Forget the Elections, how about Spanish Office Politics?

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!

13 thoughts on “Forget the Elections, how about Spanish Office Politics?

  1. chris

    All excellent points – however the other side of this is the continual moaning about work conflicting with family life. As women have entered the workplace, childcare has more or less been left to granparents provoking much justified hand wringing. But as you point out, the lassez faire attitude to work means that the obvious solution to the problem ie changing the working hours by cutting down on the two hour lunch break and extended coffee breaks would result in a social crisis.

    Try it yourself – ask your Spanish workmates or students if they would be willing to forgo the current work timetable to have a “reconciled” family life. Indeed as Ben has pointed out before, the atitude to timekeeping etc extends to all areas of working life, and like any another teacher, I have spent many a fruitless journey out to some office to be told that my student isn’t there or have waited for students who simply never show up or arrive when the class is about to finish.

    I do take issue with the “hard working” concept – Spanish workers spend more time in the workplace but have low productivity. Why? For all the reasons mentioned above. I’m not saying that it’s wrong, I’m just fed up of 15 years of listening to moaning about these issues.

  2. Mike

    Dave, I enjoyed reading your post. I work as a more-or-less freelance consultant, and most of my work is off-site, but my experiences of visits to client sites in Barcelona have been very different from visiting offices in the UK. I’ve hit similar problems to Chris – I’ve often arrived to find that the people I’m supposed to be meeting are not available for one reason or another (this is frustrating, but at least the clock is still ticking) and I remember my surprise one Friday afternoon around 3pm to look up from my laptop and realise that everyone had disappeared for the weekend – ignoring the security issues, I was abandoned alone in the office even though I had been expected to be there working with some software people all day – big waste of time. There’s a lot more “time-guilt” inherent in British offices, whereas in Spain the attitude is more geared towards personal, family time.

  3. Frank

    Indeed they do have low productivity, and don’t really work any actual working hours.

    Spanish workers report a similar number of effective working hours (40.3 hours) as other European countries (around 40 hours, on average). However, Spain shows a low rate of productivity per hour (83.3% of the EU15 average), especially in comparison with some European countries with a similar effective working time as Spain – such as France, which shows a productivity rate of 123.1% of the EU15 average. Only Greece (75.1%) and Portugal (63.9%) have a lower productivity rate than Spain. The Spanish situation might be attributed to inefficient working time practices.

  4. Pepino

    I don’t doubt those productivity figures, but I think they are perhaps being dragged down by certain industries that are more susceptible take a productivity hit when employees are stop/starting and taking long breaks etc, even if they work until late. But in my industry, I’ve been truly impressed by the dedication and hard work that my colleagues put into their jobs. Yes, they disappear for long periods midday, but they somehow get through their work, and then some! When I compare them to many of my old UK colleagues (who treat their jobs as “something to do” between the hours of 9 and 5) I think your average Spaniard works hard but, crucially, knows when to play. As I say though, I’m centered on an industry that perhaps is less forgiving to laziness of any kind in the working day (however the hours may be structured).

  5. Mrmark

    In my limited experience the Spanish work just as hard as other nationalities – in fact I remember the Spanish temping with me at a food factory in Leicester were the best of the bunch. Nowadays it may be a generational thing – recently I worked with some Brit temps – and the youngsters would spend all day on Facebook or chatrooms. Work seemed at times to be an alien concept to one or two of those particular youngsters, although to be fair, once they realised that their elders were harder-working , they then knuckled down.
    As regards productiivty, I’ve always been impressed with the speed of a Spanish barman who can serve up 3 cafes, 4 beers (with free canapes) and a whisky in the time it takes a barperson in a British Weatherspoons to enter the order in on the cash register.

  6. Bill

    I work as a software developer, and have worked in Spanish companies for over a year. In the first company we regularly had to work through the night to meet deadlines, and generally put in at least 12 hours a day (even though we only got paid for a standard 37 hour week). We got promised compensation for those extra hours, but I didn’t hang around and moved after 10 months. In fact I was considering either switching my career to teaching since I figured there was no point living in Madrid if I never left the office, or contracting back in the UK where you at least get paid decent money.

