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Four tips to make sure you nail Switzerland’s quirky office culture

With the home working obligation now lifted in Switzerland, many employees will be heading back to the office. This is what you should do to fit right in.

Four tips to make sure you nail Switzerland's quirky office culture
In Switzerland, time for lunch is really time for lunch. Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile from Pexels

From June 26th, the requirement to work from home has been wound back in Switzerland.  

If you have been working from home for most of the pandemic and are now heading back to your place of employment, you may have forgotten what it is like to work in the office.

Or maybe you are a new arrival to Switzerland and are not sure what the local rules are and how you can fit into the work culture without sticking out like a sore thumb.

Of course, there are some workplaces in Switzerland that are casual (though “Swiss casual” is not quite the same as, say, “Italian casual”).

But we will focus on the most common type of business — the formal one, which is the kind the Swiss seem to feel most comfortable in.

Here are four things about Swiss work culture that will shock or surprise you (or both):

You had me at hello

In many ways, the business environment is a microcosm of Swiss society in general. In other words, it reflects the prevailing customs across the country.

As the Swiss are sticklers for proper greetings — rather than a casual “hey”  — this is one skill you have to master, especially in formal offices.

When arriving in the morning you must therefore greet your co-workers in the language of your region (grüezi, bonjour, or buongiorno) and add their name to the greeting — either the first name, if you are well acquainted, or last name, if that’s your office’s policy.

But sneaking in quietly like a thief in the night without saying a proper hello is not going to cut it in Switzerland.

Fix up, look sharp

Depending on where you work and whether you are in contact with clients, the dress code may vary from “formal” to “smart-casual” — meaning that you don’t have to wear a suit and a tie, but still be attired appropriately for the business environment, from head to toe.

Mismatched clothes and funky hair may be acceptable if you are employed in a circus, but this attire doesn’t belong in a mainstream workplace, where you may be regarded as a buffoon and not taken seriously if you show up in such a get-up.

Employers don’t care about your right to express your individuality and creativity through your clothing; they care about not scaring away clients.

Punctuality is the politeness of kings

The Swiss have punctuality coded into their DNA and coming to work on time — or better yet, ahead of time — is very important.

After all, they all wear Swiss watches, so excuses such as “my watch is running late” or “my watch stopped working” will be met with incredulity.

By the same token, excuses like “my train / bus / tram / was late” would not ring true in Switzerland either (though they may be totally justifiable in other countries).

An illness, doctor’s appointment, or death in the family, on the other hand, are acceptable reasons for being late, or not coming to work at all.

And there is another excuse which will more likely than not be accepted by your employer — but only in Switzerland.

Just ask Ellen, an American living in a small Swiss village near Lake Geneva.

She told The Local she was driving to work one morning when she saw a herd of goats walking down the narrow street, being led from their barn to the nearby pasture.

The procession was taking a long time and Ellen started to worry not only about being late, but also about what excuse she will give her boss.

The only excuse for being late to work. Photo by PASCAL POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP
“Boy, wasn’t the goat traffic bad today?” The only acceptable excuse for being late to work. Photo by PASCAL POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP

In the end, she decided that honestly was the best policy and told her employer the truth.

To her surprise, he was totally understanding because, as he said, goats and cows are frequent traffic stoppers in Switzerland.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why are cows so important in Switzerland?

It is common for Swiss businesses to close between noon and 13:30 to allow their employees to have a proper lunch, either in a restaurant or at home, if they live nearby.

Swiss restaurants are typically full during lunchtime as groups of employees eat their meals together (at least this was the case before the pandemic).

When she first started to work in a Swiss office, the aforementioned Ellen did what she used to do back in the US — she brought her sandwich and ate at her desk while she worked.

Her co-workers were giving her sidelong glances, until Ellen’s boss finally told her to go home and have a proper meal.

Ellen obliged, even though she became concerned that a herd of goats will block her car on the way back to work.

READ MORE: Eight ways to make sure you get along with your Swiss neighbours

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5 modern Swiss novels to read this summer

Switzerland is a diverse, multilingual country and its literature reflects that. To pep up your late-summer reading list, we've put together a list of novels by modern authors from across Switzerland.

5 modern Swiss novels to read this summer

All of the books we’ve chosen are also available in translation if your language skills aren’t quite novel-reading-ready just yet.

