Sunday, October 23, 2011

Work Differences

Thanks to Gennifer6 for the suggestion...

I don't think I've ever blogged about the differences I've observed at work between Americans & Brits-I know I've talked about the differences with my colleagues at work, but that's probably about it, so here goes!

Gennifer6 wanted me to comment on workplace differences that I've observed. I'm sure in certain industries and companies, the differences are VAST, but barring a brief stint, I've primarily worked for US-headquartered companies.  So, what I've noticed may really only scratch the surface...

1.  To Americans, the 'work week' (and even the 'work day') is a very fluid concept.  In the US, you wouldn't think twice about leaving the office mid-day to go to the doctor/dentist/car repair shop, and you wouldn't think twice about leaving work a bit early on a Friday.  Conversely, it seems like the emails don't really stop after '5pm', and I definitely recall getting emails even on weekends.
In England however, I've encountered the complete inverse:  rarely, would I leave work mid-day for a personal errand (I'd instead try to schedule it for first/last thing in the day), and I can quite literally count on 2 fingers the number of times I've left work before 5pm on a Friday in 3.5 years (sigh).  However, rarely do I receive an email from a British colleague outside of work hours during the week, and the same holds true on weekends.  Brits seem to be more protective-and prescribed-of their 'non-work' hours, whereas for Americans, it's all just seems to flow together.

2. In England, don't even think of going to the kitchen without asking everyone (and it does feel like everyone...) if they want a cup of tea/coffee/water/biscuit...whatever the kitchen stocks.  It just isn't done.

3.  Employers in England (though, perhaps this is a London-only thing), are more 'generous' with the amenities they provide in women's bathroms:  lotion, feminine hygine products, and the ubiquitious aerosol deoderant are in almost every corporate bathroom I've ever been in.  It's a nice touch.

4.  Brits aren't afraid of being open to their colleagues about what they think-about their boss, other colleagues, etc...When working in the US, I can't think of a time I ever *truly* shared with a colleague my feelings about a co-worker or boss-at least while I was working at the company.  In England, it's the complete opposite.  I remember the first time I heard a colleage slag off a superior at work (to me, not to the superior).  My jaw almost hit the floor. 
I'm really going to have to be careful about taking this trait with me whenever I go back 'across the pond.'  Though I appreciate the candor of my colleagues, I don't think this one would go down to well back in the US!

Those are the big things I've noticed.  I can't help but think I'm forgetting a few things, so if anyone else has any observations, do pipe up!


  1. That's a great list. I admit that I sometimes sneak off to the kitchen without asking people if the want anything. I do try to make an effort to make the team tea a few times a week :) If I pop out to the shops even if I know people most likely wont want anything I usually always ask.

    I also agree with observation 4. I am shocked by open people are about their colleagues and it usually isn't positive. I've heard people say bad things about the boss and sn people, but I find it even more shocking when it's the most sn people doing it. Like you said I'll have to remember that won't go down in the States when I go back to work there.

  2. That's a great list. I totally agree with asking everyone if they need something when you go get yourself something from the kitchen. I'm asked about every 15 minutes b/c someone is always going in there. haha It's been quite an experience working in a British office and being the only American.

  3. Reminds me of my corporate life in London. The tea in the office was disgusting(and no kitchen) but there was a fab tea shop right across the street. Everyone time this one poor little underling stood up, we'd all say "White without, thanks Stu." and he'd end up with no choice but to trot off for teas all round.
    When I came to the States and worked in the same (huge, global) company, I remember not having a clue what had happened in meetings. In the UK I was used to very direct conversations, eg. "No, I disagree and here's why." In the States it was much less direct "I hear what you're saying but...". I frequently had to ask my colleagues if anything had been decided in the meeting I'd just left.

  4. My experience with #1 is not the same! I think it's partly because I work at a theatre and we do lots of events and so there are many nights that I am on call, but also my boss texts me constantly. I'm not sure it's appropriate - and when she's texting me because she's upset about something I've done I do reply by suggesting we talk about it at the office the next day - but she's the boss, so what can I do?

