What the British can learn from French work-culture – four-day-weeks, strikes & tea-breaks
While culture-buzzy C-Suiters and business journalists celebrate findings of studies on the four-day-week, a conversation with a UK based recruiter, may likely yield more dismal results. A corporate head-hunter for global PLCs, reliably informs me that employers – ‘Aren’t offering it and just don’t want it’ despite the kudos and loyalty it might earn them.
Someone with a wryly British sense of humour might take this as just one example of how us islanders are ‘generally quite confused’ at the moment. Perhaps the resistance to adopting a model that keeps all parties happy is symptomatic of our attachment to failing systems…
But the still, rational voice of work-life balance was the positive legacy of the pandemic – wasn’t it? Surely what comes after ‘the great resignation’ comes the great negotiation? Then, ideology put into practice…or perhaps not.
I sneakily suspect that the work-hard / play-hard gratuities and company cultures of the eighties/nineties have a lot to answer for in this – making the ambitious upwardly-mobile of those eras resistant to change. After-all, if the ultimate goal is increasingly healthy profit, how can reducing workers’ hours of productivity possibly achieve this?
If I were brought up with the idea that rising at six and crunching screens until 9pm with minimal breaks was the route to quality outcomes, I would no doubt find the idea of supporting (or ‘sponsoring’) employees’ vocational, creative and family lives odd too. But I’m an older Millennial – the tipping-point generation of Board members.
To have matured in the above vision of a thousand-miles-per-hour monochrome is surely to feel fearful of its edges… after all, giving employees a stronger sense of individualism is to encourage ‘dodgy/problematic’ things, like discourse and (Munchian scream) unions.
Enabling others to work towards freeing-up their own time feels awkwardly similar to encouraging the lifestyle business owners are exclusively afforded – flexibility, autonomy, ownership. It sounds a bit like democratic socialism – and that’s enough to rub at least half of UK business owners up the wrong way.
I’ve been lucky to have one foot in a world that has never really subscribed to 1980s/90’s churn and burn culture – France. Capitalism never melded with France in the way it ate-up England whole – a fact that’s patently obvious if you try to obtain any kind of legal document there – the digital and hard-copy systems are duplicating and battling each other in some kind of slow-motion satire. I can’t imagine any French professionals extolling the virtues of ‘speed’ and streamlining.
At some point my Baby-Boomer parents paid off a modest mortgage in England and bought a French farmhouse and adjacent woodland acres outright, with a bit of logistical help from A Place in the Sun – thanks Channel 4 for the memories and toe-curling.
Visiting Huelgoat, Finistere is predictably like throwing your phone in a pond and attuning to a different brain-frequency that has little to do with the internet, and more to do with birds and weather. You grow more awareness of which thoughts you give time to grow and which you nip in the bud.
At my parents’ market-town pharmacy in Huelgaot, there is typically a number-strong workforce of at least six people and three counters, allowing both great attentiveness to customer’s/my needs and enough time and spare-hands to do sundry things like stock-checking, at leisure.
There is an on-going joke in Britany that for every police officer/ labourer/ road-worker doing a task, there are three more colleagues having a cup of tea and watching. While this isn’t necessarily always true of metropolitan Paris, it isn’t an untruth as far as I’ve had the delight to observe, and gives me a false-memory of Carry-On era Britain – pre-internet.
Rustic myths of how long it takes to pin-down a tradesperson to complete a job and the hours spent waiting for a local doctor while he completes his red-wine lunch, are prolific and not just the dominion of ex-pats.
On a more serious note, one thing I’ve never noticed on the Paris metro and in the alleys of rural France is the sadness and sheer exhaustion encountered daily on the London Underground between 6.30-9am on a week-day morning. Let’s be honest – the Jubilee Line during the morning commute is a great leveller – fatigue and the absence of inspiration being a cloud cast over people of every age and background.
I decided to actively observe commuters in my first and second commuter-trains the other day. In the first, there were no less than three squashed people trying to sleep with one brain-cell awake so as not to miss the stop. One woman was rubbing her face in her hands as if to motion something away or will something inside. And then there were the men, zipped-up with sunken eyes and staring without object.
On the stretch from Maze-Hill there were also a lot of professional women leaning-into their phones at pace, no doubt warding off potential hazards that could hit desks when reaching the office. These are the resilient ones who, I speculate have achieved this tightly coordinated resilience over a period of many years – firefighting and complying, for each day’s ten-hour sprint. I am unsure whether men of similar generations would feel this race against first-thing-in-the-morning scrutiny. However, all are trying to lose themselves in phones. This is, of course, normal. The English seem to have created reverse pathetic fallacy with grey weather.
I would argue that resilient employees, rather than talented employees are often the successes of modern working Britain.
This is no more true than during times of strike. It’s taken a long period of growing dissatisfaction for the UK’s unions to engage the most impactful form of protest en masse. Many would argue that it would not have taken the French so long to complain, to take a stand…Because If something isn’t masochistically difficult, the Brits will wonder at its value…
It could be argued that the French have far less to complain about. The level of financial/social security offered by the French social and healthcare system is in a different league to our current welfare state. For a start, both a person’s average daily return to work allowance and pension is based on their previous salary, meaning that what is received is more of a ’substitute’ for an income, akin to what they had before. French pensioners also retire six years earlier at the relatively sprightly age of sixty-two.
It’s not just the out-of-work experience that creates the cultural gulf though – being a business owner with commercial property is more of a common way-of-life across generations in France. Business rates are as low as 25% less than those in the UK and properties are passed-down frequently through inheritance as relatives cultivate their lives and businesses in the regions where they grew-up.
During 2022’s Christmas trip to Huelgoat, I was lucky enough to book a holistic massage in a little salon opposite indie bookshop, Sur La Route. The proprietress was a woman in her early thirties who has two salons, with one in an equally stunning neighbouring town. Without the hubbub of clients, these two venues keep their shutters down and are casually left dormant in a state of dream-catchered splendor. Furthermore, the imperative of capturing Christmas trade isn’t there – all hotels, bars, pubs, restaurants and salons have pulled their pretty shutters for two to three weeks of pure rest.
In truth, the one moment of stress I’ve witnessed from a person working in France was from the Massuesse, who was rushing to retrieve warm towels from the laundrette at the time of our appointed meeting. And this was entirely forgivable – no one was in a rush. Her time was slower; mine had adjusted.
My very obvious point is that between churn-and-burn and lackadaisical tea-breaks, one is a lesser evil. But that’s not what we’re considering with the four-day-week – a structured rhythm of working that protects people against the objectless burn-out seen on the tube, and also, from losing that precious commodity – talent.
I suppose the real question is not whether culture and negotiation can win-out on a post-Brexit island, but whether the 1.1 million business owners really want it to…