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Australian Work Culture - some surprises for Expats

Many expatriates make the move to Australia hoping for a lifestyle change and to make their way up the career ladder. They are seduced by Australia's incredible beaches, sunshine and laid back attitude. Australia is generally reputed to be an easy going place to live and work. However, for many expats, although Australian culture may seem similar, the working culture has some differences that can be a surprise and take some adjustment.

Working hours

Australians are proud of their work hard, play hard culture but what does this mean in practice? For starters, the normal professional workday typically

starts at 8.30am which may come as a shock for those from Europe used to later work start times. In Brisbane, where the sun rises at 4.30am in December or in Sydney, where people drive in early to avoid traffic congestion, it is not uncommon to see people in the office by 7.30am (some who have already squeezed in an early morning workout). However, working hours are more flexible. As long as your work is done and you meet client and job commitments, you can generally start early, leave early and vice versa. There is an increased ability to work from home when required to fit in with family and personal demands. There are no set times for lunch breaks and people generally work hard during working hours.

Australians value work life balance and take family time seriously. Many businesses will close down over the Christmas New Year period to allow this family time. However, on a day to day basis it is still a difficult juggle between personal and work demands and even more so if your work has an international focus with different time zones and interstate or international travel.

Workplace culture

Chit chat and social discussion before getting down to nitty gritty of the business deal is the norm. There tends to be a more causal way of working with less hierarchical structure that in some other countries (e.g. US). Often client meetings are held over lunch / dinner instead of boardroom. After work drinks on a Friday are the norm and socialising with work colleagues and your superiors is important for internal networking and promotion.

Australians have a healthy sense of humour and joking around at work is common. If you are able to show you are human, make fun of your mistakes, laugh at a joke at your own expense and give as good as you get, you will be embraced professionally as well as socially.

Become a coffee drinker. You might be surprised what LinkedIn contact or potential client make might make space in their diary for a 30 minute cup of coffee. Many internal meetings with colleagues and staff also take place over a friendly cup of coffee.

Self deprecation is essential in the office environment. Australians do not like people who big note themselves ("tall poppies") and they will cut them down to size. Earning trust and proving yourself but being humble at the same time will stand you in good stead with work colleagues and gain respect.

Language barrier

For expats with English as their second language the Australian accent can be unfamiliar and difficult to understand. Even expats from English speaking countries such as UK, South Africa and the US, can be perplexed by the Australian way of shortening their words and creating their own "lingo". Work colleagues may ask, "How are you going" (hello)? You will quickly learn what a doco (document), spready (spreadsheet) and preso (presentation) are. Friday after work you will be invited for a tipple (drinks) and maybe a bubbly (champagne) or a schooner (pint of beer) or two. You may also 'chuck a sickie' (take a day off feigning sickness) or need a day off work because you are feeling 'crook' (sick). The change in terminology may be confusing until you get the hang of it.

Australian's have a reputation for being straightforward and candid in their communication. However, there may be subtleties to this in the work environment that are not obvious to grasp for expats. If your superior suggests that they want to mention something ‘incidentally’, what they may actually mean is that it is in fact the main purpose of the discussion. If a manager suggests that they want to ‘briefly consider other options’ this may require immediately stopping what you are working on and starting all over again.


Four weeks annual leave is the norm in Australia. This is less than many Europeans are used to but considered generous for many US expats. Australia is unusual in that some employers allow workers to roll over leave continually from one year to the next. However, companies often mandate using a week of annual leave for Christmas, leaving just three weeks annually. It is often expected by some companies that employees only take two weeks at a time. This can be difficult for expats with family and friends overseas where flight time and expenses mean they need at least 3-4 weeks for a trip back home. However, once you have built up some trust and value at an organization you can generally negotiate some additional leave as circumstances dictate.

Do your research

You may need to be prepared to take a step down the career ladder. Often overseas experience counts for less than you might think with many Australian companies preferring locally acquired skills. Furthermore, in many professions you will need to do additional study to re-qualify in Australia. It is important to adequately explain how your overseas experience has translated in to skills and knowledge that are valuable and useful in the Australian context. An experienced recruiter will be invaluable to get you and your resume ready for the Australian job market.

If you come to Australia without work lined up in advance, it is a risk. Not to mention, without the correct visa in place you may be forced to leave. Work uncertainty creates significantly more stress, high costs of living means money diminishes quickly and settling in takes longer due to uncertainty with living arrangements and less ability to go out and socialise, make friends and create a support network. However, do remember that many popular activities that make Australia such a great place to live can be enjoyed for free, such as a swim at the beach, a local bush walk, a picnic or a play in the park with family and new friends.

Australia is undeniably an expensive place to live. Although salaries are higher in Sydney and Melbourne and there are more job opportunities in certain fields (e.g. finance), you may be better off in a smaller city like Brisbane, Adelaide or Perth that have a more community feel, are easier to get around and more affordable to rent or buy your new home.

Using a local relocation agent to help you narrow down areas to live that suit your lifestyle preferences and budget, advise on local schooling options, the reality of commuting options and giving you an insiders advantage to finding your new rental home can be of great value, saving you significant time and stress and getting you off to a positive, confident start to life in your new city. It enables you to focus your attention on overcoming the challenges of being the new kid on the block at work, getting to know your new colleagues and get started on the job of making new friends and connections as quickly as possible.

It will take time to adjust and become familiar with Australia's work culture but for most it is an thoroughly satisfying time where new skills are forged, lifelong friends are made and experiences valued for ever. Work experience combined with Australia's enviable lifestyle can be so rewarding that many expats never leave and make Australia their permanent home - so we hope you enjoy and make the most of your Australian adventure!

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