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:
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.
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.
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.
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