Despite its popularity as the La Dolce Vita country, the work culture in Italy is “work hard, play hard”. Regardless of whether you’ll run your own firm or be an employee in one of the companies present in the country, you’ll have to adapt to the way of doing business in Italy.
Never mind that 1/3 of the economy is in nero (under the table), we’re here to help you do it right. Sort of. I mean, if you’re not ready to master l’arte d’ arrangiarsi (the art of “getting by”) then maybe you should just stay where you are.
But very few things are black and white over here, so you’d better decide how much “gray” you’re comfortable with before you sell all your furniture. For those fearless souls that have more enthusiasm than common sense, let us explain a thing or two about working in Italy as a foreigner.
What is the work culture in Italy
Extra-long lunch breaks, odd work hours, building personal relationships and freedom to express your opinion. These are just some of the peculiarities you’ll encounter when working in Italy.
You’ll be best off to disregard the laidback lifestyle once you enter the office, where you’ll be expected to respect the hierarchy while closing the power distance between yourself and your boss.
The few elements of the work culture that transcend the streets and are deeply rooted in the office environment are the expectations of you to understand Italian and to always be dressed elegantly.
For an Expat working in Italy, adjusting to the norms of Italian business and commerce can be somewhat of a challenge. You really need to downshift by a couple of gears and stop trying to impose your former work ethic on your current job situation. Not to say that Italians don’t work hard. They do, but they go about their workday at a different pace than what you would come to expect.
Employees usually are encouraged to be pro-active, self-starters, or at least try to look busy. Italians don’t appear to be troubled by such concepts. Don’t get me wrong, some actual work does manage to interrupt the constant string of coffee and cigarette breaks. But the project at hand is considered a mere annoyance, an afterthought, to the real task of discussing soccer or comparing family recipes for lasagna.
When working for a larger firm or international corporation in Italy, you can occasionally observe the unwanted intrusion of an American-style business philosophy. These companies even try to inject a fair amount of American vocabulary into the workplace, which can sound very strange to the Italian employee. Terms such “staff,” “meeting,” “productivity,” “competitiveness,” and “showing up to work on time,” have now (reluctantly) found their way into the corporate lexicon. Nonetheless, the actual meaning of these terms still tends to get lost in translation.
More exasperating still is dealing with government workers who often regard your presence at the same level as they would a gnat or a persistent rash. You may get angry with this attitude and be tempted to take out your frustrations on the postal employee, for example, who is talking on her cellphone behind the glass. However, this will do you absolutely no good. She has a very secure job and has no qualms about telling you precisely where you can put that package you wanted to send. Congratulations, now you get to take a new number and go back to the end of the line. Or better yet, just go to another post office at that point.
For small businesses, the workday isn’t quite as brutal. Even if you put in a solid 2 or 3 hours of work in the morning, you still have your “pausa” to look forward to. “The Pause,” is the time of day in Italy when all of the local businesses shut down and the workers go home for their three hour lunch break. I suppose it is the equivalent to the Spanish “siesta.” I don’t know where, when, or why this tradition started, but what I do know is that it can be quite vexing to an uninitiated expat. Many are used to 24 hour access to everything. They naively expect things to function efficiently and in a timely manner. The world is supposed to cater to their every need or whim. When doing business in Italy, you can forget about all of that—just toss away your “To Do” list, go find a sunny piazza, and have a glass of wine.
Now that we’ve set the tone, let’s dive into the specifics of Italy’s work culture and makes it so special.
The internationality in Italy is as present as it is absent. You’ll cross paths with many expats during your tenure in the bigger cities, but nowhere near enough to get integrated into the office environment.
Favouring the appointment of relatives and close friends on key positions, Italians are most likely going to be the key players in your organization.
Interpersonal relationships will be one of the most important aspects of your job. And what better way to break the ice and get close to your superiors and direct colleagues than to speak their language?!
Is speaking Italian necessary when working in Italy?
Knowing your Italian will be an absolute necessity if you want to feel comfortable at work.
Luckily, you’ll have the opportunity to practice it almost everywhere since the majority of the population in Italy either avoids to or doesn’t understand English.
