24 things expats find surprising about Australian working culture
30 Jan 2017
Australians have a unique set of business etiquette rules in comparison with other business cultures.
For example, we don’t mind the use of profanity in the office. We might be laid back, but being late is uncool. We prefer chit chat to start a business meeting and we socialise after work — a lot.
And while it may be second nature to partake in these rituals for those of us who are none the wiser, some of these conventions can be surprising to foreigners when they begin working in Australia.
We at Business Insider asked expats from our own office, and execs to find out what surprised them most about Australian working culture.
Here’s what they said. (Some have asked to remain anonymous)
1. There’s a ‘dance’ before the deal
Originally from Estonia, and having worked in Finland before coming to Australia, what surprised me is how similar Australia is compared to the Nordics in terms of mentality: quality over quantity; education and wellbeing are the highest priorities; and work-life balance is sacred.
I like it. What continues to be apparent the more time I spend in Australia is the “dance”. It takes at least 15 minutes talking about sports or beer until someone finally says, “OK, so the deal we are here to talk about…”. That’s kind of fun actually. We don’t dance in the Nordics!
— Martin Talvari, cofounder of Myriad
“For a country with such a great climate and an outdoors lifestyle, it’s a car culture,” says one managing director of the Australian arm of a global firm. Angela Wylie
2. There’s no beating around the bush
As a Brit, who has spent many years living in the US, workplaces to me were often places where people tried to avoid confrontation; skating around awkward conversations and hiding behind emails.
Then I came to Australia, and everyone was so direct. It was at first refreshing and absolutely terrifying in equal measure. Candid to the core, Australians get straight to the point and I love them for it.
— Kit Young, head of photography at Vinomofo
“I’ll never forget my initial shock when I was invited to a summer beach party with work, and told in no uncertain terms that we all needed to bring our thongs,” says one expat. David Freund
3. For the Poms, it’s a warmer, home away from home. For the Yanks, it’s bizarre
It’s been nearly 20 years since I, a Pom, arrived in Australia from London (via two years in Hong Kong), to take over a the local office of New York-based ad agency.
The first thing I’d say is that the cultural differences were clearly less apparent to me than they were to my colleagues from the US head office.
Our American friends found concepts such as workplace profanity, four weeks’ annual leave, regular intra-office romantic liaisons and an open bar on Friday afternoons anathema to their own experiences.
“The main difference I have noticed is that everyone will meet you for a coffee in Sydney and Melbourne even if they have no intention of doing business with you,” says a British expat. Massonstock
To us Poms it felt like a, somewhat warmer, home away from home.
I still find the wearing of thongs (Aussie version, clearly) and the occasional bare feet a tad confronting, but I’m getting over it.
— Tim Parker, CEO of Gruden
4. Joking around is an important part of communication
The biggest surprise for me [after moving here from New York] was breaking down some of the barriers when it comes to language and colloquialisms. I’ll never forget my initial shock when I was invited to a summer beach party with work, and told in no uncertain terms that we all needed to bring our thongs.
Sometimes I’m still surprised that we can speak the same language, and yet I’ve had conversations that have gone on for a few minutes before we’ve actually been able to communicate anything.
Thankfully, Aussies have a great sense of humour and I’ve found they love it when you show that you’re a little bit human. So if you can laugh at your own mistakes and give as good as you get, you’ll be embraced into both professional and social life.
— Bane Hunter, executive director of GetSwift
5. There’s less hierarchy and less bureaucracy
I’ve worked in Asia and the Middle East before Australia and I found the biggest surprise to working here was how direct people are in business. People in business here are straight-talking. It’s refreshing because it means there’s a much faster working environment and people generally communicate in a way that gets their point across.
The same goes for securing a deal, it’s a straight-up-and-down process: lawyer, office, papers signed and you’re done. In Asia and other places I’ve worked, final deals are almost always made culturally. You have dinners, go to traditional events, meet the family, it’s like you’re getting married.
There’s also much less hierarchy in workplaces here, compared with Asia for example.
Aside from the unforeseen amount of coffee I’m drinking here at work, I find there’s surprisingly little bureaucracy and regulations when it comes to doing business in Australia. It’s pleasant to have overseeing structures in place that ensure processes run smoothly and support, instead of hinder, deal making.
— Nazar Musa, CEO of Medical Channel
6. Tall poppy syndrome is alive and well
The biggest surprise for me was to learn how to navigate the business community here and build relationships. In Silicon Valley, you are encouraged to be as visible as possible and to have a loud voice in your sector, especially as a woman where statistically we are not very good at self promotion.
