Sunday, March 1, 2009

The World of Work

How does working in the US compare to working in the UK?

Before we dive into this week’s topic, we would like to welcome "Big Apple/Little Britainer" as our first Guest Blogger.


I have always maintained that my move from a US to a UK work environment was not nearly as much of a culture shock as my move from a public sector job to private industry. To quote a famous line from Ghostbusters: “You don’t know what it’s like in the private sector; they expect results!”

Also, I fell into a good job almost as soon as I landed here and have stayed with the company ever since, so I don’t feel qualified to comment on the nuances of the British corporate ethos (where, if rumours are to be believed, you work a standard 70-hour week) opposed to the Americans (who look upon a 70-hour week as a sort of vacation).

I think both countries share a similar insanity when it comes to work/life balance; mainly that your work is your life and, therefore, they balance. What is very different, and what I do feel qualified to comment on, is the amount of holiday they receive.

I was truly shocked when I was offered an entry level position at my current company and they told me it came with five weeks vacation. In the States, most jobs I had offered a week to start, and then upped it to two after a requisite number of years. Not that it mattered; I, like many of the people I knew, never really went anywhere anyway, at least not on a regular basis. My annual leave was mostly used up a day at a time as a legal method of skiving off, and if I took a full week, I often just stayed at home.

In the UK, the five weeks I am allotted do not carry over into the next year, so using them is mandatory, and not frowned upon as it sometimes is in the States. And when Brits take a week or two off, they GO somewhere. I have been to more places in the past seven years than in the 47 that preceded them, so even though they still expect a lot from you here, there are some added perks.

Another thing that is very different in the UK, and which also took me by surprise, is the way they treat birthdays in the office. In the US, you could happily forget your birthday and if someone in the office did know about it, they might offer to take you to lunch or buy you a beer after work. Here, it is up to YOU to supply birthday goodies for everyone in the office. This, as you might imagine, makes it much harder to forget your birthday because there are any number of people waiting for you to supply their morning Danish.

It seems an odd tradition, but if you think about it, the purchased/freebie goody ratio evens out over the course of the year, and you almost always get to have an éclair or a slice of cake with your tea.

So, more holiday, marginally less hours and a sporadic supply of free cakes; to my thinking the UK wins this round.

Big Apple/Little Britainer:

I have done a fair bit of global office tourism in recent years. I’m a Brit who started my working life glamorously in Buenos Aires, working for a tiny American-owned company staffed by a rag-tag bunch of expats and locals. When the Argentine economy and multiple presidents spectacularly dive-bombed in late 2001, the American owners bailed and our motley crew was left out in the cold. After a year finishing my degree and relying on several student jobs for support, I returned to my home county - Hampshire - and a brief (two months) stint with an English company in an English town. From there I took an offer for more money and less holiday and landed at an American company in London, which was then bought by a European company that moved me to New York. And now I work for a once-British multinational, recently acquired by a Canadian company. As the Yanks say; go figure… but this much I have learned:

-- While Brit working life revolves around the electric kettle (or, in larger offices, the electric urn), American working life centers on the water cooler. If you're a lucky expat Brit, you'll find the water cooler has a 'hot' tap providing lukewarm dribble that is the focal point for all the expats, who hopefully dangle Lipton teabags and reminisce about PG Tips and water at boiling point.

-- As Mike said, Americans don’t do holidays and instead I conclude they must spend many more hours a year surfing the internet and chatting at the water cooler about how lazy their European colleagues are because they get, like, 36 days vacation….
I admire much about the U.S. work-ethos, but face-time culture seems to pervade American offices. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky, but I’ve witnessed management that rewards time spent in the office over quality of time spent in the office, and I’ve seen colleagues raise eyebrows at those who have to take sick children to the doctor, or schedule a dentist appointment in the middle of the day. It’s institutionalized. After nearly three years here, I feel very lucky to have as much as 10 days holiday and I’m even beginning to wonder what I’d do if I had more…

-- I’ve also found it’s very hard to persuade American colleagues to socialize out of work. Working in a fairly youthful office in London, a quick drink after work was pretty common. Some even enjoyed a not-so-quick drink at lunch. I think this is about more than the different cultures’ approach to alcohol (which is another subject entirely) – I think Americans see work truly as ‘just work’ and find it odd that anyone should want to hang out with their office mates when they’re not being paid for the privilege.

To sum up, I do think the quality of working life is better in the U.K. Financial conditions may have changed that for now, but it’s not really the tangibles -- holiday, salary in a (once) strong currency -- that I miss. I miss the social interaction of English offices; getting cups of tea for colleagues, chatting over a beer after work, or celebrating all those birthdays that Mike has suffered through!

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  1. Five weeks vacation.... Another one of the many reasons why I desperately want to move to the UK. You're such a lucky git, Mike. :)

    I got seven days when I started my latest job. Seven days which is also your sick days/personal days. I've taken one day off in a year. Bloody hell...

    In June it gets upped to 12.

  2. I'm sure people are more efficient for having a holiday. So the benefit is to the employer as well as the employee. It seems so sad not to have more than a week or two off. What do you have to look forward to in life as an American worker? Retirement?!

    The American culture values efficiency and entrepreneurship, so it is odd to read that in the workplace, time is valued over the quality of that time.

  3. Most of the work I've done in the US has been on a contract basis so I got nothing. However, my first ever corporate job here was a Head of Department job, and I got 10 days per year. AND I had to be there 6 months and have earned the time (which was meted out in days per month) before I could actually take any. Needless to say, that job lasted until I needed to go back to England the following summer.

