Moving from Australia to the UK in order to work in an office job, I had little idea of what to expect. Would it be much different from my experience of working in an office back home? Part of me imagined stereotypes of London office life straight out of Charles Dickens. Would the boss be permanently attired in a top hat and tails, while the lowly scriveners hunched over their desks, scratching away at vast ledgers by candlelight?
Of course, this was just a whimsical fantasy, and more realistically, I suspected that there wouldn’t be very much difference to working life at all between the UK and Australia. In fact though, when I first started working at the office of a London company (which I won’t name), the differences were very real – and they weren’t exactly what I expected.
Dress for success
The uniform of business is fairly international: a smart suit in conservative colours of black, blue or grey. In that respect, I got it right. On the surface, the dress code in London wasn’t different from in Sydney, Brisbane or Perth. However, as with so much in UK life, it’s what’s going on below the surface that counts.
Brits pride themselves on subtlety, and the devil is often in the details. Not all suits are equal, and UK workers are much more likely to signal their ambitions and/or success with an expensive designer variation on the traditional business suit. The cut and the contours, the label, and by implication the price tag might not be noticed by the casual observer, but you can bet that they’re giving out unspoken signals that are being picked up where it matters.
The world of office politics in the UK can be bewildering and alienating to a simple, straightforward Aussie. Back home, we generally have no problem in saying what we mean and treating everyone else in the office as an equal. If we have a problem with someone, then we let them know. However, in the UK, it seems like so much is unspoken and implied, while office alliances and rivalries can be as byzantine as anything in Game of Thrones.
Finding a way of managing office politics ethically can be tricky when you’re used to working in a genuine meritocracy, where hard work and achieving your targets are what counts. In the UK, it’s a lot more about being seen and earning the trust of the right people. To an Australian, all this might seem underhand and unnecessary, but once you get to understand the company culture and the way that work colleagues relate to each other in the UK, you start to see how effective it can be.
It can sometimes seem like all British offices have a dedicated dirty tricks department, but you can rise above this by communicating directly and honestly with the right people. People in the UK value politeness, but they also admire our Australian forthrightness and honesty, as long as we’re not too brash. In the UK, you might need to mind your language in the office a bit more, though once the beers are flowing in the pub afterwards, you’ll find that the Poms get quite creative with their invective!
Going to work in a London office was a culture shock at first, but fitting in wasn’t too hard. Adapting to the British way of living and working can actually be fun, and there’s no need to lose your own identity. Stick to your guns, learn to read between the lines, and you’ll be fine.