Here, I found it was quite the opposite. I was met with the “tall poppy syndrome” and a much more conservative business environment that I wasn’t expecting. Over time, I learned how to subtly talk about my background and achievements but learnt that I needed to first add value and build a lot of trust along the way within my community. Each new relationship enabled me to have more visibility.
The other thing that continues to surprise me is that despite the conservative business environment, Australians are, in fact, early adopters. There are some cultural challenges that we face around being collaborative versus competitive, getting over our fear of failing and our ability to think big. I am really hopeful, however, that we can resolve some of these challenges and increase our ability to innovate and claim our spot in the global landscape. Australia’s time is now.
— Elisa-Marie Dumas, head of partner development and corporate innovation at Investible
7. Everyone drives to work and the cost of living is enormous
For a country with such a great climate and an outdoors lifestyle, it’s a car culture. With the exception of Melbourne or Canberra, Australians like to drive even when there is a public transport alternative – and cities are designed to suit cars, not bikes, particularly Sydney.
Australia is shockingly expensive. You won’t be living by the beach because you won’t be able to afford it. I’ve known lots of expats who’ve transferred with their company and realised they totally underestimated the cost of living, especially if they planned to stay long term and buy a home.
— A managing director of the Australian arm of a global firm
8. The hours are longer but more flexible
The first thing I noticed when I got my contract was the 8.30am start time. Having been in media sales for seven years in London where it’s only ever 9 or 9.30am to 5.30pm, it was quite a stinger! I had to call my sister (in recruitment in Sydney) to confirm! And then there is no “set lunch break”. In the UK we had a blanket, industry-wide lunch break of 1-2pm. Not having to justify early/ late lunches is very pleasant!
That goes hand in hand with how laid back it is! You’re much more likely to text your boss when you’re 10 minutes late from lunch elsewhere in the world than you would in good old ‘Straya! Here it’s a given that a) you work hard so a few minutes here and there don’t matter and b) you’re an adult!
I also feel like people socialise less after work here than in London. People have their own lives in both places, but more rubbish transport here limits their ability to “hang back” like you can in London where tubes and buses come every two minutes and take you everywhere. Whereas here it’s a lot of “if I don’t go now, my next ferry is an hour”. In some ways it puts you off, as it’s just hassle.
And talking about commuting, it is pretty different here. Very polite! I have never before seen people form an orderly queue for a bus. In London it’s a free-for-all – and loads of buses are so busy they don’t even stop.
— Anne Marie Skinner, commercial strategy manager at Allure Media
9. Employees are a little too comfortable
It’s a little awkward, but over the years I’ve had many conversations with fellow expats about how Australians are prone to laziness, at least compared with other countries like Britain, Ireland, and the US.
I think it’s a combination of more than two decades of steady job creation and an industrial relations environment that makes it extremely difficult to sack people. When jobs are as secure as they are in Australia, there is less of an incentive to be a star performer, to come in every day and smash it out of the park. People in countries where there have been downturns or where there is strong competition for every job will often work every day as if their life depends on it – because it does.
Australians do great work, but it often feels like they do “just enough”, rather than volunteering for challenging projects, starting early and finishing late, and consistently going the extra mile. It’s not that it’s terrible for business, but you sometimes wonder if Australians truly realise how ferociously competitive it really is in the wider world.
— An experienced manager in the media industry
10. On Friday, we drink!
I’m Malaysian and used to work in Malaysia.
I would say the key difference is that drinks on Friday or in the office is common in Australia, but in Malaysia you would need to do it outside work out of respect.
Work-life balance here is better obviously, and it is normal to pull longer hours in Malaysia. Also, other than workload, most Malaysians that I know choose to leave work later to avoid traffic and congestions with the public transport.
— Rena Phuah, Advertising product specialist at Allure Media
11. Australians ‘get s— done’
I was born in New Zealand, grew up across South-east Asia, went to university in Boston and then worked in NYC and London before Sydney.
I have to say work is as equally social here as in London and NYC, but there’s much more of a “work culture” in Australia. For example, post-work drinks, team outings, lunch BBQs etc — which is a mega plus! I’d also have to say that although the work ethic is equal, there’s a much more relaxed and friendly vibe here in Australia. A client meeting may be over lunchtime drinks versus sitting in a board room.
I have to say overall there’s much more of a “get shit done in work hours” type attitude here than elsewhere. Most people here work more effectively in the day to ensure they can leave on time. I’d say Australia as a whole has a better work-life balance.
