Travel Blog: A European Approach to Work-Life Balance
I’m sipping an espresso at a café in Toulouse, France, waiting for my good friend Tomek to join me for lunch. Tomek has been living here for nearly 2 years. I however have just arrived after spending three nights in Paris. This marks the beginning of my four month European adventure.
I am able to do this because I work for Paystone, a company with a work-from-anywhere policy. The French call this télétravail and I consider myself lucky to be able to work from anywhere in the world.
As I finish my espresso, Tomek arrives. Tomek is an aerospace engineer and PhD student, and Toulouse happens to be the aerospace capital of Europe. It’s home to CNES’s (the French equivalent of NASA) Toulouse Space Centre, which is the largest of its kind in Europe, as well as companies like Airbus. It’s also known for its rich architectural heritage, warm climate, and pink terracotta bricks.
The French work-life culture is something I’ve been keen to learn more about, so after exchanging hellos and ordering our meals, it’s time for me to dive into my burning questions. Let’s start simple - “what’s it like living and working in France — what are the perks?”
“I was actually thinking about this today. Large American tech companies have made headlines in recent years when it comes to offering perks like nap rooms, table tennis, free meals, this sort of thing. But I think this is all a facade; what they really want is to keep you in the office longer and want you to do more work.
In France, companies have had perks like these for decades, but without the intention of grabbing headlines or expecting you to work longer hours. Where I work, for example, we have at-work yoga. I see one of my colleagues, who's been working at my company since the 70s, attending classes nearly everyday."
“That’s interesting.” I thought out loud. “Something like at-work yoga sounds like it could be common nowadays. What other perks are there?”
“My colleagues that work for a large aviation company have what we call a CE (Comité d'Enterprise). It’s essentially a workers council where you get certain perks and benefits. These can range from cultural perks like €300 per year that can be used to visit museums or art galleries to discounts on movie tickets and airfare. I actually think it makes French citizens more educated and more informed about their country.”
I thought the idea of a workers council to be amazing. It actually reminded me of some of the perks that I get through Paystone.
For example last year the company paid for everyone to attend a virtual magic show hosted by the famous magician Dan White. It was a great way to engage with everyone in the organization in a non-work setting, especially since we were still working from home during a third COVID-19 wave.
We also had a Paystone movie night where every employee was given virtual tickets through Cineplex to watch the latest James Bond film.
Tomek went on to explain:
“The CE is like an independent branch of most medium to large sized companies. If you want to learn how to Salsa dance, you simply go to the CE and tell the coordinator you want to learn how to Salsa. They will make it happen.
This is because a big part of the hiring process in France, as well as the work-life balance piece, is to ask you what hobbies you are interested in. During my lunch breaks, for example, I like to go running and cycling. My bosses have been very interested in what I’ve been doing in this regard: what I like to do outside of work.
One of my colleagues has in incredible passion actually. He’s an alpinist — he spends 10 weeks a year summiting mountains all over the world.
I found that being in Europe, beyond work, it’s important to have a hobby that you’re trying to excel in or be passionate about.”
I asked Tomek, “are there any other breaks, outside of lunch, that you take during your workday?”
“Coffee breaks in France are very important — and they are usually long ones. It’s common to take a 30 minute coffee break and talk about work and life with your colleagues and superiors.
We also like to talk about where everyone’s traveled lately. Travel is important to many people here. In France, the minimum annual vacation is 5 weeks. At my work, I get 10 weeks.
When you travel, it’s common to bring back gifts for your coworkers or bosses from the places that you visit. I gave olive oil to all my professors when I came back from Tuscany a few months ago.
For me it’s more of a cultural thing. Sharing amongst others is quite common.”
This sounded amazing. I love to travel. It’s an important part of my life. It’s where I get my inspiration and motivation from. At Paystone, we are lucky to have unlimited paid time off (PTO). My own boss wants me to take at least 4 weeks off per year, to recharge my batteries, to get away, and to focus on myself. I’m accountable for my results at work, and as long as I’m hitting my targets, time off requests are never denied.
The company itself loves to travel too. In January 2020 we all went on a company retreat to Orlando, Florida. In February 2022 we were all set on having our annual gathering in Banff, Alberta however another COVID-19 wave interrupted our travel plans and we were forced to do it virtually. I don't doubt that the next place we go as a company will be incredible.
Paystone is also committed to growing its talent from within. We get access to resources that will help us develop our careers. I’m currently enrolled in a 7 week course where I’m learning how to calculate and report on foundational SaaS metrics. This is so I can improve my financial decision making in my current and future roles.
With all these changes we have implemented in our own organization, I’m starting to see how there’s a possible future for other Canadian businesses to follow suit and take a more European approach to work-life balance.
Back to my conversation with Tomek, I couldn’t help but laugh ,“If you’re taking these longer breaks for lunch, cycling, coffee, how do you get anything done?”
“Well sometimes we stay later to 6:00pm or 7:00pm. But we don’t stay that late.
I’ve spoken to German friends about this actually. They laugh about us staying later at work in France. They say that if you spend too much time at work, you are not competent, because you’re not efficient enough to finish your tasks during your work day.”
I asked, “Do your bosses ever harp on anything related to getting your work done?” He laughed:
“No. I think there’s a law in France that says your boss can’t email you on the weekend.”
I fact checked this. It’s true.
“In all seriousness, in my 3 years in France I’ve done a tremendous amount of research output. I find that a lot of effort is put into organization and efficiency here.”
The food arrived, and as we started indulging in our French cuisine, I found it quite interesting that we ended our conversation on flexibility and organization.
I have colleagues that prefer to have set work schedules and would rather not be bothered with work related communications and tasks after their last hour. I also have colleagues that prefer to integrate their work and personal lives — to take an hour or two away from the computer in the early afternoon to pick up their children from school and spend some time with them, and then hop on the computer later to finish their tasks.
In the end, I think there’s no right or wrong way to structure one’s work-life. As defined by Stephen Kohler of Audira Labs, on the one hand you have “work-life balance, which is focused on keeping your work life and your personal life separate, but equal”. On the other hand, you have “work-life integration, which is centred on the belief that there is no distinction between the two and that both must coexist in harmony.” The beautiful thing at Paystone is that we collectively nurture both ideas and allow these two philosophies to thrive.
The focus for Paystone is on results, not on how much time people spend achieving them — or where they achieve them for that matter. We work around each others’ working styles and are able to achieve a high degree of teamwork, collaboration, and results despite our differences.
With all of these benefits, Paystone has allowed me to live my dream life. After France I plan on visiting Spain, Portugal, Austria, and Poland in June and July, but my August is still undefined. I’m not concerned. That’s the beauty about being able to integrate my work with my travel. I can go anywhere and be anywhere at any time. I don’t need to plan ahead.
I still haven’t purchased my return flight. Maybe I’ll choose not to. All I know is that I have the flexibility from my employer and the trust of my leaders to be able to live my life my way.
“La facture s'il vous plaît.” I asked the waiter.