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One of the many impacts of globalization is the greater homogenization of working practices around the world. However, local traditions still prevail, in the Czech Republic and elsewhere. It would therefore be a mistake to assume that expats, even those working for multinational companies, can expect the work environment to be completely the same as that of home. “Foreign companies try to impose a company culture onto their Czech workforce, with mixed results,” noted one consultant working for a global audit firm. What can expats expect? Are there major differences in working practice? We asked some foreign employees in the Czech Republic about their opinions on a number of common work practice issues. Most asked us not to reveal their names. The article applies to global firms as well as Czech-owned companies.
Formality and relationships with superiors
Like other European languages, Czech distinguishes between formal and informal ways of addressing people. This can lend Czech work culture a slightly formal aspect absent in Anglo-Saxon countries where it’s usual for coworkers to call each other by their first names. In the Czech Republic however, employees, particularly those of the older generation, often keep their distance and refer to each other formally, even with those they have worked with for years.
It’s useful to bear this fact in mind, although working relationships between expats and Czechs are usually slightly different. Expats may worry about being too familiar (or too formal), but their Czech colleagues are usually aware of this issue and are understanding. In addition, many firms, both international and Czech-owned, are introducing an informality policy; as a result all employees, regardless of rank, can be on first-name terms.
When it comes to relationships between subordinates and superiors, some expats noted that informality prevails, for example managers and the staff in their team socialized after working hours. Such get togethers can help staff bond but also result in unclear boundaries. “It can be a bit of a blurred area until problems arise between staff and their managers,” noted an employee at a global computer manufacturer.
On the other hand, some expats described relationships at Czech-owned and international firms as more distant, and subordinates kept their distance. “There is certainly a much greater deference to superiors here than at home. The situation is probably quite like that of Germany. Interestingly, the men in particular are more deferential than the women,” said a manager at a global accountancy firm. Another employee in the same sector believed that the level of familiarity between managers and their subordinates depends on the industry; in the banking/finance sector there is more of hierarchy, in the information technology sector there is less.
Disputes and conflict resolution
Most people noted that problems between superiors and subordinates or between workers of the same rank were dealt with immediately and amicably. “Czechs are more straightforward in their dealings with people and have a tendency to handle things on their own, avoiding drama or drawing attention to themselves
unnecessarily,” explained Jason Mashak, copywriter at Czech-based software company Avast. In contrast, he suggested the possibility that in his home country, the United States, “half of complaints submitted to human resources departments involve people wanting their 15 minutes of fame.”
However, a minority of respondents observed that conflicts were dealt with via a supervisor or line manager first. “I’ve seen people trying to resolve problems immediately and with the appropriate person. But mostly they go to their supervisor rather than deal directly with a person they have a problem with. This is frustrating for me as a fairly confrontational and upfront person,” said an employee at a global computer manufacturer. Another respondent described a similar situation, where employees immediately approached their line managers rather than trying to resolve the conflict with their coworkers.
Many of those asked agreed that the approach to timekeeping is more relaxed in the Czech Republic, if the arriving a little later is due to family commitments. Employers make allowances, for example if workers have to leave early to pick up their children. “Western managers who are not from here may not get that,” explained Mashak. “For example, I used to work for a Brit who required that we send him an SMS if we would be more than 10 minutes late and we had to strictly adhere to one-hour lunches – despite the fact that we often worked a bit late or came early,” he added. Interestingly, flexitime, where employees have to be at work between 10:00 and 16:00 but can arrive earlier or later outside the core hours, is not common in the Czech Republic. Others noted no differences in attitudes to timekeeping between the Czech Republic and elsewhere, but said that their coworkers took a more relaxed approach to attending meetings.
Workloads and the work versus life balance
An interestingly even divide emerged in this area. On the one hand, respondents stated that colleagues did their work and then left more or less on the dot at 17:00 or 18:00, regardless of their workloads. Others described cases of coworkers spending longer time at the office and (frequently unpaid) overtime. “I think people here work harder and longer than at home. I have seen no clocking off at 17:00. I think there is a really strong work ethic. Maybe people are a bit more relaxed early in the mornings about getting in on time but they stay late,” said a manager at a global audit firm. “I think it depends entirely on the motivation (read remuneration) system. Employees on fixed rates watch the clock and run when it hits 17:00. Employees motivated with flexible pay and bonuses work long and hard to meet and exceed their targets,” added a consultant, also at a global audit firm.
Respondents noted that when it came to multinational firms, dress codes were the same as elsewhere, although non-client facing staff at large multinationals were able to dress more casually, for example IT staff sometimes wore jeans at work. However, dress codes are becoming more informal generally. For example, at many global companies in the Czech Republic have a casual Friday policy, and during the rest of the week men are not obliged to wear ties unless they are with clients.
When it comes to language used between employees, jokes, etc., Czech work culture is regarded as less “inclusive” than in the United States or Western Europe. However, global firms generally take the same approach as in other countries, and employees can be disciplined for making inappropriate comments, sending offensive emails, etc.
Many of those we spoke to observed the importance of the lunch break in the Czech Republic and that at 11:30 or midday, large numbers of staff, whether working for a global company or a Czech-owned firm, seem to stop for lunch simultaneously and do so at the same time every day. “Lunch breaks are more of a national institution than in any other country I have been in. Colleagues never stay in the office but go out to a local bar, and that is it for an hour,” described one respondent, who works for a global accountancy firm. This tradition contrasts with that of the United Kingdom, for example, where it is usual for employees go for lunch at different times so that the workplace is not empty during lunch and telephones can be answered.
As a result, the ‘eating lunch at one’s desk’ culture seems to be less widespread according to those we spoke to, with the emphasis on being out of the office for an hour (or half an hour). “Lunch is definitely sacred here and I get strange looks for eating at my desk and working through lunch so I can leave earlier.” Others said that they weren’t aware of any differences.
Socializing after hours
Attitudes towards socializing outside work seem to differ. “Often the only way to get to know your colleagues is after hours, maybe in part because Czechs are very structured and tend to compartmentalize work and friendship as very separate things,” said Mashak. Others interviewed said that while coworkers made friends at work, there was still a division between work and home life. “Unlike the situation in the UK, my Czech and international colleagues separate the work and home lives. They also don’t spend much time on Monday asking each other about their weekends,” said a freelance consultant.
In conclusion, comparisons of working practices show that Czech offices are quite similar to their counterparts elsewhere, but expats should always be aware of different approaches, even at global firms.
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