No start-up culture, s’il vous plaît ...

... we’re French and productive

1 May 2019
By Ross Beef

There’s a new kind of company popping up across France: le Start up. A Google-inspired working environment where high tech millennials attend stand-up meetings, order bicycle-delivered vegan meals and drink unlimited organic juice provided by a Happiness Manager. An exaggeration, but you get the point.

But surely working practices in France are too deeply ingrained to be rendered obsolete by recycled furniture and ping pong at work? 

Traditionally, a “them and us” mentality defines the often-tense relationship between management and workers, with differing agendas and probably a degree of mutual misunderstanding.

The manager’s job is to organise the company to make as much money as possible by continually asking staff to work harder and make maximum cutbacks wherever possible. 

In France, if your boss asks if you have five minutes to come into the office for a chat, you can be pretty sure it’s a bad sign.

Giving praise and thanking staff for good work is often unthinkable, with the suspicion that the worker would then minimise their efforts rather than keep working well.

Les travailleurs don’t help their own cause by being resistant to change, and occasionally obstructive en masse. The workers’ objectives are to maintain their jobs and hard-fought rights for themselves and their comrades and to resist exploitation.

Traditional company hierarchy and layered organisation is frequently the result.

But it’s not all tactical ops on the shop floor and in the boardroom. Faced with the challenges of funding, delocalisation or winding-up orders, some workers have become their own bosses, with company buyouts and cooperative organisations becoming more mainstream.

These business survival-turned-success stories are held up as examples of socially friendly capitalism with mutual benefits for all.

But there’s still the thorny problem of notoriously high French employment charges, taxes and administrative regulation that mean workers here generally put in fewer hours than their UK counterparts, with resulting lower staff turnover and job creation.

The French working day tends to be rigidly organised around contractual hours – with time outside that being paid overtime, which the company tries to avoid if at all possible.

All this, however, seems to make for a more favourable work/life balance, where working is considered a necessary inconvenience, and low down on the list of priorities – certainly well below holidays, family and friends.

All the more surprising, then, that French productivity continues to outstrip that of the UK by some margin.

Spending time at work actually working would appear to be more effective.

Perhaps those team leaders, the emotional support, common goals, constructive feedback and other such new-fangled management techniques so prized in the UK aren’t so helpful after all.

And if adopting contemporary Anglo-Saxon working environments, with bean bags and a Friday beer fridge, also means lower productivity, surely that’s progress of a kind that goes against generations of social working practices in France.

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