Shock to the System: the British Workplace

At the completion of my fifth week working in a British office space, I have come to notice that both the overall atmosphere of the workplace as well as the general mentality of those occupying it differ rather sharply with the American outlook. Indeed the contrast is about as stark as it is between the UK and US versions of “The Office”. As a general rule, the American workplace tends to support firm hierarchical structures and uses that as an incentive for employees to work harder. Such is not the case inside of the United Kingdom. Here, the office seems to maintain a decidedly more horizontal power scheme. At the TaxPayers’ Alliance, everyone works in the same room, the boss included, and stand on relatively familiar terms. In such an environment, promotion would likely have little motivational value given that a higher position would not come with any noticeable changes in workplace life.

This approach seems to generate a more casual, less industrious approach to work than we see in the United States. Kate Fox describes what she calls the “Importance of Not Being Earnest Rule” which she asserts describes the British need to not seem overzealous by working excessively hard. While this might raise the eyebrow of an inexperienced onlooker, I learned rather quickly that this is indeed the case. During my first week, I eagerly tackled every major assignment that I could and sought to produce quality results in a timely manner, as any American would. At times, I would complete an assignment that was meant to occupy substantially more of my time and my supervisor would be somewhat surprised. This isn’t to say that the English don’t value hard work, merely that they don’t see the need to push oneself excessively hard.

Moreover, Fox describes another trend which she calls the “moaning rule” by which it is essentially mandatory for one to complain about work and deliberate avoid the appearance of actually enjoying it. To be seen as overly content with a workload or even to actually enjoy it, where one does or not, would be to venture into the territory of being too earnest as mentioned above. It seems the rite of the complaint is not meant as an expression of genuine distaste for one’s assignment but is actually just a staple of office conversation. I was shocked at the casual attitude with which one of my fellow interns loudly declared his inability to focus and that he had not completed any significant work during the previous hour. As the Chief Executive was within earshot, I turned to him with a feeling of dread. Surely, this callous intern would receive some sort of reprimand for such gall? When I turned to him, he was simply laughing. My horrified response to the intern’s declaration seemed to have generated substantially more interest amongst the staff. It seems to me that, though the collective attitude towards work in Britain seems to be more casual with a collective acknowledgement of the ardors of work, the British workplace does maintain a level of professionalism necessary to operate a thriving commercial sector.

  • Ben,

    Thoughtful and insightful post. During my time at Britannia Student Services, I’ve had some similar observations, and was equally as shocked about them as you. As you pointed out, the office mentality in the UK differs greatly from that of the US. During my experiences in classrooms, club meetings, and internship in the States, I have become accustomed to an environment wrought with competition and rivalry. One could even argue that W&L as an institution is a living testament to this aspect of American societal culture, as it attracts a certain breed of students who desire success and believe that an attitude of intensity is necessary to achieve it. Like yours, my experiences here in London have proved that this not common to British culture. I’ve also noticed a more horizontal hierarchy in the workplace, which was something I struggled to adapt to, as every job I’ve had has claimed a strict vertical hierarchy. Finally, the moaning rule, as a whole, is still pretty weird to me. Someone caught complaining about their work in the U.S. would be met with office scorn at best and lose their job at worst. Complaining in the UK, on the other hand, is expected. Like the hierarchical structure of my office, I struggled to adapt to this. Even now, I do not make use of this rule on my own.

    Thanks for the post. Cheers.


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