An Aussie in the land of cheese and chocolate

SNAG Program

Relocating to another city, country or hemisphere (as I did) is always going to be a challenge, but most certainly a mix of both positive and negative challenges. Apart from the obvious differences in language, climate, currency and which side of the road you drive on, what is hidden under the surface will either make you or break you.

Wind the clock back 4 years... I was based out of the Leica Geosystems office in my hometown Brisbane, Australia. I enjoyed working for the company, but I was searching for a change, a new challenge, when an opportunity came up to move to Heerbrugg, Switzerland. I jumped at the chance! After all, I love cheese and I love chocolate, and most importantly I love snow.

Sure, I'd been in the business for 5 years already, and had travelled to Heerbrugg for meetings on several occasions. So I had some idea about what living and working in Switzerland was going to be like. Right?...

Packing up my life (and a 2-bedroom apartment), selling my beloved car, saying goodbye to family, friends and colleagues, and moving to the opposite side of the world - all of this was definitely character-building. It all happened rather fast (as it always does when a new job is the catalyst) and I was on a plane to Zurich before I knew it. The saving grace was that I was in familiar surroundings, and I already knew a few people from our office.

Nothing could prepare me for moving into my new apartment however. When I viewed the property with the real estate agent, I was certain there were light fittings in the ceiling, but when I entered the apartment during handover, I thought there had been a burglary. Not one single light fitting, blind or curtain in the whole apartment, just several wires dangling from the ceiling. The bonus was I had a refrigerator hidden away behind some panelling in the kitchen, so I didn't have to buy a new one.
People still find it amusing that I survived my first month in my new (and very empty) apartment using the iPhone Torch app as my only source of light. Recycling and placing garbage in special green bags and placing them on the street kerb also became my new "normal".

Apart from differences in lifestyle, working cultures differ quite substantially between Australia and Switzerland - not quite as huge a gap when compared with some other countries, but it is still substantial. While the Swiss tend to be "early birds", the Aussies tend to work later in the day, which probably has something to do with the amount of daylight and sunshine available in both countries throughout the year. The Swiss work hard, but they also make time for family and spending time in nature or engaging in some physical activity or another. While the Aussies have beautiful natural surroundings, they do tend to take them for granted, and quality family time is reduced more to weekends.

Aussies tend to be rather direct, open and task-oriented, and are more familiar when addressing colleagues or business stakeholders. Meanwhile, the Swiss are more relationship-oriented, less direct and more private - getting to know the Swiss can be quite difficult. As a land-locked country, I can understand some of the reasoning for wanting privacy. Australia is essentially a big island tucked away from the rest of the world; we're also a much younger country with very little history of our own, so perhaps this is a reason why we're more open and interact more easily with strangers. Neither population is wrong, they're just different. Learning how to navigate effectively around these differences is a skill in itself, and one that I am still trying to master.

I attended one of our Intercultural Awareness training sessions recently, and it was still enlightening to see the difference in perspectives between mine and those of the local and international colleagues in the class. This is one area that our People Development department is focusing on in terms of providing our people with the skills and knowledge about these differences. Quite often conflict can arise out of a very simple misunderstanding or miscommunication. What is visible in terms of a country's culture is quite often just the "tip of the iceberg". We are part of a global company and with the introduction of social media, web and teleconferencing solutions, and team collaboration tools and portals; the globe is becoming more accessible to all.
I've met some wonderful people and visited a lot of amazing places since moving to this country. I'm glad to say these experiences will stay with me for the rest of my life, and are now part of what has shaped me as a person. I'm not the same person who left Brisbane four years ago. I've learnt an enormous amount about life, people, different cultures, and my profession, but none of this is visible from the outside - you need to dig below the surface to understand what a person is really about.

Yasmin Sethi
Head of People Development
Hexagon Geosystems

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