Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Working 9 to 5: the daily grind in London

Almost four years ago [Ed: written back in 2011, it's been seven years now!] I moved to London in search of a job.  It seemed like the most sensible thing to do, given the somewhat limited employment options of the village in which I grew up, and my desire for an exciting career with a decent salary, development prospects and international travel.  Most of my friends made the same decision.  And so within a year of graduating from university we found ourselves in the London rat-race, working 9 to 5.  Or actually rarely working 9 to 5, as the average workday seems considerably longer here.

The UK is recognised as one of the hardest working nations in Europe.  Despite a European directive capping the number of hours we can legally work at a horrifying 48 hours, us Brits work far longer hours than many other countries, and in London those hours can be even longer.  A standard working week is 37.5 hours, typically worked between 9am and 5.30pm.  However since I have lived and worked here, I have discovered that the hour off for lunch which should occur between those times to tally up total working hours of 37.5 per week only sometimes materialises.  Apparently the average British working day is more likely to last 43.6 hours a week.

At half-past twelve offices empty and descend upon the hundreds, probably thousands, of branches of Pret a Manger, Eat, Starbucks, Marks & Spencer Food and numerous supermarket 'local' or 'metro' shops.  Whilst the luckier workers may be able to munch their lunch out in the sunshine (this summer?! pah!) in nearby squares, for the vast majority their dining table is their desk in the office.  Sandwiches and crisps are eaten one-handed as office workers lunch whilst typing emails, filling spreadsheets and taking phonecalls.  It's not a healthy way to work. Endless studies have shown the benefits one derives from taking 'screen-breaks', and nothing livens up a tedious day more than a quick office gossip session in the kitchen whilst making a cup of tea.  Yet in many offices I have worked in down here it almost seems as if not being welded to your swivel-chair for at least 7.5 hours a day defines you as a slacker.

Where the real slog of the working day in London comes however is during the phase which bookmarks our office hours - commuting.  London's transport systems are transformed between the hours of about 7am and 9am and then again after 5pm until around half 7 or 8.  The typical commute involves a journey from one of London's less central areas (where most of us can all afford to live) into its heaving business centre.  I have already moaned previously about the peculiarities of travelling on the Tube and the misery of the 'bendy-bus', so shall simply add that no one who hops in a cosy, private car to drive for twenty minutes to an office carpark, a mere 30 second stroll from their desk has any idea of the challenge involved in commuting in London.  It is a battle.  It is you versus TFL, you versus the rest of the bus-stop who've all been waiting 20 minutes for the bus to Trafalgar Square, you versus that man with the a lack of respect for personal space and a thoroughly inefficient hygiene regime.  It's really not a pleasant start or end to any day.

A London-weighted salary should ensure the higher cost of living in the city is catering for, but what about the losses in quality of life?  Are the sacrifices we make in a miserable commute and a endless working day worth it to gain those few extra pounds?  With our long days, and our fraught travel, how many of the bountiful opportunities and entertainments that we can access in our city do we really get to make the most of?  Don't we enjoy ourselves most when we're on holiday outside of the city?  Is the daily grind all really worth it?

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  1. So true, Accidental Londoner. Now, I need to confess something. Until yesterday, I was working for TfL/London Underground. I was in charge of the Signalling investments (you know, the stuff that always fails...) and I quickly grew tired of all the bureaucracy. Well, from now on, I will work from home on my own business and I look forward to it. Bye Bye, corporate world, long commutes and long hours!

  2. Ah, lucky you, MuMuGB! I envy your lack of commuting and lack of dreary office. (and thanks for the insight into the inner workings of TfL...can I say I'm not surprised it's crippled by bureaucracy, hence doesn't work?!)

  3. These things could all be improved if employers had a better attitude to flexi-time and working from home. I'm not sure that's a London problem - but a residue from antiquated work habits that don't really fit the time we live in.

  4. Very true, needlepullingthread. I do think that some companies are starting to think about what people really need from a workspace to be productive but it's still early days in terms of anything being put in to practice, frustratingly. There are some wonderfully imaginative offices starting to appear, although many of them seem to be in the USA. Fast Company magazine did a profile on the ACE Hotel in New York, the lobby of which has become the sort of office I'd love to work in! (http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/158/ace-hotel-new-york)

  5. UK really is a hard-working nation, yet my experience here is that we tend to do it during normal working hours. So, when clock strikes 5pm, we all leave as fast as we can!

    Well done, MuMuGB!! Are you open for business yet?

  6. Interesting post...when I worked in London I had days when the work load was so overwhelming that lunch had to be eaten at the desk...but that was entirely up to me. I might have also chosen to go out for an hour, leave at 5.30 and simply explain to my boss that there is only as much I can do in my working hours, and I am doing my best. Everyone is entitled to lunch and I believe that often we are creating our life so I say, go out for lunch, no one will give you a medal for staying in the office, and it is not healthy. Also I always said - I am not getting paid enough to do this...well, my boss went out to buy lunch but mostly had it on his desk, but he got paid ten times more than I did so I guess he had do work more :-)
    The quality of live I guess varies between people...now we live in Frankfurt, have a huge flat in the Westend, which cost less than our tiny flat in Southfields and I get to walk to the office. However it's boring, nothing ever happens, people are rude and ignorant (ok that’s Germany, UK will be different but still boring) and now I miss London like crazy...in my personal case the tube journey is...well bearable. What I have a problem with are the small salaries and the expensive properties. Oh also the over priced kindergartens.

  7. Ah, so you reckon a kind and sensible boss is the key to working reasonable hours, eh, Sewandthecity?

  8. I have to say...no, not worth it at all. I spent three years working in London; I only had a 20 minute commute (by bike) but add in a gym session in the morning and I was out of my house at 6.30am each day and usually not back until 7.30-8pm. I worked about 11 hours a day and I earned a good wage, but most of that money simply got wasted on 'London living' - expensive rent, expensive meals, expensive cocktails and a lot of it went into escaping from London - as many holidays a year as I could manage!
    I think you're absolutely right that most people living in the city are actually working too hard to get out and appreciate it. Last December I looked back on the year and realised that all my happiest moments had been when I had left London. (And I should add that I grew up there, so it wasnt a case of feeling homesick/out of my depth/etc) I moved to the countryside and now I earn less but spend less, inhale fresh air when I go cycling and am immeasurably happier.
    Just one person's experience, but I think so many get sucked into the London trap of must earn more and work harder so I can afford to live here and buy more things... and it's not healthy.

  9. Why do we do it to ourselves, eh Emma? Interesting that your fondest memories of your time in London are your escapes from the city. I spent a day outside London with a couple of Accidental chums just yesterday and we all agreed it was great to have a break from London and all its busy distractions to properly catch up and switch off from work.
    I wonder what could ever change enough to redress this balance...or maybe London life will always be like this and the answer really is to move away.


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