  4. Welcome BALB,

    I'm so glad to have someone else point out that Americans do not like to socialize outside of the work place. I thought it was just me who found that peculiar. Yes, Americans for the most part go to work and then go home and either do more work at home or spend time with their families. Basically once we have children here, our social life stops. I find it very difficult to maintain friendships once the couple has children. Most people just aren't interested. We are very much a "children first" society, which has its upsides and down; a lack of social life being the downside. I think people are either too tired or too guilt ridden to put their needs first for once. So this attitude holds true in forming workplace friendships as well. A girl in my office actually said that she spends 40 hrs a week with us, why would she want to spend her personal time with us?

    Mike- Yes, the birthday thing is a bit strange, like tooting your own horn and if you are someone who wants to forget your birthdays well, that makes it difficult doesn't it? I'm with you though. Overall I think the Brits have us beat with the more desirable work culture.

  5. Melissa - phew, thought I might have gone out on a limb a bit there, glad you've found the same thing. When I first moved to the Big Apple, I found it really hard to make friends - and in London, so many of my friends had been colleagues, or at least people that worked in the same office as I did... People here seem to stick with the friends they have and made through school - which is admirable - but it's a little off-putting for foreigners trying to make friends here! LB

  6. Strange, but I have had a completely opposite experience. In the States, I was very good friends with my co-workers; we used to go out all the time, and over to each other's houses for parties, and on picnics, and we even all camped together one weekend. I do so miss that. Over here, with the exception of one or two of my wife's friends (who live far away and we can only see once in a while) I have not made a single friend, in or out of work. The people at work with do not socialize and it takes an act of Parliament to get them to go out for a drink after work.

    To mitigate this, I worked in the same office in the US for 22 years and basically grew up with my co-workers, and here, well, I have been told my office is the exception.

  7. As for the US work/play time: a young Spanish guy used to work with us some time ago and told me how hard it was to get used to the British work culture compared to his (which is much more relaxed), so I told him how it was in America. His response was: "I'd have to kill myself."

  8. After working in the UK for three years, I can't imagine working in the States again. I get 28 holidays a year and purchase an additional eight through a company holiday-purchase scheme. When I worked in New York, my company didn't offer any holidays in your first year (you only got only public holidays), and after a full year you got a grand total of five.

  9. I think the socializing thing might be age related, in that when you're all young, free and single, you're all more likely to hit the bars after work. The people I worked with in London in my 20s are still some of my closest friends. When I worked in States, still in my late 20s, a lot more of my peers were already married with children, hence went straight home after work.
    Now, I'm so knackered dealing with three kids that I just want to be in bed by 10pm!!!

  10. Socializing is definitely connected to age - but I transferred with the same job, at the same company from London to New York and even though most of my colleagues were early- to mid-twenties in both offices... I think one factor that might come into play here is that there's much more of a rush from people in that age group to move to London after uni, often leaving friends and family relatively (in UK terms) far away. The U.S. has so many large cities to choose from for work, that people who live here are more likely to have connections here... maybe. I don't really know - but it is interesting thinking about what factors go into making an office sociable or not.

  11. Dont forget how (comparatively) good it is to be a working mum in Britain compared to the US - god knows how they survive over there, we fled home after only two years! Here I have maternity leave (I took a year off, some of it paid, after my first child), five weeks holiday, compassionate leave for childrens medical emergencies, parental leave, and I seriously thought about going part-time after the birth of my last child (also a legal right). Without all these things, and with only a fortnights holiday, I'm surprised Americans breed at all!

  12. ExpatMum: "I think the socializing thing might be age related,.."

    So, you're saying I'm too old to have friends? ;)

  13. At the school where I did my student teaching in the UK, when it was your birthday you were expected to bring bottles of wine in to share with the other teachers at lunchtime. We had two crates in the corner of the staffroom - one of coffee mugs, and the other of wine glasses. American teachers are thoroughly gobsmacked when I tell them about it!

  14. Mike - no, I'm referring to my old sad self!
    AA - I can bet a dollar or two that that doesn't happen in the UK now!!!

  15. Most teachers I know are big on the after hours drunken socializing, but having bottles of wine onsite in school would be rather shocking to me.

    While I was watching speakers at CPAC talking about how Obama would "Europeanize" the US I was thinking about the ways I would like to do that. After universal health insurance, more than doubling my vacation time is so at the top of my list. In my rather short working life I have gone entire years without taking any vacation or sick days. Of course when I do take vacation it's only my week to visit my family for Christmas and maybe a week for an actual vacation, so I'm not entirely sure what I would do with 5 weeks off.

  16. Well done Pollypanda for mentioning the maternity leave thing - that is a huge cultural difference and to me really highlights the ethos that in the States employees are workers not people.

    Having said that, California (whilst practically bankrupt) does have a more progressive stance and offers 'Paid Family Leave' for up to 6 weeks for bonding with a new child or compassionate pay for dealing with a sick relative. Not always easy to persuade your employer to let you go though.....

  17. Maternity leave. Hands down the biggest difference between the two. The U.S. totally loses on that score.

    but, in my posh U.S. university job (with 8 weeks of paid maternity leave - shockingly huge for the US - although I had to have a c-section to get it), I get 24 days holiday per year plus 15 days sick leave (which I use for kids sickness too) so I can't complain about that.

    I also found people in the UK ready to run out to the pub for any old excuse (or no excuse really), any day of the week, but in the U.S., our close friends were scheduling dinners with us three weeks in advance. Give me a break, how will I know if I feel like going three weeks from now?


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