Team

I work for a start-up headquartered in Amsterdam but with operations all across Europe. This means that in my weekly random coffee meets I’m likely to be paired with someone working in Portugal, Germany, France, Austria… well, any European country really. You get the picture. In my small team, we have developers from The Netherlands, Sweden, Bulgaria, Turkey, The U.S. (represent!), and Russia. At my last company in Portland, Oregon, most people were from the same state, with the exception of a few contractors from India. I have nothing against folks who are Oregon born-and-raised, but it is really nice to work with a hodgepodge of cultures. 

So far there hasn’t been any difficulties while working with a mix of people with different nationalities. I expected that working abroad would bring up some differences or quirks in communication like through email or slack, but I haven’t encountered anything like that yet. We practice Agile, a common process flow in software engineering, and it works about the same as it did in my last couple of companies in the United States. I keep waiting to be offended by a blunt or straightforward critique by a Dutch coworker (as I’ve been told to expect), but so far that hasn’t happened yet. Instead, I find that people are generally direct and helpful, a delightful combination.

Outside of work communication, one upside to working with other expats is getting to hear all of their funny stories about moving and integrating here. One coworker shared that when he house-hunts, he brings a marble to test how level the floors are. He learned this after living in a crooked apartment for a year. Another colleague told the story about moving into her apartment and finding out that it didn’t have a floor. Apparently it’s a common practice here when moving to take the flooring with you, so when you move into a new place you often have to furnish the floor yourself. Working with a mix of fellow expats and life-long natives is a nice balance of those who find novelty in the every day to those who can give insight into what is “normaal“.

Stereotypes I’ve Heard But Haven’t Experienced

That said, because I don’t work at a company with mostly Dutch people, and because I mostly work from home, there are some things I have heard are common here but I haven’t experienced yet. Those are: the meeting culture, the dutch lunch, and after work socializing.

Meetings Meetings Meetings

As a software engineer, I keep my days meeting-light so I can focus and get some deep work done. Or, at least, I try to keep them that way. I have heard that because Dutch companies tend to have rather flat organizational structures, there are often a lot more meetings. This gives everyone the opportunity to give feedback and share their ideas. I for one am grateful that I haven’t experienced a huge uptick in meetings since moving here, because it would make programming a lot more difficult.

The Dutch Lunch

I’ve heard rumours about lunch at Dutch companies, but because of the pandemic haven’t been in the office to experience them. I have heard that generally everyone takes lunch at the same time, around 12:30 or so, as a team. In terms of lunch, I’ve learned that bread is very popular here, including simple meals with just bread and maybe some lunchmeat. I’ve been advised that if lunch is provided as a ‘perk’ at work, to not get too excited about the offerings, which tend to be a simple spread of bread, sliced meats, cheese, and mayonnaise. 

Another favorite Dutch snack is called hagelslag. It’s so popular that the website Stuff Dutch People Like claims that Dutch people eat over 14 million kilos of hagelslag each year, “That’s roughly the combined weight of 1,000 adult elephants!” I blame the fact that I haven’t been around Dutch folk during lunch as the reason it took 6 months for me to try this delicacy. You take a piece of bread, butter it, and then put sprinkles (hagelslag translates to sprinkles in English) on top. Between writing this article and editing it, I finally took some time to try it myself:

My first attempt at hagelslag, without the supervision of a native

It was good, next time I think I’ll try it with some peanut butter!

After work drinks

Sharing a few cold ones is a key part of Dutch work culture. Now that everyone is fully vaccinated, there have been a couple of after-work gatherings, but I’ve been told that in the pre-COVID era, these would happen every week on Thursday or Friday. This isn’t too different from my previous company in Portland, where we often pulled from the in-office keg and socialized after work. The frequency likely depends a lot on the company itself and the age and life-stage of its employees, but I’ve heard that this is common practice. I’m looking forward to continuing this tradition once I start going into the office more often. 

Always fun to try new beers

Paid Time Off (PTO) and Holidays

In the States, I worked for a company that boasted unlimited paid time off. Some critics say that unlimited paid time off is a way to get around paying out vacation time when employees leave. Often, deadlines are so strict that it makes it near impossible for people to take much time off at all. In addition, folks may be less likely to request time off because of social pressure by the team and boss. At my previous company I took about 3-4 weeks off per year. I struggled to take off random days here or there, always feeling like I had to meet an imaginary quota of hours with my butt in the chair. 

In the United States, the average PTO allowed per year is just 10 days. Meanwhile, in The Netherlands, full-time employees are legally entitled to a minimum of 20 days of paid holiday per year (I get 25, not including national holidays). There are also better policies for maternity or parental leave, as well as more humane sick-day leave. For example, I learned the other day that my mom in the U.S. hasn’t taken a sick day since 1999. For her, this was in part because all PTO at her company is lumped together, and she’d rather work while sick over cutting into her vacation days. In The Netherlands if a sick day falls on a holiday, you can get it recategorized and take your holiday another time.

