London and Seattle are very different places, but there’s one thing that always reminds me of home here: the weather, in both good and bad ways. Despite the occasional thunderstorm, I prefer breezy, cool summers to hot, muggy ones.
For the summer, I’m working at an accounting (they call it “accountancy” here)/consulting firm called Fitzgerald & Law. F&L is in a downtown London neighborhood called Holborn; most of their clients (about 70%) are American midsize and small companies, many of them Silicon Valley tech firms that have opened UK divisions. F&L offers these companies a wide variety of services ranging from preparing tax returns to HM Revenue & Customs (somewhat analogous to our infamous IRS) to auditing company books to providing a full financial outsourcing solution. This means F&L essentially acts as the accounting department for the client’s UK branch, and can really save money for operations that aren’t big enough to have their own in-house accountants.
A day at F&L is different for everyone. In theory, the workday lasts from 9 until 5:30. Many partners and managers may start the day earlier; today I came into the office to hear that my boss was on his fifth or sixth cup of coffee—and that was the one day I showed up earliest. On the other hand, another manager in our office is a new mother so she often arrives late and leaves early, skipping her lunch break to make up the time. In general, there’s a solid respect for the principle of “you gotta do what you gotta do” when it comes to arriving and leaving as long as you get your work done.
As for myself, I usually get up around 7:15-7:30 (which I’ll probably never get completely used to as I’m not at all a morning person) and leave for work around 8:30-8:40. I take the Underground to Holborn, which is just a couple stops away. The whole commute takes about 20 minutes, with the actual tube ride being only about 5 minutes long. Most of my time is spent inside the stations getting from the platform to the surface or vice versa.
This time of day, the Tube is packed. To me, this simple annoying fact actually demonstrates the resolve of the British people. I take the tube from King’s Cross to Holborn, with one stop at Russell Square in between. The terrorist bombing a few years ago happened on this very line between King’s Cross and Russell Square, but people still ride it. There are plenty of alternative ways to get from A to B in London—walking for a short hop, taking the cheaper but slower buses on the surface, even driving, for some—but people still take the Tube, and won’t let the threat of a terrorist attack intimidate them.
It’s not just reckless stubbornness, either—the abundance of CCTV cameras everywhere on the Tube are a reminder that the good guys are quite literally watching your back. While there aren’t any uniformed policemen in Tube stations, they are said to be just out of sight somewhere, and heavily armed in case of an emergency. For some people, the whole thing might seem creepy, in a Big Brotherly sort of way. Even though you’re in a public area, it does seem a bit odd to some that you’re always being recorded. But it may well contribute to the fact that there hasn’t been another attack as well.
F&L’s offices are on a row of very old office buildings. They’re a little reminiscent of row houses in that the many units all share walls. Each is narrow but tall, with five floors including the basement. F&L has refitted its office with modern trimmings including an elevator and some very nice art and plants. I try to arrive at work on the dot at 9:00, although nobody really cares if you’re a few minutes late or early. I can usually predict who will already be there. The slowest part of the day is often that first hour. Work tends to pick up after that, with another slowdown before lunch and towards the end of the day. (More on what types of work I do later as well). Lunch is somewhere between 1:00 and 2:00, and lasts for an hour. I particularly enjoy lunchtime because I get to meet other people at the company that I don’t get to work with regularly. There’s a nice lounge in the basement with a flat-screen TV, couches, a Foosball table and a fully equipped kitchen. I usually eat something from the supermarket for reasons of economy, but many others take advantage of Holborn’s many cafes, restaurants and take-away food.
Lunch is usually a little past halfway through the workday; in the afternoon, things can get a bit chaotic as people disappear in and out of meeting rooms or go to lunch. About half of the staff leaves between 5:30 and 6:00. I usually leave between 6:00 and 6:30 unless I need to be somewhere in the evening. The tube ride back is just as packed as the tube ride in, so I sometimes take the slower but less crowded buses. Some people will stay until 8:00 or later, though this is the exception rather than the rule.
The most obvious difference between US and UK office culture is the open office plan. At F&L, everyone has a desk and a nice chair, but no real office. The desks are arranged in the office space with low dividers to establish a minimal boundary, but everyone in the room has a line of sight to everyone else. I can easily talk to any of my co-workers without raising my voice. This helps avoid today’s trend toward using e-mail as a crutch, since it’s quite reasonable to email someone two cubicles over but kind of silly to email someone sitting twenty feet away in an open office.
It also teaches you to switch gears quickly and encourages you to talk to people instead of flinging e-mails at them. When I was working remotely on a project for someone on the ground floor and needed to compare notes I decided to just hop on the elevator and just go two floors down to visit her myself instead of e-mailing her.
The manager (my boss) and one of the firm’s partners (my boss’s boss), the two people for whom I do the most work, sit with everyone else. I could go on about how this is very nice and egalitarian but it can be very risky—if you have the wrong kind of boss, he or she might take advantage of the setup to micromanage you and make your life miserable! Fortunately, Brits tend not to abuse their easy access to you. British office culture almost had to evolve to prevent excessive micromanaging, since the open office layout could make it very easy. If you need to work with someone uninterrupted, you can always duck into the nearby conference room used especially for that purpose.
Another interesting thing to note is that everyone makes drinks for everyone else, regardless of who is higher on the organizational chart. Bosses can and do make drinks for other employees. It’s almost rude for anyone to get up and go to the water cooler without asking the room “Drinks anyone?”
The open office setup has some other advantages and disadvantages. A lot of the banter that goes on in a British office would get missed in “cubicle hell” for obvious reasons. People are not afraid of having fun in the office, sometimes at each others’ expense.
Unfortunately, this also can lead to distraction since the room can get quite loud if there are lots of people conferring or talking to clients on the phone. It can also lead to increased focus, though, since you can’t go on Youtube in front of everyone.
I personally prefer the British system, but that’s because I like my co-workers! I could easily understand someone with crazy colleagues, or simply a huge number of co-workers, preferring a cubicle layout.
Next time I’ll spend some more time talking about what I’ve seen outside work, what I’ve seen of British culture, and also give some examples of what I actually do at F&L.