I’ve been doing some unofficial research of late into the habits and behaviour of Dutch workmen. I say unofficial because it’s more observation than research and has happened only because we have decorators repainting the exterior of our building.
It’s supposedly a twelve week contract which has already over run by at least four, despite the glorious weather we’ve been experiencing. I doubt anyone has thought to introduce an incentive bonus for early completion of the contract.
Why my interest?
Over the past several years I’ve had a lot of contact with workmen both here and in North America, usually as project manager, and the similarities between the tribes is remarkable yet it’s the differences that really fascinate me.
Are they due to nature or nurture?
My interest in such things goes back a long way. My father considered it part of his parenting responsibilities to ensure my sister and I were able to look after ourselves in a practical way. Changing the fuse in an electric plug, to electrical wiring, installing light fittings, wiring in electric ovens, dishwashers, washing machines and getting to grips with basic plumbing – he taught us well.
Having so much practical knowledge passed on from a master has put me in the special position of knowing when someone is giving me a load of BS. I admit to a certain primal pleasure in listening to a workman explain the difficulties of a job knowing he thinks I’m an idiot. The day he realises he’s been played is always one of sweet revenge, and I hope a valuable life lesson to the more chauvinistic types.
The Captain and I have overseen homes built in England, America and the Netherlands so we are not rank amateurs at this.
My real hands on, thrown in the deep end kind of research was back in 2005 after a bit of a brush with Hurricane Katrina. The number of contractors involved was endless, language skills essential and not taking any poop from shysters crucial.
I was privileged to have lived and breathed in the same environment as these hardworking male dominated tribes of workers. Watching them toil over the months, observing their frustrations, problem solving capacities, skills with brick, wood, tile, marble and sheet-rock I learned curse words in several languages and new skills along the way.
These guys were hard-working, committed and, on the whole, took pride in what they did. These weren’t just local contractors, these were guys who’d driven from all over the country to help out; some storm chasers to be sure, but the majority good, gifted men doing the right thing.
They worked long hours, rarely took breaks. This was not because of the hurricane; guys like them worked hard all the time. Before the storm they took weekends off; post Katrina many worked for 4-6 months, seven days a week during every daylight hour. Heroic really.
Fast forward a year to fitting our new home in the Netherlands and I found myself working with a new tribe, distant cousins of the one I’d called my own back in Louisiana. Certain assumptions were made that shouldn’t have been.
I had naïvely assumed basic things would stay the same despite the language differences; knowledge and availability of building materials, knowledge of how to use them and a strong work ethic.
Oh dear. Never make assumptions.
Before I go further I want to be clear this is not to put Dutch workmen down in any way; it’s just their approach to the workplace and work in general can seem very different if you have encountered the same breed elsewhere.
Patient observation over the last five years has allowed me to scrutinise the idiosyncrasies of behaviour in Dutch workmen which I am more than happy to share with you.
Workmen here have a very set routine. They arrive on time, usually just before eight, spend half an hour or so assessing what was done the previous day, ruminate on todays plan then break for breakfast and a quick review of the daily newspapers.
The good weather in recent weeks has seen another trait of behaviour rarely seen outside this country. Certainly not in North America.
We have a communal garden which has been taken over by the painters. Each morning they arrive and unload plastic garden furniture and set chairs in a line facing the building to more easily evaluate their work and discuss the finer points of the job. Breakfast will be followed by unloading supplies and setting up equipment. Half an hour of painting and it’s time for a coffee break. Sun chairs and newspapers once more.
Over the weeks and with the continuance of good weather the chairs have changed. They have gone from regular plastic to more substantial reclining ones with seat and back cushions and a small plastic coffee table. Two weeks ago cushioned sun loungers appeared, all set in a line to allow maximum relaxation whilst deliberating on their handiwork.
Coffee is followed by an hour or so of work then a break for lunch and getting some serious rays on the loungers. The afternoons consist of an hour or so of work, afternoon tea, then packing up for the day. They have all left by 4 o’clock, exhausted.
On the odd day of rain or high winds they have sat huddled in their white vans, wrapped up warm and disgruntled, clutching warming cups of tea which steam up their vans, angrily fighting with the large obstinate pages of newspapers in the confined space. On such days they are best avoided.
On regular days they are jolly and cheerful, chatting and joshing with one another. The radio was banned by our neighbours during week three; there is only so much techno you can play at one time outside of Ibiza. They have given impromptu singing performances of pop, opera and on one occasion a note and word-perfect rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.
As they arrived this morning I noticed they have bought a sun parasol and a full sized water cooler – quite a relief as they are sporting tans more reminiscent of the south of France than northern Europe and I do worry about them dehydrating.
I am surprised by my own laid back attitude to this indigenous tribe. Five years ago this approach to work would have driven me to the point of drink or melt-down, wanting them to show drive, commitment and passion not a laissez-faire charm.
What I have learned is acceptance. It is not my place to change the culture I live in, my responsibility is to adapt to it, which I rather think I have.
So a few tips on how to save yourself from a stress induced heart attack. Here are my tips for dealing with Dutch workmen if you’ve only previously dealt with their North American relatives :
1. Even the most basic home improvement project will take more than six months.
2. Good planning is essential – factor in national holidays, the eight week summer shutdown, five hour working day
3. All supplies will have to be ordered – whatever you’re told the reality will be a 3-4 month lead time between order and delivery
4. Supplies arrive but will be the wrong order, size, amount or damaged.
5. The job will start later than planned as the builder will not have factored the supplies delay into his calculations and you will have missed your slot for the work to be completed. The job will be pushed back 2 months till you can be slotted back in the schedule
6. Go back to point 4
7. The start day arrives; if the weather is inclement work will be put off until the following day. If fine, day one will be spent deciding what equipment they should have brought with them, then disappearing for the rest of the day to find the missing items.
8. The job will always take twice or three times as long to complete as promised. The fact you have visitors arriving for a month, planned for after the work was finished will not be sufficient reason to speed up the job.
9. Do not, under any circumstances, allow any worker to leave the site for any reason. An innocent “I have to go pick up some screws” at 10 o’clock in the morning will result in one man off the job till 3.55pm.
10. Do not offer to make tea or coffee; make it clear from the outset you are not a 24-hour cafeteria service but they can help themselves to water. Under no circumstances utter the words “make yourselves at home” or “help yourselves”.
The two tribes have many endearing and similar qualities but environment seems to have made a huge impact on their differing approaches to work commitment, duration and application.
It is perhaps testament to my adjustment in this new tribal culture that I no longer have permanent bruising to the head from having spent so many years banging it in frustration on a variety of solid objects. The head banging has been replaced by gentle sighs, a resigned shake of the head and tolerance.
It didn’t hurt that leaving the building this morning I heard the sound of a wolf-whistle; it doesn’t take much to charm a girl, especially when I realised there was no-one around but me. At least in the Netherlands you don’t turn invisible once you’re over 30, which has to count for something.