The world's happy workers
BY RICHARD WALKER
There are many differences between cultures, many great and obvious contrasts. But few of those differences are quite as surprising as the differences in how people work—differences that are by no means obvious. You may look like your neighbor, you may dress in the same sort of clothes and eat the same sort of food. But go to your neighbor's workplace, and you may find yourself walking into a world of strangely different assumptions.
This, long a favorite theory of mine, tends to be reconfirmed every time that I, as a Briton, walk into the office of, say, a French company, an Italian company or a U.S. company.
Just start with the basics: How much work does a person expect to do at work? Nine to five and a bit extra if needed? That's not a ticket that will take you very far these days, and a lot of painful misunderstanding is caused by the failure to recognize this fact.
For a study in contrasts when it comes to workplace expectations, take an average North American employee, and then set that employee next to a European counterpart. They look very much alike. But most Europeans will marvel at how horribly onerous work is for their North American colleagues. Early starts, long hours and only two weeks vacation. For an Italian or a French manager, that doesn't sound like a career, it sounds like purgatory.
One way of looking at this is as a very striking cultural difference between the new world and the old. “New countries tend to work their citizens to death,” wrote V.S. Pritchett. A sense of urgency, of immense tasks yet to be completed, is certainly characteristic of the Americas. But is that sense of urgency and the long hard hours that come with it something to be welcomed or rejected?
This question came to mind as I reviewed some statistical results on employee satisfaction worldwide (check out “Employee Satisfaction in the World's 10 Largest Economies,” International Survey Research at www.isrsurveys.com). Employee satisfaction was a composite measure comprising employees' views on issues such as how well they were trained, organized and rewarded, as well as on employment security and the service and ethical quality of the company. Like all the best statistics, the results were rather surprising and yet had a ring of truth.
So, do you enjoy your work? Like it enough to willingly do even more of it when that is what is really needed?
For example, my guess would have been that there is a pretty steep price to be paid for a culture that insists on long hard hours from its workers. I assumed these employees would be disaffected—but I was wrong. A comparison of employee satisfaction rates in the 10 biggest world economies shows something quite different. The world's happiest employees are in the Americas: Brazil, Canada and the United States lead the top 10 economies when it comes to employee satisfaction. Employees in the big European economies are markedly less happy (and worst of all, in terms of satisfying the employee: Japan).
What lies behind these contrasting moods of people at work around the world? Here the statistics don't have much to tell us: We must guess as best we can.
My guess is that the pace and the quality of change are important factors here. European companies generally are under increased pressure to change, to become somewhat more like American companies with their shareholder orientation and their stress on performance evaluation. The same pressures are evident in Japan, an economy where the impact of such changes is likely to be even more disruptive.
These changes, actual and prospective, are stressful. What is more, the stress is likely to increase. The coming period is likely to see a good deal of labor reform in European countries like Germany and France, while in Italy these reform efforts are already underway. As for Japan, a period of revolutionary change cannot be far off—indeed, some say much of the Japanese corporate world is on its way.
So, do you enjoy your work? Like it enough to willingly do even more of it when that is what is really needed? Plenty of people do like what they do, but I suspect that for the time being at least, the number of those who don't is growing. That's something to bear in mind when trying to manage the tricky dynamics of project team collaboration. PM
Richard Walker is European business strategy editor of the Economist Intelligence Unit's Business Europe, a producer and presenter for the BBC World Services Radio and a feature writer for the Economist, GQ, Sunday Business, and the Sunday Telegraph. He is former Seoul correspondent for the Financial Times.
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PM NETWORK | SEPTEMBER 2002 | www.pmi.org