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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