— Jessica Arrowsmith, beauty editor of Popsugar Australia
12. There’s a lot of slang
The country is so big that it covers five distinct time zones, so if you want to run a national business you need to cover a huge range of business hours that would be the equivalent of supporting a customer base in Western Europe or North America but with a much smaller population and potential market.
You need to get use to the Aussie office slang. On Day 1, I personally encountered the following interesting twists on both the English language and indeed the normal office lexicon .. Doco -> Document, Preso -> PowerPoint presentation and the classic … Spready –> Excel Spreadsheet!
— A C-level executive at a national IT services firm
13. Short-term thinking is a problem
Without getting on a political soapbox I continue to be surprised at the short-termism of the Australian outlook. We’ve fallen in to the trap of focusing on the 24-hour news cycle and the monthly results instead of having a long-term plan that involves real investment in our population and our capabilities. We should be competing on the global stage on a much more regular basis. We’re lucky enough to have a culture that encourages early adoption, so why don’t we see more risk being taken?
Despite the “give it a go” image, I’m always surprised that we tend to reward safe-playing mediocrity when we should be hugely more optimistic and competitive as a nation. That change requires action, it takes a risk-aptitude and a willingness to fail, something that we have to encourage and foster.
— Grant Thomson, managing director of Versent
14. Australians value family time
I moved to Australia from the US in 2012. As an expat, I see that the culture here is for Australians to work very hard and take their jobs and careers very seriously. The biggest and most pleasant surprise is that Australians are equally serious about making sure there is a balance between work and other areas of their life like family and health. This balance seems to be intrinsically societal; that Australia has decided to place significant importance on being outside and spending time with family, as much so as working incredibly hard. I think this is epitomised by so many companies closing for a week or more over the holidays to ensure their staff has down time to spend with family and enjoy the summer. What a great way to approach work and life!
— Matthew Kates, country manager for Australia and New Zealand at Zerto
15. It might be a ‘work hard, play hard’ culture but people really do work hard
I grew up in the UK and started working as a management consultant in Sydney 12 years ago. When I first started working in Australia I was immediately struck by the “work hard, play hard” culture that was often talked about. My observation back then was in Australia, when compared with the UK and US, this was more skewed towards play rather than work as Australia’s working days were typically shorter and holiday entitlements longer. Not necessarily a bad thing, just visibly different.
Fast forward 12 years and there is a noticeable difference in actual and expected working hours in our country. This is not necessarily desirable in the sense of work-life balance, but I would say the biggest change for me is in terms of productivity during working hours. I certainly see a significant difference in how “hard” people are willing to work to achieve productivity gains. This is coming partly from working smarter, but also from taking more time than 12 years ago out of family and social time. It is an area that we need to watch as burn-out and work fatigue will become real concerns for companies and employees.
— Graham Jackson, CEO of Fluent Retail
16. There’s not a specific pub that everyone goes to after work
I’m from the UK and worked in London for eight years before moving to Sydney.
I think one of the biggest differences is the out of work culture between London and Sydney. In London there is the pub culture and all the media companies (and lots of my friends from other industries too) have their preferred “local” where half the company congregate on a Wednesday, Thursday and Friday night. You could pretty much turn up on your own to your local knowing that there would be a ton of people you knew there. Even in the winter all these pubs are full of people out on the pavement having after-work drinks.
Over here I don’t think that it’s less social, but I think people are more health conscious , make more plans in the evening and also have a higher proportion of people who drive to work, hence the reluctance to go for spontaneous drinks after work.
— Gemma Labadini, business development director at Allure Media
17. Employees speak their minds in front of their superiors
[Originally from Israel and] having worked in London and Hong Kong, what surprised me most about the Australian working culture is that its people are very genuine and straightforward. There is very little consideration for hierarchy or seniority within the social structure.
People are often encouraged to speak their minds in front of their superiors. It’s refreshing to see that everyone’s voice is heard and there are very few social formalities within the Australian working culture.
— Yanir Yakutiel, CEO and founder of Sail Funding
18. Australians would rather solve problems themselves than ask for help
Coming from working in both London and Kuala Lumpur I’ve found Australia much more forward-thinking, with a work hard, play hard culture. Other things I noticed are: There aren’t as many big corporates, so lots of other business people I meet are in small businesses or start-ups.
In general, people tend to try to solve a problem themselves before asking. This contrasts with South-east Asia, where a lot of people do very specific jobs to the bare minimum and don’t aspire to progress much further in their careers.
In Asia it is the done thing to hang out with colleagues at the weekend, but here people seem to have many different friendship groups outside of work – which is refreshing.
