7 Surprising Things about Working in London

I had a tough transition into London life. I'm amazed by how some of my friends have handled it with so much grace, embracing every new sight and exciting bit of it all. But I was not so graceful.

I remember one evening in particular when I screamed, cried, complained, then ended the evening with my tail between my legs, apologizing for my behavior for the entire preceding 6 months. My partner sweetly responded to this apology with: "It's okay. I know that this isn't the real you. You'll get back to normal eventually." 3 realizations came from this: 1. My gosh, he's patient. 2. You gotta love honest feedback. 3. I am clearly not hiding my difficulties as well as I thought. I needed a coping mechanism fast. Then one day soon after, this phrase alighted upon me: "It's not bad. It's different." This simple perception shift changed everything.

With the help of expat friends from the U.S., Australia, and France, here are 7 things that are different about working in London:

When it's someone's birthday, the birthday boy or girl brings treats into work for everyone else. It's struck all of us as something really interesting. The way I see it, people are supposed to give me treats on my birthday - why would I bake a cake for someone else? :) It's a huge deal though - people love this!

It feels like people spend half their lives commuting. An average commute is 1.5 hours, which may not be too abnormal for major cities in the US, but it's hard to imagine for a Parisian or Melbourner. However, it's also not uncommon to commute up to 2.5 hours each way. 5 hours a day on a train is worth it for some to live in the beautiful, green countryside with large homes.

Coffee breaks aren't actually breaks. This was new to me! A French friend shared that she was surprised when people asked her to take a coffee break, and they continued to talk about work during the break. In France or Australia, if you're getting coffee with a colleague, you're actually taking a break. No shop talk allowed!

Open Floor Plans. When I say open floor plans, I mean open floor plans. No 4 walls, no 3 walls, no half walls. I'll leave it at that for now, as you can tell that I'm still talking myself into the "It's not bad" part of my mantra. :)

When you're done at work, you're done at work. Earlier this year I was in a meeting of British peers, and one of them made fun of me for sending an email on a Sunday. They group erupted with laughter, and I got that elementary school goody-too-shoes lump in my throat. So now, if I want to work over the weekend [and life update: most of the time I don't anymore], I wait until Monday morning to hit Send. And don't even think about working on your 2 week holiday. This is another requirement - foreign to Americans but actually quite conservative compared to other European countries. As my partner reminds me: "We have such a better life here." Can't argue with that!

Socializing is a requirement to do business. I'm an East-coast American. I want to get in a meeting - I'll probably say hi to you :), jump right into our agenda topic, and get our work done. In London, socializing in many forms is critical. Beers after work (or during work - no judgement!) and lots of small talk is standard. I've really had to stop myself from being the bull in the British china shop. An assertive, "Let's just get the work done" without getting to know my colleague doesn't work. Also, some American friends have been shocked that their new colleagues insist on throwing them welcome drinks when they first arrive. How nice! 

People are very polite. So polite that they won't tell you the truth. Here's a key phrase translation guide, should you ever find yourself working with a Brit:

  • That's interesting = What a stupid idea.
  • Leave it with me = I'm ready to stop talking about this, so I am pretending to write down an action item, but do not expect a follow-up. Ever.
  • It's relatively straightforward = It's pretty complicated, and I don't really understand it either, so 'leave it with me.'
  • Horses for courses. (This has been explained to me no less than 5 times, and I still don't understand it).

Joking aside, working in another country has been a great and life-changing experience. It makes me interested to try out other cultures... What differences have you found when you've worked in different countries - or even in different cities?


Posted on November 19, 2015 and filed under Global Views.