Ten ways to manage a European Workforce

The term "not so united states of Europe" has never been more applicable when it comes to doing business across the continent. There are many challenges when managing employees across Europe. Here's what to look out for.

by Simon Macpherson
Last Updated: 16 Oct 2014

British businesses can spend many agonising hours explaining to US colleagues that we’re not all the same in Europe. Each country has very diverse cultures and business challenges - none more so than in the area of employment practice and work cultures.  


With sixteen languages and sixteen different cultures in the European Union alone, collective bargaining and inconsistent application of working time rules, careful preparation will pay dividends.


Simon Macpherson, senior director operations at workforce management organisation Kronos, explains how to get your head round it.  



Do your homework


Invest time in really understanding the country-specific laws relating to employees, their working time rights and employment practices. Don’t rely on your local people to tell you all the necessary facts - they often don’t know and inconsistent practices may therefore have evolved over the years in every organisation. The Federation of European Employers website is a great source of country-specific information.

Build a cross-country team


Don’t try to manage a European-wide management solution in isolation. You’ll need a cross-functional team from each of the countries involved – local buy-in at an early stage is critical to the success of a project.

Engage with the Works Councils


Don’t underestimate the power of the works councils in some countries – collective agreements cover more than 80% of the workforce in some countries. Bring them on board early in the process.

There isn’t one set of rules


The European Working Time Directive is one set of working time rules for Europe – right? Wrong.

Even something that sounds like a standard set of rules isn’t even close. In the UK, weekly hours may exceed 48 as long as this average is maintained over a 17 week reference period; in Portugal, weekly hours can be increased to 60 in some circumstances; and in Finland, the 8 hour daily limit doesn’t include overtime. Don’t assume there’s a one-size-fits-all set of rules – there isn’t.

Language is crucial


If you’re heading down the route of a single workforce management solution, bear in mind that the majority of your employees will need to interact with it. Unlike some business systems where the head office staff are expected to get by with English language instructions, a workforce management system touches every individual and will need to be fully translated and fully operational in the native language – make sure this is possible before you select a supplier.

Take small steps


Don’t be tempted to try and roll out a solution to multiple countries in one big bang approach. Take one country and then narrow it to a small number of sites first. Understand the challenges, refine the solution and then move on.

Know where to start


Some European countries have very rigid, non-negotiable employment practices and as such they are very difficult to get your head round. Sometimes, it’s better to concentrate first on the countries with fewer challenges – the 80/20 rule will mean that 80% of the challenges will come from 20% of the countries.

Sunday working – be mindful of local laws  


In the UK we relaxed Sunday working rules some years ago. However it’s not the same across Europe, for instance in Germany where working on Sundays and public holidays is generally prohibited. However, the German law on working hours provides for several exceptions in which working on a Sunday is permitted – with prior approval by governmental authorities in some circumstances.

Uncover complex contractual arrangements such as annual hours


Increasingly popular across Europe are pseudo salary schemes for hourly paid employees such as annualised hours agreements designed to avoid the complexity of calculating overtime whilst accommodating a varying demand for labour driven by the demands of the business. Ensure you uncover the detail of these and that any system deployed can handle the complexity.

Communicate, communicate, communicate


If you do consider a workforce management solution, you will still need to remember to adapt your management style to every country you wish to deploy to. Communication throughout the project is key to its success and this should be done by local champions. Why as a business are we undertaking this? What benefits are there to the employees and the business? Done correctly, you can get higher productivity from your team and spend less money by complying with local legislation and collective bargaining agreements.

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