Crossing cultures

It’s time to let the cat out of the bag: Amsterdam is a great place to live and work. The city has a talented, multilingual workforce and its location makes reaching other European cities (including Paris and Brussels) quick and easy. It’s also home to Europe’s fastest broadband speeds, and there’s a thriving startup ecosystem that supports entrepreneurs.

Some internationals might not know much about doing business with the Dutch, and could even have concerns about speaking a different language, knowing how to interact with locals and making new connections. Fortunately, there’s nothing to be afraid of, as the down-to-earth Dutch are known for being pleasant to work with, and foreign business leaders often comment on the ease of setting up and running a company in the country. 

To help, we’ve gathered insights and observations from people working across industries in Amsterdam – let their experience be your guide. 

Keep it casual

First, Dutch business culture is casual. Many people wear jeans and t-shirts to the office, so you can usually leave the suit at home unless you have an important meeting or are working in a very formal environment. In the summer, you might even get away with shorts and trainers in some sectors. If you’re ever in doubt about what to wear, don’t be shy; just ask a colleague. 

This informality is felt in other ways, too. Most companies don’t have a strict hierarchy, so employees at all levels can share their ideas and become part of a team. This attitude also spurs collaboration between different industries and makes socialising easier, too.

“It is not a secret club that is off-limits to newcomers. Quite the opposite: if you have a good pitch and can convince others, you will be accepted as one of the local ‘Amsterdammers’ in no time.”

Robert Swaak, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ chairman of the board

Upfront and honest

The Dutch are known for being direct, and this applies on the job. If you’re working with a local, they’ll probably let you know what they’re thinking in no uncertain terms. Though this might seem unusual at first, it means that everything is transparent and clear; you’ll probably always know what’s going on without having to guess. 

“My Dutch colleagues are very direct and expect their leaders to make decisions as soon as all discussions have been heard. This troubled me at first, but now I find it liberating.”

Hiroyasu Matsubara, Yakult's managing director in Europe

Negotiating with the Dutch can be intense. They like getting straight to the heart of the matter and doing things quickly, without any fuss. Being seen as honest and reliable will give you a leg up and make it easier to agree on a deal, though. The no-nonsense Dutch approach to business is also handy when setting up and running a company, as processes and procedures are clear and concise. Almost everyone in the Netherlands speaks English as well, so you don’t need to worry about an insurmountable language barrier.

Working as a group

Reaching consensus is important to the Dutch. People work in groups, try to cooperate and listen to each other’s ideas, striving to make a decision that works for everyone. This means meetings are a big deal, as they allow everyone to contribute and voice their opinion. Don’t be afraid to pipe up and share your thoughts – it will probably be expected, so come prepared. 

“We think in the Netherlands that cooperation is needed to bake the pie, and then competition is there for dividing the pie.”

Piet Mallekoote, Currence’s CEO

Also, small talk at meetings is usually kept to a minimum. This keeps things from dragging on too long, which is great when you have a tight schedule. 

Prioritising sustainability

The Netherlands has earned a reputation as a green country through cutting-edge initiatives and simple lifestyle decisions. For example, 40% of trips in the Amsterdam area are made by bicycle, and many Dutch airports run entirely on wind power. The government also aims to remove all diesel and gas vehicles from the roads by 2030. 

This eco-friendly mindset means the city region is home to many organisations focused on innovations in sustainability, and even companies in different fields do their part to help the planet. Consider consultancy firm Deloitte – its employees work in The Edge, a high-tech building that generates heat through water stored in an underground aquifer.

“We feel very passionately about sustainability, and I think it’s a great credit to the Amsterdam community that so much is happening here. Amsterdam is more of a hub than I think a lot of people realise.”

Ryan Gellert, Patagonia’s European general manager

In fact, many office buildings in Amsterdam were designed with sustainability in mind. Solar panels are common and some structures use plant life, including grass and fungus, for insulation. De Ceuvel, which houses social and creative businesses, even has a greenhouse that grows vegetables for its on-site café. 

When doing business with the Dutch, don’t stress. Speak honestly, listen to other people’s ideas and treat everyone with respect. With a little luck, you’ll be chatting with your new associates during a borrel (Dutch for a social gathering) in no time. Just remember that when you’re enjoying drinks and bites, the time for business is over. Instead, tell people about your kids, pets, hobbies or last vacation. The Dutch work hard, but they like to have fun, too.