Martin Suter, Small World (German, available in translation)
Zurich-born ex-copywriter and creative director Suter has been pretty prolific since he turned his hand to novels – he’s written 14 since 1991, as well as four plays and nine collections of his columns for Swiss newspapers.

Sadly, not all of them have made it into translation (yet), but his breakthrough 1997 novel Small World is a great introduction to his work. It’s a fast-paced psychological thriller with well-drawn characters that follows Konrad, a long-time sort-of friend-sort-of member of staff to the mysterious and super-wealthy Koch family.

Things start to go wrong as Konrad becomes increasingly forgetful. This is initially attributed to his penchant for a tipple, but it soon becomes clear he has Alzheimer’s.

As his memories of the present are replaced by those of the distant past and the complicated truths that lurk below the surface, he starts to represent a threat to the powerful Koch family.

It’s also spawned a (not-quite-as-good) film adaptation starring Gerard Depardieu in 2010 (Je n’ai rien oublié).

melinda nadj abonji

Swiss author Melinda Nadj Abonji smiles after being awarded with the German Book Prize (Deutscher Buchpreis) for the best German-language book on October 5, 2010. (Photo by FREDRIK VON ERICHSEN / DPA / AFP)

Melinda Nadj Abonji, Tauben Fliegen Auf (Fly Away, Pigeon)
Nadj Abonji was born in a part of Hungary that now belongs to Serbia and moved to Switzerland at the age of five to join her refugee parents.

This split between two places inspired this novel, which tells the story of the Kocsis family, who immigrated to Switzerland in the 70s knowing just one word – ‘work’, and the generations that follow them.

But it’s a heart-wrenching tale  – they have to deal with prejudice from their adopted community despite their best efforts to assimilate, as well as seeing from afar the devastating impact of the Balkan War on their loved ones back home. 

The perfectly paced novel beautifully merges the history and culture of two very different places and brings to life the challenges – both practical and emotional – of the immigrant experience and how it feels to leave part of yourself behind.

Zoe Jenny, Das Blütenstaubzimmer (The Pollen Room)
This was Basel-born Jenny’s first novel. Published in 1997, it’s since been translated into a whopping 27 languages.

It’s also the best-selling debut novel by a Swiss author if you needed another reason to give it a go.

The slim novella centres on Jo, the vulnerable and lonely product of a broken home and who, at 17, is still searching for love after her mother abandoned her when she was small. 

It’s a haunting story, full of evocative imagery and spare prose that works almost as well in the sensitive translation as in the original text.

joel dicker

Geneva-born writer Joel Dicker poses during a photo session in Paris on February 22, 2022. (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

Joel Dicker, La vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert (The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair)
Switzerland loves a good Krimi and Joel Dicker does a great job at weaving unexpected twists and turns into this postmodern murder mystery.

This easy page-turner sold over three million copies all over the world and was made into a mini series in 2018 starring Patrick Dempsey.

It tells the story of Marcus Goldman, a successful-but-shallow young American novelist in New Hampshire (where Dicker is said to have spent his summers), who is struggling with writing his next book. He goes to stay with his college professor, the eponymous Harry Quebert, to try to kickstart his writing.

But then Quebert is accused of the murder of a teenager who disappeared over 30 years ago and Marcus must work to clear his mentor’s name and find out the truth about what happened. In doing so, he finds the subject of his next book and the line between murder investigation and book-writing begins to cross over.

Anne Cuneo, Le trajet d’une riviere (Tregian’s Ground: The Life and Sometimes Secret Adventures of Francis Tregian, Gentleman and Musician) (French, available in translation)

Cuneo was born in Paris to Italian parents, but grew up in Switzerland, where she also studied. She wrote 15 novels, as well as dozen of plays before she died in 2015. 

If you love the music and history of the 16th century, then this 1993 book is for you. Mixing fact and fiction, it recounts the incredible story of Francis Tregian, the little-known copyist and compiler who is credited with the Fitzwlliam Virginal Book, the main source of keyboard music from the mid-1500s to the early 1600s in England. Containing some 300 works, it’s the most important surviving manuscript from that era.

Despite being born into nobility, Tregian didn’t have an easy time of it: Catholic at a time when England was under Queen Elizabeth’s Protestant rule, his family fortune gets seized and he has to fend for himself. Fortunately, his musical and language abilities mean he is able to do well abroad as he travels across Europe, sharing music with many famous composers – from Monteverdi to William Byrd– and hanging out with Shakespeare.

Do you have any must-read Swiss authors you think we should write about? Let us know in the comments!

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