‘I left because of its busy lifestyle’: What to know about London’s work culture

9 min read
04 Jan 2019

ondon has long been considered the destination for those dreaming of a high-flying career. But is working in the British capital really all it’s cracked up to be? Here’s what its workforce has to say.

Stepping into an underground station first thing in the morning is enough to give you an idea of what the work culture is like in London.

Frenzied faces charging to get on the tube blur into insignificance, businesspeople enjoying the morning newspaper craftily turn the pages with their mouths, and commuters relinquish their personal space as they become sandwiched between those next to them.

“Getting on the tube in the morning is like being skinned alive,” one commuter told a member of the content team at Startup Guide during rush hour last autumn. “But it has to be done,” he said, before speedily exiting the train at Bond Street station. “We’ve all got jobs to do.”

One of the reasons I left London [for Berlin] was the busy lifestyle of everyone else around me.

There’s a reason why London is one of the most desirable places to live in the world. In spite of its high cost of living, the metropolis is vibrant, fast-paced and brimming with opportunity.

It attracts the young and enterprising with its strong sense of individualism. Anything is possible in the Big Smoke, but with that, there is also a price to pay.

Studies have shown that while Brits work the longest hours in Europe, their productivity is lower than in other countries. According to a report published in 2017 called the OECD Better Life Index, a resource that compares various data across countries, almost 13 percent of UK employees work up to 50 hours or more per week on average. In comparison, just under 5 percent of German employees do the same.

But are long hours and low productivity all the British capital has to offer its workforce? We talked to several workers to hear their experiences and perspectives on what it’s like working in London.

Photo: Eglė Duleckytė

Starting early, finishing late

“One of the reasons I left London [for Berlin] was the busy lifestyle of everyone else around me,” says Startup Guide’s Eglė Duleckytė, who worked in central London for two years after graduating from Newcastle University.

“You could feel it in the air whilst walking around, for instance in the queue for your Pret A Manger wrap, and, of course, squeezed in during the peak hours on the underground. I was based around St James's Park and Victoria and the latter was a nightmare for commuting.”

In the British capital, a five-day, forty-hour work week is considered standard practice, and nine to five is the rhythm of life. “5 pm was quite a sacred wrapping up and going home time,” Egle says. “I would get weird looks if I stayed longer.”

However, while some people clear their desks to leave at 5 pm on the dot, many people in London are working overtime without compensation.

Plenty of Brits are working more than ten hours over their prescribed amount every week on average, clocking up to 469 extra working hours every year, according to a 2018 survey by OnePoll. Over half of these workers won’t get paid for those extra hours.

Moreover, while technology has all but eliminated what should be a natural boundary between life and work, studies continue to indicate that people in London are unable to switch off.

A survey in 2017 conducted by TotallyMoney, a website that provides price comparison services for credit cards, loans, and mortgages, revealed that 60 percent of British workers do not have a good work-life balance, citing excessive workloads and pressure from colleagues. Only a third said they usually leave work on time.

The allure of London for young job seekers

For Lucy Lorimer, a recent university graduate based in southwestern England, London “holds such sway in the imagination.” It is highly cultural, social and, for many young people, attached to dreams of glamour and romance, she says.

But while Lucy hasn’t lived in London and has no current plans to move there, she has often heard from friends about the high cost of reasonable accommodation and the fierceness of job competition. Yet moving to London, in her words, “seems to be presented as the only option after graduation.”

Photo: Eglė Duleckytė

London is naturally the center that job seekers look to, to make their first step onto the career ladder. As many large corporate companies have their headquarters in the British capital, London is home to many popular graduate schemes and internships – an explanation for why students flock to the city soon after graduating.

But while London is held up as the holy grail for opportunity, many young jobseekers find themselves being deterred by the sheer volume of competition, as well as the rigid working practices that many companies still adhere to.

Climbing the career ladder

“As a non-Londoner looking in, it’s another world which is hyper-competitive, and not all that healthy in terms of earning your stripes at work,” says Lucy.

Hierarchies within corporate companies can create an atmosphere of competitiveness. Climbing up the career ladder involves a daunting level of commitment, ruthlessness, and resilience.

“I was shocked by something a friend of mine said recently, along the lines of having to arrive to work super early (before 8 am), and leave really late, perhaps just to give the impression of working really hard,” Lucy says. She believes that the idea of being at work purely for the sake of appearing hardworking seems redundant and calls this an “unhealthy behaviour that should not be rewarded.”

But while the cold, hard grind is considered a compulsory practice for those of London’s workforce seeking to move up the ranks, it’s arguably dependent on what industry you find yourself in.

