Published On: Thu, Apr 26th, 2012

Working in London – From The Office to The Pub…And Everything In Between

London Financial District

It has been a couple of months since Aston Waldman first asked me to write about working in London vs. the USA and I must say I wasn’t sure what to write about, but the more I thought about it, the more I decided on the above theme. London has a work culture that is all its own (which seeps into everyday life if you are not careful).

Since moving to London, I have had three jobs with three companies, two of which were American based corporations. It wasn’t by design or that I didn’t want to work for UK companies, but it is easier to get a job with American companies filing under US GAAP…not too many people in London have a lot of firsthand experience with US GAAP rules and regulations, so it makes U.S. accountants a little more marketable, even if they are not yet certified in the UK.

With this experience of working with American companies, I can say the day to day in the office is just as it used to be in the USA (well, sort of, as in I actually have a work/life balance, but I will get to that later). Most of the HR policies come from the head office in the USA somewhere, which doesn’t always translate well as there are major cultural differences in some parts of Europe, but not so much in the UK. I feel in the last 2.5 years, I have come to accept some of the things I used to think were different as normal, hence why this took a little while to write.

Below are some of the bigger differences I have noticed:

1) To booze at lunch or to not booze at lunch

This is the age old dilemma of the American working in London (and surely other European and/or the “rest of the world” cities). The first day of my first job in London, two months after moving to London, my boss and some colleagues took me to the pub for lunch. A pub that didn’t serve food oddly enough. We stood at the bar ordering drinks and they made me order first. I tried to read the situation and the people I was with. It was worse than the first day of high school! I didn’t know if I should order a coke or a pint. I felt like I was being judged on this one simple order. I opted for the pint and made immediate friends with my new boss and was a ‘wicked’ addition to the team.

This was the first, but certainly not the last time I have come back from lunch a little tipsy with a personal ban of sending emails. Although, I must admit in my current role, I care about it too much to risk such things and haven’t done it in a year (easier working with a higher ratio of Americans…not so much pressure).

The point of all this is to show that it is more common place than not to enjoy a few alcoholic beverages at lunch, no matter what your position is at a company. It is generally socially acceptable. Brits are amazing at functioning this way…at lunch anyway. As long as you come back, pop some mint gum, and don’t make a ruckus as work…no one will question why you were at lunch for 2 hours.

2) What kind of health insurance do you have? Do you pay a lot for it? What kind of coverage does it have?

These are most definitely questions I have never heard in the work place nor amongst friends outside of work for that matter. It is such a different life living in a country with public healthcare (National Health Care NHS). I didn’t get lost in a million forms to fill out on health insurance. I was asked if I would like to join the company’s private healthcare, for which there was one option. If you choose to join the private healthcare, just note that any contribution on your behalf by the employer to have the private insurance will count as income and therefore be taxed like all other income.

It is kind of nice not to have this worry. Signing up at a GP (General Practitioner) every time you move it seems is another story!

3) Taxes, one of the dreaded guarantees in life

Plain and simple, there are two tax rates in the UK, 22% or 40%. These amounts are taken from your income before you ever see it based on the total income you are projected to make for the year (UK fiscal year is April to April…not December 31). Unless otherwise notified, you generally don’t have to file an income tax return. Can we say yes please! So much easier than the American way of taxes. The only sad part about this is that by being an American working aboard..you get charged tax on your global income…lucky us! If you don’t believe me, check the last page of your passport, section D. Clever Department of State! So always make sure you are good and paid up with the US of A if you don’t want your passport revoked or be prepared to pay some back taxes with interest. No thanks!

4) Work/Life Balance – Generally in the USA, this feels like something we have all heard about and dreamed about but have never experienced.

I think 50% of the blame lies with the way Americans are raised and 50% company influenced. I didn’t realize this until I left the USA but Americans work really hard and incredibly long hours relative to the rest of the world. You get so brainwashed that working a million hours and not taking holiday time is normal in the world, but it isn’t. This mentality seems to come through at work when you are sitting in a performance review and the comment is made that ‘you took all your vacation time this past year’; as though this was something that was on your weakness list and needed to be added to ‘areas for improvement.’ It is almost shameful in some instances to take proper holiday time in the USA…and let’s be honest; it isn’t really the norm for it to be handed out like water in the USA to begin with.

Can a company really not do without you for the 13 days they give on average? Check out this website, just for the shock value of it all: Paid time off around the world. It has been a nice breath of fresh air to be encouraged if not almost threatened to take every single day of my 5 weeks holiday in the UK (not that any arm twisting is needed for me personally), but it is nice to see that they care about people spending time doing what they love: seeing places in the world they have been saving to see or just spending time with family.

This is something I think Americans can learn from…and quick! Life is too short! You can have a good job and still remove yourself from it from time to time.

5) What is that accent?

I know we are a global world these days, but when working in London you don’t have a choice but to notice it. Not only does London have a high volume of Europeans from the continent working in the city (benefits of being in the EU), but you generally are a part of a wider EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) team when working in larger finance departments. It is important to be able to understand people, which can be difficult at times, over the phone and or also learn when and when not to send emails as things can be misinterpreted via email more when English is not the recipient’s first language. It is important to also consider the cultural differences between countries that you are dealing with. It is the key to getting business done when working so closely with other countries.

These are the areas of interest that were the most culturally shocking to me. They have made it a fun and a really interesting process of adjustment to living in the UK. I highly recommend the experience!!

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