Office Space. Literally.
I’ve been meaning to write a post about office culture here in the UK, and since I’ve just started a new job I think now is a good time to do it. I don’t want to be too stereotypical and assume that all the differences we’ve seen are cultural, but I think (with a certain disclaimer) I can say that these are pretty general differences that apply regardless of the office specifics.
In the US I had a magnificent office on the 15th floor of a fancy-schmancy building on Broadway. I looked out over the Hudson River, and I greatly enjoyed my privacy. Even those people in cubicles tended to have pretty tall walls, and some of them even had sliding doors, and were essentially offices (without ceilings or sound-proofing). I admit, this set-up may not be typical of the US office. Alex’s former desk had less privacy, but he still had a significant amount of space to call his own. A large wrap-around desk with a dedicated filing cabinet, were pretty standard. I think I can say that in the US it’s generally expected that once you move up the ranks of a company, you can escape the cubicle farm that was made famous in Office Space. I knew that I would be giving up my amazing office when we moved the UK, but I didn’t expect the difference to be quite so stark.
I’ve seen a fair number of offices here in the UK, mostly during the (many, many!) interviews I went on. And I can say that not a single place had individual offices. I’d heard a rumour that some people who had been at a company for 30 years, or were ranked Executive something-or-other, eventually got their own space. In general, the UK seems to have adopted the philosophy of the Open Office Plan, or OOPs, if you will. The OOPs has certain advantages, and I can understand why (from a business perspective) the boss would want to leave everything open. People definitely work harder, but I suspect it is because the entire office can look at my screen, and I can feel them all silently judging me if I’m surfing the internet. The desks also tend to be smaller, with limited storage space. Alex does have an office, but it’s shared between 3 people, and it’s seriously about the size of a bathtub.
The physical space is not the only area that is different. The hours here tend to be quite a bit longer than in New York, with many people working late into the evening. I think they are more focussed when on the job; there’s not as much gossip or visiting as I’ve found in the past. On the other hand, hardly anyone checks work email from home, and when you’re on holiday, you’re really gone. There is no expectation of working whilst on leave! And since we tend to get much more vacation time here than in the US (20-25 days compared to 10) I think that trade-off is pretty fair. There is also a lack of privacy regarding the telephone. I’ve never had a job in the US without a dedicated phone line or voicemail system. And yet here, in several situations, I’ve found offices that have a general line. Anyone can answer at anytime
I will admit that I’ve really struggled with the OOPs. I tend to be a very private person, and having my screen, telephone, and desk open for anyone to see is a bit daunting. But maybe it’s making me a better worker. I’m definitely more productive (or at least I appear to be more productive), and I’m more likely to collaborate with my neighbours (because they’re RIGHT THERE). I’m sure that some psychology student has analysed the impact of cubicles on the human psyche, and I bet it’s pretty damaging. But so is a complete lack or privacy. We’ll have to wait and see how I feel after a few years!