— Xander Addington, research & insights analyst at Allure Media
19. The time zone isn’t an issue
One of the reasons I wanted to move here [from the UK] was the embrace the work-life balance culture… The other thing is the time zone. Sure, working across a global business can have its challenges for leadership meetings – but on the whole I’ve worked for US California-based companies for a while and it works well for me. I get up early and it’s just late morning for them, so I take calls during my commute. By my afternoon they’ve all gone home and we can get our Monday started whilst America is still enjoying their weekend. Wouldn’t change that for the world.
— Charlie Wood, managing director for ANZ, Dropbox
20. There’s a ‘limitless capacity for innovation’
I arrived here as an expat 20 years ago — originally on a working visa with Ernst & Young. What surprised me initially was that Australia’s reputation for hitting the beach, beer and barbecue with the thinnest excuse proved to be true.
However, I also noticed that it didn’t come at the cost of hours put in at work. That was one of the great myths put to rest — I had never worked harder or longer hours in my life.
What I am no longer surprised by, but constantly reminded of, is the limitless capacity for innovation. I think it’s based on our collective capacity for improvisation — a story that stretches back more than 40,000 years. It’s part of Australia’s DNA and I see it reflected in our own business – agile, diverse, innovative with speed to market as a key point of difference here and internationally.
The other thing that does continue to surprise me is that despite a reputation for “calling it as you see it”, some Australians can be remarkably shy about saying what they think. You have to keep testing your assumptions and observations with your stakeholders — internally and externally — to check that you understand their priorities, the opportunities and the problems we are trying to solve together.
— Stuart Allinson, managing director of BidEnergy
21. The individual holds more responsibility and therefore can have greater impact
The Australian Tourism PR campaign works wonders on us Brits… we see sun, beaches and a vibrant city. The reality is that if you come from working across markets such as Europe or the US, the size of organisations and industry is much smaller here. A sales division in the UK would have 2000 people — here, maybe 10 per cent of that number.
That means the specialist resources you used to have to get things done fall away. The reality is that Australians work really hard so more of the heavy lifting is done by the individual. There is not the profit margin or volume to hire or bring in more resources.
Conversely, this presents an incredible professional opportunity when you move to Australia. Your role, previously more defined or sectorised, is much broader here. Consequently, you get to learn more across a wider portfolio, either horizontally or vertically.
There are generally less layers to the executive team, so you can get greater exposure earlier on to more senior personnel and can have a greater impact more quickly. Industry networks are smaller and so you can get to build stronger, deeper relationships more quickly. If you are good, you will shine, if you are not… well find another country, you’ll be found out quickly here!
— Karen Lawson, CEO of Slingshot
22. Everyone is keen for a coffee
I’m originally British and lived and worked in London for 12 years. The main difference I have noticed is that everyone will meet you for a coffee in Sydney and Melbourne even if they have no intention of doing business with you. Maybe it’s because everyone in Sydney loves coffee so much, but I have managed to get in front of some really senior people just for a coffee. And then… nothing!
— Liz Ferguson, managing director of Kin Community
23. Australians place value on their personal wellness in the workplace
I moved from the UK to Australia eight years ago. Australians seem to appreciate that they spend more time with their colleagues than anyone else. Coffee breaks, after-work drinks and catching up with the people you work with is essential to an Aussie’s working day.
I’ve found that it’s like this across all industries here. In the UK, the working culture is more about getting the work done, heading home and living separate lives to your colleagues. I think this comes down to Australians’ desire for balance in their life. They place value on their personal wellness in the workplace – including the relationships they have with the people around them.
— Bradley Delamare, CEO of Tank Stream Labs
24. Australians are prepared to go the extra mile
“No worries” actually means just that. Don’t worry, the job will get done. I have seen this in my own workforce and tradesmen working at home. I always get a sense of calm when I hear it spoken as I know I can rely on the individual to do what he or she has promised.
Cultural diversity takes on a new meaning when you work in Australia. Everyone is accepted and as long as you’re willing to work you will be accepted and welcomed no matter where you come from. Everyone is given a fair go. I have read of racism, but I have never witnessed it, even in what might be considered a “redneck” place.
The proximity to Asia and the fact we are in the same time zone means there are enormous opportunities across the continent for Aussies. I was very impressed with the way Australian businesses work with and for Asian companies. I have visited some remote Chinese cities only to find an Australian advising a business in a particular sector, with no Mandarin, but still readily accepted, contributing and having fun with the workforce. You’ll find Aussies all over the world doing the same thing.
The one thing that stands out for me is, more than I have seen in other parts of the world including the US, Australians are prepared to go the extra mile.