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Friday, August 3, 2012

French Vacations

No, this is not a post about vacationing in France.  I'm just not competent to talk about it since the last time I came here as a tourist I was 22 years old.  I am now close to middle-age and have lived here for nearly 20 years.  You do the math.  These days "getting away from it all" means leaving France for other exciting locales like Belgium (or Brittany).

Here's a secret:  The best part of the long summer vacations in France (if you live here) is watching all your neighbors and co-workers leave so that you can have the city, the public transportation, the roads, the parks, and the apartment complex all to yourself.  Splendid isolation.  Peace and quiet.  Not having to stand up on the train/metro/tramway. No lines at the store. For a few short weeks the morning commute into Paris becomes bearable.  Only downside is that your favorite bar is likely to close for two weeks and you'll have to get your morning libation and tobacco somewhere else.

Are there other downsides?  Talking to people outside of France, folks sure seemed to be looking for them.  When I was working internationally for French multi-nationals and I would go out for a beer with the local teams after a long day of meetings, I would inevitably get all kinds of questions which I tried to answer to the best of my ability (which varied according to my level of sobriety).  Here are a few of them and my stone-cold sober responses:

With so much vacation how do you get anything done at work? (The productivity question.)

Does productivity suffer?  Not that I've noticed and I have empirical evidence to back that observation up.  You can find different statistics and country rankings on the Net but in all of them the French hold their own quite nicely.   Call it another "French Paradox" if you like, though there is nothing paradoxical about it at all when you think seriously about it.  Putting in more effort, working more hours, and having less vacation does not necessarily translate into higher productivity.  As James Ling put it, "Don't tell me how hard you work.  Tell me how much you get done."  The French get things done.

How does a French manager and her teams cope when people leave for 2-3 weeks at a time? (The organization question.)

 It's called a spreadsheet.  Team members let the manager know ahead of time when they would like to take summer vacation (July or August) and then it's up to you, the manager, to work it out.  Not too tough and, if I may be a little cheeky here, it's what you're paid for.  In one place I worked I had an international team spread across Asia, North America and Europe.  A little more complex but still entirely manageable by someone with an IQ greater than her shoe size.  We set up a shared spreadsheet with all the national holidays for each country and let team members fill in their vacation days.  It was my job to have a look at it from time to time to be sure we had everything covered (those regional datacenters did not run themselves).  A little perspective here. We had team members on that spreadsheet whose countries had labor laws giving them as many (if not more) days off (vacation and national holidays combined) than France.  It wasn't a problem and I never ever had to intervene anywhere to work out a scheduling issue due to people taking vacation.

Isn't it a pain to have the stores and shops closed for weeks at a time? (The inconvenience question.)

Oh, we muddle through quite nicely. The little shop down the street (the librairie) where you like to buy office and school supplies, or your favorite bakery (boulangerie) with those scrumptious baguettes, usually puts a note up beforehand on the door so you know when they'll be closed.  And then you just work around it.  Do you really need those staples now?  Is it such a hardship to make do with another bakery a little farther down the street?  And all the essential stuff is covered:  the doctors find temporary replacements, one pharmacy in town always stays open, and there is always at least one bar/bistro doing a brisk business for those who really really really need a drink after work.

Isn't 5+ weeks of vacation a bit over-generous in this day and age and isn't it a bit cheeky of the French to have so much time off when much of the rest of the world doesn't have that luxury? (The morality question.)

Ah, now we are getting somewhere.  Deep in the hearts of those who "tisk tisk" because the French have so much vacation, is (dare I say it?) envy and sense that there is something unfair about it all.  Come on, folks, that's just petty, and those who ask this question are really scraping the bottom of the barrel.  There are people in this world who work 7 days a week.  Do these people find something morally objectionable about the fact that you probably live in a country where you have Saturday or Sunday (or both) off?  Does having your weekends to yourself make you lazy?  It's all relative.

How work is organized in different countries is a function of several factors:  culture, economics, and the political and legal systems.  You need to look a lot closer than just X days of vacation and official work hours to be able to say something intelligent about how work and leisure time are allocated.  The French have a system that works for them, they (we) like it, and they've organized themselves in a way that suits them best.  Other people in other countries do the same.

An example?  Well, when I was running that multi-national team, it did not escape my notice that our U.S. offices were pretty much deserted after 5:00 in the late afternoon.  The majority of our American and Canadian employees worked strictly from 8 AM to 5 PM and not a minute more unless they were getting overtime.  Nothing wrong with that -  the North Americans had softball games, aerobics classes and other things to attend and they liked getting home early enough every day to spend time with their families.  In the French offices most of the teams were still there at 7 or 8 PM and they were not getting any overtime.  They liked spending time with their families just as much, but they preferred large blocks of time (days or weeks) as opposed to little chunks (hours) every day.  Fair enough and to imply that any of these people were "slacking off' is just ridiculous.

Do you have anything negative to say about French vacations? (The "It's too good to be true" question.)

Yes, the fact that I had to answer all these questions and vigorously defend the honor of my French teams, when all  I really wanted to do was to enjoy the end of a long day by people watching in a working man's bar in Tokyo.  So much for my leisure time. :-)


Berliniquais said...

Hello Victoria.

I like this thoughtful and witty post of yours. Thanks for defending us lazy French layabouts with such humorous répartie.

Also, it's quite funny (and sad at the same time) that it's usually the French (because they're French I guess) and mostly other Mediterranean nations of Europe (because they live in sunny places) that attract all these stereotypes about being lazy, workshy, etc... Such preconceptions endure despite research data consistently proving the opposite: Greece for example is the single EU country with longest annual working hours per worker (and Germany is last but one in that indicator), and comes 4th worldwide behind S. Korea, Mexico and Chile but well, well ahead of Japan or the USA (and Germany is still last but one OECD-wide)...

Of course that doesn't mean much regarding productivity and getting things done, as you very well point out, and Greeks would need to learn a thing or two about actually getting things done for all those hours they spend working.

But the German media won't even get that far in their "analyses" and God forbid they let one fact or two get in the way of a good story (or one thousand of those) about those indolent Southerners enjoying the high life on their sunny shores while industrious Teutons slave away to bail them out.

Raul said...

Is it discouraged to use vacation time in the other months besides July/August? Do some people split their 5 weeks over different parts of the year?

CarnetsdeSeattle said...

Thanks it's good to hear. People often ask me how we do it with 5weeks in France and I tell them exactly the same:

We work 9.30 to 7pm, that's how we do it. And we work at home if we have to, and we work bigger hours when we have to.

I have never once left after 5.02 pm in the US. Granted, the lunch break is shorter in the US than in France, but still.

Ah perceptions, perceptions.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

J@M, Isn't it amazing how national stereotypes persist in the face of all evidence to the contrary? And if it were just confined to a bit of grumbling, it would be annoying but not dangerous. Unfortunately, as you point out, it seeps into other areas like politics and influences how we resolve important issues like saving the Euro-zone. I seem to recall that the German have a quite a bit of vacation themselves. :-)

@Raul, Oh yes. It's usually (but not always) a few weeks in the summer and 1 or 2 weeks in the winter. Some people also use their vacation at other times of the year to extend a weekend.

@Loic, Those pesky perceptions. Americans also take long leaves without pay so it's not entirely unheard of for a U.S. worker to take 2-3 weeks (even a month) off. It's what I did the very first time I went to France many years ago. I was a bit miffed to discover when I came back to Seattle that the office did just fine without me. :-)