Enjoying my holiday in Croatia

Technically, I took a loss when I went from “Unlimited” paid time off to 25 days. Though on paper the days decreased, the overall attitude towards time off here makes it so much easier to take vacation days and results in me taking more and actually enjoying them. I notice that taking vacation is normalized– it seems like every week a different coworker is out of office, yet work continues on, relatively unaffected.

The difference in attitude struck me when a colleague was going to take time off during a critical launch of a new feature. As we discussed our strategy, we realized that we wouldn’t be able to launch on time without his involvement. He offered to change his schedule to come into work during his time off, but the project manager immediately dismissed the idea. “Absolutely no one should change their days off because of work!” he said. This really solidified my confidence in the prioritization of the individual over company objectives.

Personally I still struggle a bit with taking time off, but it seems like something I will get over with some attitude adjustment and more time spent living here. I can slowly start to deprogram the martyr-complex that keeps so many of us working past our burnout points. Here, it’s not unheard of for people to take last-second days off just because the sun finally comes out after a stretch of clouds and rain. One day maybe that will be me– sunning on a terrace on a last-minute break, knowing that my work and personal life are going to balance out just fine.

A Workplace That Invests In Me

I’ve been insanely lucky to have a couple managers back-to-back who were really supportive of me and my career, one in the U.S. and one in The Netherlands. Since joining my company, one conversation with my manager stuck out to me. He said he tracks the health and happiness of the people on his team above all else. Sure, many leaders say stuff like that and don’t mean it, but my boss followed up by asking at the beginning of meeting together specifically about my health and happiness. He supports me and my personal development, and ultimately if I’m happy and healthy, that energy will be channeled back into the work I do. In the end, the bottom line is that the person comes before the work. My manager isn’t Dutch, although he’s lived here a long time, but this philosophy definitely makes it easier to feel like work is not the be-all-end-all.

Working with my foster kitty. I save my work a lot, as you can see by my worn ‘S’ key!

I’ve felt the difference since joining my new company. Feedback is direct and helpful, my work is aligned to my career goals, and I feel like I matter. This makes me feel more motivated and connected to the work that I do.

A Personal Shift At Work

I have always put school and work at the center of my attention. In school, I worked hard for straight As, hitting all the deadlines and shifting social events depending on test dates. At work, I put in the effort to get promoted after just 6 months at my first job, figuring out ways to go above-and-beyond and start climbing the corporate ladder. When I listened to the CEO speaking to the company at the front of the room, I imagined myself in that role. I set up meetings with Engineering Directors and VPs to pick their brains and figure out what I needed to do to be the head honcho.

At one point at my last job, my career seemed to stall out. I kept getting promised promotions that never materialized, given vague feedback, and told such gems as: “If we told you what you had to do to get to the next level, then we’d be setting expectations and then by definition you couldn’t exceed our expectations.” At the same time, I was making a great salary, and had no real reason to reach for the next promotion except for an attitude that’s been ingrained in me: that is what you do. That is what I had been trained to do: climb the ladder, even if you don’t know or care about what is at the top. Even if there is no top. 

That is what I had been trained to do: climb the ladder, even if you don't know or care about what is at the top. Even if there is no top. Click To Tweet

Moving to The Netherlands and taking a big pay cut was my first step in letting go of the ladder. I had to make some decisions about my priorities in life and work. One of the most impactful was deciding between two different job offers. The first offer had the senior title I wanted, but I wasn’t sure about the overall mission of the company. The second offer had a generic title, but a team that seemed genuinely passionate about the work. In the end, I took the second offer with the less prestigious title but more enthusiastic team. Sometimes I see previous coworkers updating their titles to Senior, Staff, or Architect on their LinkedIn pages and feel a pang: that could have been me. Then I remind myself that a title is not as important as the true satisfaction with the work I do every day.

It’s easy to say money isn’t everything, or that titles don’t matter, or that a job shouldn’t be the center of your life, but I think in practice letting go can be difficult for many people. It’s certainly been tricky for me. However, culturally in The Netherlands it feels like the common understanding is that family, friends, and life in general comes first. I hope that continuing to live and work here will help me strike an even better balance. I hope I will be able to design my life so that purpose and meaning come from all parts of my life, allowing me to transition easily into early retirement, whenever that day comes 😉

What do you think?

Have you ever worked in a different country or with people from a different country?

Are you climbing the corporate ladder or did you already let go?

What was your best use of Paid Time Off?

Share in the comments below

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  1. Thanks for the perspective! You’ve answered a lot of questions I had floating around about the cultural difference.

    I work with a decently multi-cultural team as the token US team member.
    The time zone difference is brutal, about seven or eight hours apart. I start my mornings with a 7:00 am team call!
    That said, I’m happy to be a part of the team.
    They have a much healthier attitude about time off.
    Recently I was surprised because of the synchronicity of a bunch of my teammates all taking weeks of vacation around the same time.
    Whereas in my first year of working as a junior, I didn’t take any time off at all. Even now, I’m pushing myself to take days off as I need them.
    My coworkers all have clearly established days off (accrual) whereas I’m on “unlimited” days off.