British business culture seems straightforward, but there are a lot of nuances. If someone says something is interesting, as we know, it means it is actually not that interesting.

“Financial services within banks, for example, are super hierarchical, while the innovation and transformation teams operate with virtually no hierarchy at all,” says Stephanie Gallagher, who is currently employed at Lloyds Banking Group in London.

It also depends largely on what kind of company you work for. With the rise of startup culture in the UK - 660,000 startups were created in the country in 2017 - smaller companies are beginning to adopt the ‘startup mentality,’ where little to no hierarchy exists in the workplace.

Propelled by the millennial desire to do work that matters, many startups operate on the basis that all ideas are valuable. For young people choosing to work for a startup, the challenge of climbing the career ladder may prove to be less of a priority than working alongside others to make a tangible difference.

Doing business

While the pace of London’s working life is not for the fainthearted, it’s not unusual to find that productivity is slowed by the stereotypical British politeness, according to Svend Littauer, founder of legal and financial services firm Goodwille, which is based in the London district of Kensington.

“When the English say something, they don’t always mean what they say,” Svend says. “British business culture seems straightforward, but there are a lot of nuances. If someone says something is interesting, as we know, it means it is actually not that interesting.”

Home to the likes of Shakespeare and John Donne, the English vernacular is full of poets and artists who have adorned the language with mellifluous words and phrases. As a result, the British are not necessarily known to be economical with words.

It wouldn’t be surprising to hear from internationals working in London that business transactions can be convoluted due to typical British niceties and an excess of talking that gets in the way of straightforward negotiations.

“Small talk or networking used to give me anxiety because no one actually listened to each other,” says Egle, who is originally from Lithuania. “It was rather like a race to give out your business cards as soon as possible in order to win the prize of the most 'connected' person.”

Photo: Eglė Duleckytė

Confronting British culture

London is very much known for its ‘work hard, play hard’ attitude, and by ‘play hard,’ Brits quite often mean ‘drink hard.’

“I would describe London’s work culture as competitive but jovial. Many like to think of Thursday as the new Friday in order to get through their week,” says Adam Rogoff, a recruiter for Facebook.

While London’s workforce struggles under the weight of an expectation to constantly produce exceptional work, it means that most aren’t adverse to an after-work pint. Brits are famed for binge-drinking, and Friday nights are ostensibly the long-awaited time of the week to quite literally drown your work sorrows.  

“I was quite fond of the Friday after-work pub visits with the team as it gave us something to look forward to,” Egle says. “We were already choosing a pub we should go to during lunchtime.”

But these weekly pub meetings also signify another aspect of British culture that dates back to war-time England: a spirit of camaraderie. According to Egle, offices in London offer supportive environments and inspire an ethic of teamwork.

“There was always cake and tea (obviously), and everyone who traveled brought back something for the team,” she says. “People used to secretly send birthday cards around for everyone to sign and collected money for birthday presents for each other. I think this is one of the things that has stuck with me most until today.”

A changing landscape

With the implications of stress on one’s mind and body becoming more widely recognized in the workplace, London’s work practices are being held under the microscope more than ever before. With support from local media, the British capital is crying out for a culture shift.

A 2017 article by Evening Standard declared that Britain was in the throes of a ‘stress epidemic.’ It cites a survey from insurance firm Axa which revealed that four out of five adults experience high levels of stress during a typical work week.

I worked in London for a year and it was more relaxed than I thought. I think the millennial influence has a lot to do with that.

However, according to Shaiek Ahmed, a digital innovation analyst based in the British capital, times are changing. “I think there is definitely more to London than working behind a desk,” he says. “I worked in London for a year and it was more relaxed than I thought. I think the millennial influence has a lot to do with that.”  

“There’s more focus on issues like mental health and diversity in companies now that I can’t imagine existed a few years ago,” the analyst goes on to explain. “Even small things like a lot of big corporates in London ditching uniform and advocating WFH [working from home] days shows that people are moving away from the traditional concept of a ‘job.’”

Research in recent years from the CIPD, a resource for human resource management professionals, has shown that implementing flexible working practices can improve staff engagement and motivation. But according to one sales executive Startup Guide spoke to, who preferred to remain anonymous, flexibility may only be reserved for the privileged.

“Of course, there should be high praise for flexible working hours, but that’s also not possible for every social class,” she says. “Flexibility can be afforded by those fortunate enough to have positions in forward-thinking companies.”

Main photo: Eglė Duleckytė, Global Production Lead at Startup Guide