    My colleagues told me those were typical working hours for a Spanish company in the IT sector, so I went through a real career re-evaluation stage.

    However a friend of mine who is also a programmer says he has never worked more than 7 hours a day in his current (Spanish) company. They have an obligatory half our coffee break on top of a two hour lunch break, and they lock the door at 7pm so everyone has to leave.

    I now work for a company where people get to work between 9 and 9.30 and leave between 7 and 8. We have occasionally had to work the odd weekend. That is pretty much in line with my experiences working in the UK.

    When you compare this to the world of the funcionario in Spain, where he working day often involves reading the paper it is frustrating. I get the impression of a private sector that is often working itself into the ground to support a public sector where most people are in a state of semi-retirement. This attracts more and more people to the public sector, even though it doesn’t contribute to the economy. However that might just be me being biased.

  7. Pepino

    Bill, you’re so right with what you have said about the public sector. I have Funcionario friends who work amazingly favourable hours, with working conditions that I’d kill for. Now, if only I could speak Catalan! I’m starting learning a bit at the moment, so maybe one day I’ll bag myself a cushy job in the civil service too. 🙂

  8. Graeme

    @ Pepino

    I suspect you’ll need more than the Catalan. First you’ll have to get your qualifications “homologado” which means that photocopies of them lie on someone’s desk for about 15 months before being approved or rejected. Then you spend half the rest of your life doing exams even if you’re only interested in being deputy chief photocopier in the department of qualification homologación. So it will take you a while to get to the point where you can get that nice, secure job. I’ve worked in private companies where they have nice timetables too, the first job I ever did in Spain was at Gas Natural and they were working the jornada intensiva, so after 3 p.m. I often found myself the only person in the office.

  9. Graeme

    Back in the UK I remember working in one of those offices where people took a curious sort of pride in the fact that they had no life outside of work. Someone would talk about a visit they had made to an office somewhere “where everyone just disappeared at 5 o’ clock” as if this was somehow a mortal sin.

  10. Bill

    On reflection I did generalise a bit regarding funcionarios. I know a few teachers who have a tough job, have to deal with a lot of crap (especially from the pupils) and are often “de baja” with stress.

    Other differences people mention is that Spanish offices tend to have a stricter and more formal hierarchy. In Spain people fear the boss much more.

    Also, in the UK it is common for people to earn a living contracting. You might even find some technical expert working as a contractor being paid more than their project manager, simply because their skills are in short supply. Apparently that would never happen in Spain. In fact, it is a pain for me that in Spain it seems only TEFLers can make a career out of contracting – it just doesn’t happen in other sectors. Spanish employers expect you to hang around companies for years on end. In the UK it is more acceptable to change every 2 or 3 years, especially if it means you’ve built a varied CV.

  11. AndrewW

    I have worked in a I+D department (of a large telecommunications company ;)) in Madrid for 6 months now and generally have the same observations.

    Productivity is quite low I would say. Youtube has got to be the most visited website – even above Google, I swear! Even managers sit and play suduko for hours.

    But when there is work to be done, we work hard, when there isn’t, we go home early. I love the flexibility of being able to leave work and run a quick errand (you know, like eat breakfast, take a coffee, go to the bank :D). I think it improves moral alot, but perhaps a little too much, looking at productivity!

    Generally I would say it is a much better atmosphere than in the UK.

  12. ElDuque

    Having lived and worked here for over 10 years (and being half Spanish) one of the most important observations would have to be how work life in Spain is actually all about social interaction.

    In order to get along and fit it at Spanish companies employees and managers group together, often going to lunch every day. This is where a lot of key relationships are made.
    Often those relationships play out in the workplace as well and it’s quite normal for a manager who jumps to a competitor to take over “los suyos” to the new firm. Like it or loath it that’s the way it is hereand it can work to your advantage or work against you.
    I must say that foreigners, whilst treated with curiosity, are often made to feel excluded if on secondment or hired full time. This reflects in many ways Spanish society, whilst very friendly Spaniards are group animals (mum & dad, brothers, long term friends) and do no easily accept outsiders into their inner circle unless introduced by a Spaniard. Who said it was easy integrating into another culture ? Imagine what some of those poor illegal farm and construction workers must go through…….

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