    As for corporate ladder climbing… I need to get rid of the “junior stigma” that is clinging to my job title, but once I do that I’m more interested in creating great things than in getting titles of seniority.
    Something of a “by your fruits be known” situation, having a strong portfolio speaking on my behalf instead of a title.

    I’m also deeply disinterested in staying with a typical capitalistic corporation for the rest of my working career.
    I’d prefer to join or establish a worker-centric business, which is less about having a ladder to climb and more about providing services to others.

    I guess I’m climbing the corporate ladder for the next couple years until I’m ready to exit and do my own thing.

  2. Wow! I’d been looking forward to an update like this! Great to hear you’re finding some of the European work value and ethics folks are always talking about (in comparison to the US)! A little “gezellig” in your experience and connection to your adopted home. I’m so glad to hear you’re finding some perspective in that experience.

    To your point at the tail end about your (US) peers climbing the ol’ ladder, that’s indeed alright. You’re climbing a different sort of ladder, one with more community and shared experience. It’s not really better (or even worse), but different. And you’ll have that experience to ground you if or when you decide to move back to the US.

    Keep caching out those vacation days and find some challenging adventure throughout your own backyard, those memories will last no matter where you wind up years from now!

    1. True that! I have never regretted taking time off, but I certainly regret not taking it during important times. I will likely need to work on my desire for recognition or prestige because work is one way we get that, whether superficial or real, and in early retirement we have to validate ourselves.

  3. Hi there!

    as a Dutchie, happy to read you’re finding life in NL and the work culture please you. Keep up the good work!

    Just one note of advice after viewing your photo of the ‘boterham met hagelslag’; it needs A LOT more sprinkles than you have added. Think; hardly any bread should be visible between the sprinkles.

    Then, you have two options: you can of course leave it as a single slice (as you have done), with the consequence of having most of the sprinkles fall off in the short journey from plate to mouth.

    A good way of preventing this, is adding another slide of buttered bread on top, and making it a double decker. This way, the hagelslag is glued in place and more readily transportable.


    1. My friend’s first comment was also: ‘not enough sprinkles!’ She’s not Dutch but sounds like she was right. A double decker sounds intimidating so maybe I will work up to it. Thank you for the advice!

  4. I am not Dutch but from Western Germany and we tend to all flock to the Netherlands during holidays. Therefore I have had hagelslag for more than 20 years and it is indeed delicious. From your first attempt I would advise you to take way more butter (and more hagelslag of course) and use your knife to press it down so that not half of it lands on your plate while eating.

    I would also like to recommend vla (Dutch pudding), karnemelk (Dutch butter milk) and – if you dare – Sandwich Spread by Heinz. The last one is quite the sight but tastes delicious on bread with Gouda. And Dutch pannekoeken, appelgebaak met slag, frikandel and kroket … It has been too long since my last time there 😀

    1. Great advice, I will try that next time. I recently saw Vla at the store, would love to try it. Karnemelk and Sandwich spread… well those will be new 🙂 The rest are some of my top favorite meals so far!!

  5. It’s so true that title is just a title, it’s literally meaningless. When companies look at me, they think “ha, he has the lowest rung of the ladder title, he’ll take a really low offer” then they get surprised when I turned down their six figure offer because it’s too low.

    As long as you’re compensated fairly and the work is enjoyable, titles really don’t matter that much.

    I can’t imagine working for a company that has a good PTO policy where it’s expected to take PTO and not shunned…. I’m jealous!

    1. It’s hard to start changing your own attitude, especially if others still work off of assumptions about what your title means about your work and the pay you deserve! My hope is that with your next role you’ll find a place that has a good PTO policy, as I know you’ve been on the hunt for a better job.

  6. Hi Mechanic, I really enjoyed this post because I have an ongoing daydream of moving to the Netherlands (it started after visiting a good friend–twice!– who moved to Delft. Both times in the autumn, which was super cozy). I would love to hear more about just generally adapting to life in a new country and culture, as well as your financial journey while doing so. Thank you for writing!

    1. I just went to Delft this weekend and it was so gorgeous. Hope to continue writing more insights into being an expat here.

  7. Thank you for sharing !! The work culture there sounds really cool. I feel a similar way about a lot of my company’s culture here, though it’s hard to say how it might change in the future when some folks are in the office and some are remote (now we’re all remote).

    I feel a similar conflict about the ladder. On the one hand, I’d love to make director, but on the other hand I can’t figure out why. I get that similar pang when old peers are getting director titles on LinkedIn. I “mommy tracked” for a while and fell off the ladder, but somehow ended up back on it. It’s only one more level up from where I am now, but also I’m really happy with what I’m working on now and the people I work with. So I guess we’ll see what happens?

    Glad you are enjoying the work you are doing and hope you can experience some of the in office culture at some point too.

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