Think of France, and you probably think of the country’s quality of life. Food, wine, romance, culture...everything points to it being a great place to live. A phrase that probably doesn’t come to mind is ‘business destination’ - and yet France is the 6th biggest country in the world by GDP, one of its top exporters, and a haven for everything from tourism to chemical manufacturing.
What’s perhaps most remarkable is that France has achieved this success without compromising on its traditional values. While America and other western nations make sacrifices for the sake of productivity, France has been successful while also maintaining a healthy work-life balance. With the merits of long hours and short holidays being put under the microscope, now is a perfect time to learn a few lessons from French working culture.
1. Job security
France is notorious for the protections it affords to workers - a reputation that is occasionally seen as an impediment to business. Employees are more difficult to fire than in many other countries, but especially compared to the United States. Many firings go to tribunal and some can be costly to the business involved. As a result, businesses are generally reluctant to remove people; instead they take greater diligence in hiring and look to improve the assets they have.
The government has made some changes to make firing easier in certain circumstances but the culture still broadly applies. While this can lead to complacency in some cases, the impact of poor employees is overstated and it isn’t as hard as people think to get rid of people if there is a strong reasoning behind it. Moreover, the benefits of this culture are numerous and feed into the general sense that France is a kinder place for employees.
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Knowing that your job is not under threat if you have a dip in performance can make people feel less stressed, and incentivises businesses to provide support through these periods. It also places the impetus on companies to train and improve existing employees rather than flipping and churning talent at a whim. French businesses feel more like families as a result: there can be feuds but there are also bonds that support and see you through tough times.
2. Hours and overtime
While France has made some concessions in the last few years, its working hours are still broadly sacrosanct. Businesses in tourist areas and malls can now open on Sundays but across the country, most still consider it to be a day of rest. The working week is standardised across industries at 35 hours, with a legal maximum of 46 hours per week in extraordinary circumstances and only for 12 consecutive weeks.
While changes to business hours and employee protections have helped to make French businesses more competitive, they’ve had to be carefully balanced with French cultural mores. French people place great value in free time and a healthy work-life balance, as well as the support net of a generous pension and relatively low retirement age.
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All of these elements - along with, we suspect, some world-class wine - have conspired to make France one of the most enjoyable places to work and have given it a particularly high life expectancy. Healthier, happier employees experience less recidivism and fewer absences, have more creative energy, and are more amenable to work in hard, short bursts when required - all aspects that are invaluable to startups.
3. Holidays and breaks
One aspect of French working life that hasn’t changed much under Macron is breaks and holidays. Following your first month’s work at a company, you’re entitled to the equivalent of 2.5 days leave for every month worked, or 30 days per year. Additional allowances are made for sick leave, maternity leave, paternity leave and parental child-rearing leave, whereby parents can take time to look after their children for up to three years after they’re born.
Breaks must be taken at least every six hours, and for a minimum of 20 minutes. For the vast majority of industries, it’s also mandatory to take 35 consecutive hours of rest per week, made up of at least one 24-hour day and an additional 11 hours. Add in the generous overtime rules, and it’s clear that the French value their downtime -- a good work-life balance is the norm.
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Some would suggest that this amount of free time impinges on productivity, as it means fewer days or hours spent at work. But recent research suggests that a shorter week may actually make us more productive, and that a large portion of our days is actually spent idly browsing, drinking coffee or otherwise slacking off. In this respect, the French may have had the jump on the rest of the world all along.
4. Environment and place
Many locations around Europe (and elsewhere in the world) benefit from a rich culture and history. Whether you’re in a dense city or a small town or village, it’s likely that an ornate church, crumbling ruin or picturesque old home is within walking distance. Rather than America’s vast expanses of wilderness, you’re also likely to find that the line between towns ending and the countryside starting is blurred, with short distances between urban areas.
It may surprise you to learn that this natural beauty can have a profound effect on your business - or more to the point, your employees. Studies have consistently shown that access to nature and other beautiful surroundings can improve both our physical and mental health. Having somewhere to take walks incentivizes us to exercise, while seeing greenery and great architecture gives us a mental break and renewed energy for the day ahead.
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While a few landmarks have made their way across the ocean, you probably won’t be able to import any French countryside. But you can ape these effects by considering the surroundings of your business. Whether you pick a location that’s within walking distance of a park or woodland, or plant flowers and other adornments around your building, giving employees access to nature and beauty can be a great passive benefit to your business.
5. Values and habits
As a nation defined by its cultural heritage, France places great value in cultural products and the preservation of traditional methods. Art, film and music are all respected career paths, while businesses hold themselves to exceptionally high standards, and tend to be intimately involved with their local communities.
This intersection of tradition and creativity has led to a fascinating and successful modern economy. As well as a diverse and successful small business landscape, France is also home to thriving creative and tech startups, with the 2nd largest delegation at the yearly Consumer Electronics Show, and a nationwide network of startup hubs.
The culture around businesses also helps to engender co-operation and supports this creative spirit. French businesses tend to be relatively relaxed about punctuality and have less of a strict meetings culture than the United States. With an abundance of world-class coffee shops and cafes, the preference for a casual drink over a video conference is perhaps less than surprising.
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So whatever your type of startup or style of doing business, it’s always good to look around and see how you can learn from other countries to see if you can incorporate new ideas or solutions from their business culture that you might not have considered before.
And if you’re really taken with the French way of doing business and want to actually set up your startup in France or open a branch of your existing company in France, including opening a business bank account or English-speaking French chartered accountants, you can click on the links or download our free guide below. Feel free to contact us directly by calling 0033 (0)1 53 57 49 10 or emailing us from our contact page and we’ll be happy to discuss your requirements.