It is best to start your language preparation prior to your arrival in the country and developing it in the streets in Italy and the office once you’ve settled.
Are Italian organizations hierarchical?
Most of the established organizations operating on Italy’s territory have a strict rank system that respects power and age. You’ll notice that besides the experience and abilities, high ranking professionals boast admirable personal qualities. Such individuals are the ones who have the final say on strategic decisions.
However, something to keep in mind is that you’ll be given the opportunity to voice your opinions during the course of meetings. You should be prepared to see all the credit going to the highest-ranking person to be present.
Family businesses, regardless of their size, are a whole different type of beast. In such firms, the decision making is concentrated in the family members.
Finally, startups are the companies that are the same as everywhere else. Their structure tends to be flat, with everyone having an equal share of voice and final credit.
Meetings serve a different purpose
Since everyone has the right to voice their opinions during meetings in the Italian workplace, they can often become chaotic with multiple conversations being held at once.
Even though first meetings are important in every country, they are imperative in the work culture in Italy. Presenting yourself in a neat suit and maintaining a professional approach is the way to go if you want the meeting to be productive.
Always make sure to exchange business cards when meeting someone for the first time. Taking a moment to review the business card of the other person is a sign of respect!
First meetings are never organized with the purpose of reaching an immediate agreement between the participating parties. Instead, meetings in the Italian business practice are regarded as an occasion to develop a sense of mutual trust and respect.
Be ready to engage in conversations on light topics at the beginning of every meeting.
You should be prepared for things to heat up once the actual meeting discussions kick-off. Despite the meeting agenda being present, they serve as nothing more than a relative guideline since participants often jump from one point to another.
Always have data to support the points you make.
Besides being flexible in the discussions you should be ready to find the balance between listening and making your voice heard. Although this may differ depending on the rapport with the participants, it is often the case that people raise their voices and express their honest opinions.
A moderate rise in the voice is unlikely to come across as rude. Regardless, be mindful of yourself and respect the meeting dynamic.
Unlike in many other countries, decisions are almost never reached or made on the spot. It is often the case that the high ranking individuals have either made their decision in advance or will use the meeting as an opportunity to generate ideas based on the opinions of the participants. As a result, negotiations tend to be drawn out over longer than average timeframes.
Typical high-pressure tactics should be avoided. Instead, try approaching the negotiation with a touch of humour and according to the personal relationship with the participants.
Don’t be surprised when you get an invite for a business lunch or dinner! You should take this as a sign that your relationship with the person is progressing well. During such meetings, it is best to follow the lead of the host. From sitting down, through starting the meal, all the way to ending the meeting and bidding farewell, you should be mindful of the cues. Such receptions may often last as long as 3 hours.
It is propper Italian etiquette for the host to pay the bill at the end of the meal.
The best times to make business appointments are between 10:00 to11:00 in the morning and after 15:00 in the afternoon.
Time is relative
Although punctuality is a sign of respect, Italians don’t see it as a priority. You shouldn’t perceive is a sign of disrespect either.
The length of meetings is another relative concept. They often go overtime as a result of the heated discussions that take place.
Your best bet is to be punctual regardless of the person you’re meeting.
You can’t lead the La Dolce Vita without the *Vita*! Work-life balance is an important aspect of the Italian way of doing business.
When it comes to working hours, the standard office time is between 9:30 and 18:30 on weekdays. Lunch breaks can be as long as 2 hours. Factoring in the extra-long lunch breaks, you should expect to leave the office at around 19:30 – 20:00.
Many Italians head home for lunch if they don’t have any business-related restaurant visits.
There are plenty of national holidays, during which you’re expected to fully embrace the sweet Italian lifestyle. Most of them are nationwide, but some are also specific to particular cities. Most of the festivities centre around Catholic Christianity and are regarded as important.
Besides the public holidays, you can expect to find many locals to be out of office at the end of August. This is when people usually take their paid time off.
Be aware of the public holidays and personal time off periods and avoid scheduling meetings then.
NOW you’ve adjusted to working in Italy.
References: Yordan Tips on Housing Any Where and Rick’s Rome