Docusign CEO says while it’s true Americans work harder than Europeans, maybe Americans aren’t happier

In a tech hub like San Francisco, it’s increasingly rare to find a job that will still let you work from home the majority of the week. But at $12 billion company Docusign, that’s still the case—in fact, nobody’s required to come into the office on a Friday.

Allan Thygesen, the CEO of the agreement management platform, spoke to Fortune from the company’s London office as part of a global tour.

The company saw exponential growth during the pandemic—booming by 60% when the corporate world went remote, and contracts had to be signed virtually.

But when the globe returned to “normal,” Thygesen, a father of four born and raised in Denmark, wanted to retain some of the pandemic’s benefits, namely, a more flexible work model.

So the company shed a significant amount of its office portfolio—half of its floors in San Francisco and Seattle—and asked its near-7,000 employees to come in two days a week instead: Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays.

No one is asked to come in on Fridays, though the offices are open.

“I would say we’re very light-handed when it comes to enforcement,” he added.

“I don’t think we’ll be introducing anything draconian, I think relative even to the San Fransisco Bay Area and the Seattle area—which are both very tech-heavy and the last bastion of fully flexible work rules—we’re on the very flexible, very light requirement.”

Thygesen’s laid-back approach differs from that of Mark Zuckerberg at Meta who, despite saying in 2020 that half his workforce would be remote by 2030, is now enforcing a three-day-a-week in-office policy or risk discipline.

Amazon pushed a similar mandate, which prompted something of a rebellion within its ranks, while Google’s plan to integrate office attendance with performance reviews has been subject to the ire of its union.

“Any time you change these types of rules, people hate it because, of course, employees want maximum flexibility. It’s good for their personal lives,” he said.

“So there is a balance there between the needs of the company and what employees think is good for them. I do think people have come to understand that being fully remote is good in the moment, but it may not be great for your long-term career development, particularly early in your career.”

Thygesen said he would sometimes go into the office at the end of the week, but he joked that it was a “lonely” experience.

However, the tech boss’s most “intense” meeting of the week—a product strategy review—is invariably conducted online with every contributor chiming in virtually.

“These are very intense, very good meetings and there’s not a particular reason we all need to be in the same place,” Thygesen said.

Thygesen’s meetings have become all the more intense this year after Docusign launched its new Intelligent Agreement Management (IAM) which will use AI to create, integrate and analyze agreements and documents more seamlessly.

European vs American ambition

Nicholai Tangen, the CEO of Norway’s Norges Bank Investment Management, has noted that Americans work harder than their counterparts across the Atlantic.

There’s a difference in the “general level of ambition,” Tangen told the Financial Times. “We [Europeans] are not very ambitious. I should be careful about talking about work-life balance, but the Americans just work harder.”

Docusign’s Thygesen—an alumni of Stanford and the University of Copenhagen who now oversees teams working out of offices in India, Australia, America, France, Germany, and Japan, to name a few—has seen firsthand how different regions operate.

He agrees that Tangen’s view is “objectively true,” but qualified: “There’s more to work than how many hours you do. I feel like my European teams work very smartly, they’re very efficient, work tends to be a bit more organized.”

Thygesen and Tangen are correct, according to the data.

According to the European Union, in 2022 the average workweek of people between the ages of 22 and 65 was 37.5 hours.

The longest working weeks recorded were in Greece—41 hours a week—and Poland—40.4 hours.

By contrast, the Netherlands had the shortest working week of 33.2 hours, followed by Germany at 35.3 hours.

Meanwhile, data from the International Labour Organization, last updated in January, showed the average hours workers clocked in the U.S. was 38 hours a week.

However, of those employees, 13% worked 49 hours or more per week, outstripping most European nations.

Countries like the U.K. also have a statutory requirement entitling staff to 28 paid days of leave a year—if you’re a full-time employee.

In the U.S., it is not a legal requirement for staff to be given any paid time off; however, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average employee who is in their first year of service takes eight PTO days.

Thygesen was also quick to point out that neither nation had made the wrong approach, but they simply had different priorities.

He explained: “These are conscious choices that societies have made about the trade-off between work and leisure time—maybe Americans aren’t necessarily happier.

“They’re certainly wealthier, and that gap has probably widened more over the last decade, but life is a holistic sum of all those things, so having spent time on both sides I see the merits of both.”

Thygesen has a point here, too. The World Happiness Report 2024, released in March, found that four of the top five happiest countries on earth were European, and 14 of the top 20 were also from the continent.

Meanwhile, the U.S. fell to its lowest point since the report began in 2012, ranking 23.

Is Elon right about San Francisco?

Headquartered in San Francisco, Docusign staffers could well form part of a community of tech employees bashing the city for increasing levels of crime and homelessness.

But criticism from the likes of Elon Musk may have skewed the reality that Thygesen, his family and his employees live in.

The Tesla CEO said last year the city was in a “doom spiral” having previously labeled downtown San Francisco a “disaster” and likened it to “a derelict zombie apocalypse.”

Three of Thygesen’s four children live in the Bay Area, with the former Google president adding a milder evaluation than Musk: “San Francisco has always had pockets that were kind of rough and had a homeless problem—I do think that area is meaningfully larger now and unfortunately the people there are in worse shape.

“It’s not a good situation, it’s not good for the city, it’s not good for the people who live there, it’s not good for the people who are living on the streets.”

But while San Fransisco has become the “poster child” for the problem, it’s a problem along the West Coast.

Thygesen said: “Our office is nowhere near these zones [in San Francisco], so I don’t think anybody has any concerns about coming in or using public or private transport.

“We actually are closer to the problematic areas in Seattle and there it has been a bit of an issue because there have been minor safety issues and just the perception of it being uncomfortable is worse there. It’s endemic to a number of cities.”

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