Dave Hall lives and works in Barcelona. You can read more of his great posts on his blog, and his guest blogging posts here on Notes from Spain. He is currently somewhat of an expert on life in a Spanish office:
After listening to the Notes in Spanish Advanced podcast about life in a Spanish office recently, I thought I’d write a little about my experience of some of the most striking differences from my viewpoint as a long term UK office worker now working in various Spanish offices over the past 18 months.
The biggest (and the most obvious) thing that I still struggle with at times is how to get my head around the well publicised relaxed attitude to timekeeping.
In my old UK company, we would routinely receive emails reminding us that 9 am was the start of the "working" day, and not the time you should be stubbing your fag out against the wall outside and thinking about dragging your lazy, no-good, workshy carcass into the building only to then go for an unfeasibly long pee, get a coffee and chat to your colleagues about last night’s television (OK, I’m paraphrasing). Something along the lines of "You should be at your workstation, ready to work at 9 am" was the usual message.
Lunch time was a fixed 45 minutes and the same rules applied then. In fact, this was so well drummed into us that, if you strolled back in 5 minutes late, your own dear colleagues (from outside your department) would look at you with scorn and pass comment either behind your back, or to your face in the form of a lame joke. The management had clearly done their job on us, as the staff were effectively policing each other in the form of an internalized company Gestapo!!! (Although, we’d of course swapped finger screws for finger pointing). A sad situation indeed.
Here in Spain, it’s very different. Last week, when I asked what the hours were in my new job, my boss kind of shrugged, expelled a lot of air, umm’d and arr’d , then finally said, "Well, come in about 9am ish, lunch is roughly 13.30 until whenever, and most people start leaving about 18.30, or earlier if it’s a Friday." (She then immediately asked if I wanted to go for a coffee with her). Ah well, that’s clear then, thanks!
So, not a bad situation, but totally useless for an anally retentive, logically minded Virgo like me who can only cope with life if there’s a "rule" of some kind to help avoid unnecessary confusion! I still find myself rushing back to work after lunch, only to find an empty office, and then chastising myself for being such a pillock. For someone who prides himself on having done a reasonably good job of fitting into Spanish life, this work timetable thing is an irritatingly persistent problem that I still need to shake off before my hair falls out or I start cultivating a stomach ulcer.
One important note regarding working hours though is that this relaxed attitude all goes in the bin when there is extra work to be done. Anyone who says that the typical Spanish office worker or manager doesn’t work long hours on the whole, is point blank lying. In the UK, I would be out of the office at 5pm and home soon after. Here, many people will stay until gone 8pm or later, routinely. My latest finish in Spain so far has been 01.30 am (I was the last one in the office that time), although my worst experience was when I did a 4 am start to fly to Paris, worked until the office shut at 9pm, then continued in the hotel until 04.30 the next morning with my colleagues.
That was an exception, but what surprised me most was that my colleagues shrugged it off with a casual – "what do you expect, we’ve got a lot of work on". I was like the living dead the next day, and couldn’t string two words together in English let alone in Spanish, whereas they seemed to spring back to life with nothing more than a strong coffee.
Then there are those little daily "excursions" that all office workers like to make whenever possible. In my old UK company, if you need to go out during work time, then basically, it better be important. Dentist and doctors appointments are the most well used excuse, but nowadays often need backing up with a proof of appointment card. In Spain, you can nip out for pretty much anything – Coffee, dry cleaning, bikini wax, pay a cheque in the bank, catch up with your friend who’s working down the road.
In a nutshell anything goes and no one raises an eyebrow. Fabulous situation. However, when a colleague in my old UK office would pop out for something not strictly kosher, "Operation Cloak and Dagger" would kick-in and we would routinely cover for them if the phone rang, telling the caller in a virtual whisper (so as not to draw unwanted attention from the Gestapo-type colleagues from other departments as mentioned earlier) that the person was "unavoidably detained in a meeting".
In Spain, none of this amateur dramatics rubbish is necessary and a quick "Yeah, she’s just popped out for a coffee, ring back in about 20 mins" is perfectly acceptable. After hearing this done a million times, it struck me how the caller would never ask, or be asked, to leave a message. It’s always left to the poor caller to somehow psychically know when the errant employee has thought it fitting to return to their desk, and then call again, often only to be told exactly the same thing (with the clock reset to the start of the "20 minutes" of course!)
Another shocker for me has been the strength of unionism in some offices here. I was recently working in a very large and well known IT consultancy, and my email inbox would be filled with the daily gripes of the worker’s union (some serious, some truly pathetic). Everyone thought it was completely normal, except for me. I know some companies in the UK are heavily unionised, and maybe I’m extremely naíve after growing up with a Thatcher government as I only associate unions with shipyards and transport workers etc, but I just didn’t expect it in a privately owned IT Consultancy.
We even had a few "sit in protests" complete with painted bed sheets tied to mop handles to make banners. It’s a strange sight in a plush and shiny office full of designer chairs and smartly dressed consultants busily working away, to look across and see a group of (comparatively) scruffy protesters "illegally occupying" a nearby area of the office in order to draw attention to their claim that the Management have not supplied the union with a dedicated office space of their own (or whatever this week’s burning issue is).
The union reps would also come around to each worker and give us things like "Know your rights" fridge magnets or "Salary review NOW" stickers, which would inevitably end up stuck to the inside of the lift doors, and leave a nasty residue and scratch marks after a passing Manager has tried to pick it off with the edge of his underpaid secretary’s staple extractor.
That’s another thing I’m told (but have zero concrete evidence of), that salaries are much lower for women even when doing the exact same job as a man in Spain. I presume it must be because of the tired old excuse that women can get pregnant at any time, leaving the company instantly on the verge of certain doom and impending bankruptcy.
I think that’s been fairly well ironed out in the UK for the most part (as I say, I think) but if this is still going on in Spain (or anywhere in fact), then it’s pretty shameful if you ask me, and I reckon it’s about time even the childless, non-family orientated workers of the nation quietly admitted that it’s no bad thing that woman should be treated absolutely equally and that pregnant women are no longer dropped like a hot potato when their boss hears their "happy" news. (Of course, I’d like to see more use of sabbaticals and career breaks for men too, but that’s going wildly off topic..!)
Finally, you can’t look at the differences between Spanish offices and UK ones (in the examples I’ve given) without mentioning the one big similarity. Office Gossip! I’m pleased to say that this is just as rife in Spain as anywhere in my experience. Extra-marital affairs, secret pregnancies, new starters with falsified CV’s, along with the usual spread of mild bitching and backstabbing is all happy camping the world over it seems!
OK, back to work for me!