  5. Agree on the kitchen run! It's very polite but admit that I do sneak off sometimes.

    I'd also add that in UK offices people are much more formal on email with colleagues. All emails in my company begin with XXX, Please could you do such and such. Many thanks, YYY In the US I'd rarely bother with salutation/signoff and correct capitalization & punctuation if I was just emailing a coworker.

  6. @Anon...OH, that's a good one! Yes, salutations-and brief mention about weekend/holiday/well being in email is a must.

    Which, is an interesting contrast to @Expat mum's commentary about the directness of meetings...

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  8. This is awesome, thank you! Anyone want to comment on lunches, meaning do people usually bring a lunch from home with them or go somewhere to eat?
    And what do you do about things like doctor's appointments, etc.? I don;t normally take time out during the midday, I try to schedule my appointments for first thing in the morning or as late in the afternoon as I can get them so I"m not leaving work and coming back.
    And (this may seem a strange one) what do women wear when walking to work, do they wear their heels? Many women will wear sneakers/tennis shoes with their work suits and then change into their heels at their desks. I'm wondering if that's also a solution there??
    Thank you all for the tips, it's very helpful!!

  9. I think another difference is that it is rare to have your own office as a non-executive. I notice most of my friends have desks/cubes situated in large rooms. In the States I always had my own office (even as an intern!) at every company and at the UK office I worked at- my manager even sat in the same room as me.

    for #1- I find that it is easier to go to the doc mid-day, as Brits tend to be lenient on personal stuff. I literally had to sneak out of my US offices so people wouldn't think I wasn't working long enough hours.

    & #4 is so true. I am appalled about what people say about each other sometimes. Joking also seems to cross a lot of lines. I haven't experienced this personally, but some of my friends stories cross from crass to sexual harassment.

    I would also say drinking is a given in most working situations. While most US offices tolerate a bit of Friday lunch drinks, I have noticed that alcohol is at every work event. My husband worked in recruitment and was expected to drink as much as his clients at business meetings...needless to say there was a lot of coming back home at 6pm wasted ;)

    @gennifer6 I think the lunch thing depends on where you work.
    Most people don't live close enough to work in London to manage making it there in heels. Some women wear sneakers- but I would say most wear flats to the office. I work at a VERY casual company so could get away with wearing flats/ sneakers at the office.

  10. Interesting list (and very true about the tea - that's one of the joys of working in a British office!). I'm a Brit currently in New York and working with Americans, and I've also worked with Americans while in London. One thing I always noticed was that when Americans send an email, they 'cc' about 50 people. I think this is starting to catch on in Britain now, but it definitely started in the US!

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  12. I'm so glad to see someone comment about getting tea for others. It's very true at the office where I've been working.

    I'm by far no expert and have only seen a bit of the British work culture, but here are the rest of my observations:

    I agree with the frank commentary too, and think it also applies to general complaints about work. Americans usually wouldn't openly admit that they don't want to be at work, especially when new at a job, unless it's with a trusted coworker or two. There's generally an attitude of robust willingness about work in the US, whether one feels it or not, but here it seems OK to be a bit more honest about discontent.

    Fridays remain serious until close to five where I've worked, when at American workplaces things get lax sometimes after lunch. However, people often worked at home from 8-10 during the week and many are emailing constantly.

    Also, no mention about holidays. People don't feel bad about taking them! One has to almost apologize for going on an actual vacation in the US or justify it somehow. No apologies here, and if someone hasn't been on holiday for a year or so they openly acknowledge the need to go, whereas in the US it's not considered a "must." (Definitely appreciate this and wish that more Americans got to go on vacation and had more holiday time! A huge cultural difference.)

    I agree about the drinking aspect too. I would never have discussed how trashed I got with my superiors. Drinking (and getting drunk) seems crucial to surviving socially in the workplace, and I would find it tough as a relative teetotaler.

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  14. sorry, as a American living in England. you are far off. I find people here take any lame excuse to leave work and run personal errands. where in the States, you are at work to work, personal things are done on your own time.

  15. for #1- I find that it is easier to go to the doc mid-day, as Brits tend to be lenient on personal stuff. I literally had to sneak out of my US offices so people wouldn't think I wasn't working long enough hours.-- agree