Emily Levin

Managing A Cross-Cultural Team: United Kingdom

by Emily Levin
August 2019

There are more than 66 million people living in the United Kingdom, which is made up of four distinct countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Each have their own proud heritage, united under one government.

With a unique blend of cultures, and because it is frequently used as a center of operations for European businesses, the UK puts a premium on intercultural skills.

A recent report by Booz Allen and the British Council defined “intercultural skills” as “the ability to understand different cultural contexts and viewpoints.’’ In that report, 70% of UK respondents ranked intercultural skills as very important, versus only 58% in the U.S. and 25% in China. This is likely a reflection of the UK’s pivotal role in a dynamic global business environment.

With one of the Europe’s lowest unemployment rates (3.5%), there are 35 million workers in the UK and 4 million (17%) of them are employed by international businesses. The UK is one of the largest and most competitive international markets in the world, particularly in international finance, law, and education.

Despite the low unemployment rate, the UK does have areas where it is struggling—most notably with high doses of stress and notoriously low productivity and engagement levels. In fact, when Gallup surveyed British employee engagement in 2016, only 8% were highly engaged. This is a mere quarter of the engagement of U.S. workers (33%) that same year.

British workers also put in some of the longest hours in Europe, and their “all-in” mentality toward work has resulted in some of the highest stress levels in Europe. In fact, 85% of British adults are experiencing stress regularly, and half a million people in the UK suffer from work-related stress. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, British workers are significantly less productive than those in some other countries.

This isn’t to say that company culture in the UK is all work and no play. The UK is famous for their work pub lunches, and their after-work social culture is livelier than in many other countries. Co-workers tend to convene in pubs after working hours every day of the week—not just on the weekends.

Although the social scene is fairly casual, the dress code in British business culture tends to be more on the conservative side. This may be changing, however, and definitely varies by industry and company. Generally speaking, even in hipper, less traditional companies, British workers tend to dress more “smart” (or as Americans say more “sharp”) than a similar team would in the U.S.

Work culture is in flux in the UK, driven in part by expansion of the gig economy (a term referring to a workforce environment in which short-term engagements, temporary contracts, and independent contracting is prevalent). In 2017, more than 15% of  UK workers were classified as self-employed and the latest figures from 2018 show that 6% of employees are non-contracted ‘zero hour’ employees—a number that is sharply on the rise.  According to Deloitte, “17% of UK companies have policies and strategies in place for the use of ‘non-traditional’ labor, including freelancers, contractors, and ‘gig’ employees.”

UK: By the Numbers

  • Population:  66 million
  • Time Zone: Greenwich Mean Time, (with British Summer Time +1)
  • Language:  English (defacto) plus recognized regional dialects, including Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Irish, and Cornish.
  • Currency: British pound (GBP)
  • Office hours: Typical working hours in the UK are 8:30am to 5:30pm, with two out of three workers taking 30 minutes or less for lunch.
  • Appointments: Teams in the UK expect people to schedule meetings and appointments, and that an agenda will be provided in advance.
  • Scheduling: Brits use the 24-hour clock, and it’s rare to hear the exact time as opposed to terms like ‘half past’, ‘half-nine’, ‘quarter past’, or ‘quarter to’. The same day in the following week may be referred to as ‘Friday week’ and two weeks might be called a ‘fortnight.’ Brits often use the term “diary” in reference to their calendar or schedule.

Tips for Managing UK Employees

You might be wondering, what do British employees expect from a manager? Like the French, British managers tend to be trained more as generalist managers than specialists—although academic education garners less respect in the modern UK than in times past, where an educational pedigree is a ticket to executive management.

Managers in the UK are struggling. In fact, a recent study from the ONS/Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence published in the Financial Times showed that managers from foreign-owned companies tend to out-perform domestic ones. According to that article, “some British managers are reluctant to change because they do not see the need” and others are “often promoted to managerial roles with little or no preparation.”

Part of the problem is that the UK is burdened with many toxic workplaces and a national crisis of confidence; low salaries and long hours have contributed to high stress and low levels of productivity. To say nothing of rising Brexit concerns.

All that said, be aware that your workers may be coming to you somewhat bruised. British workers are expected to work overtime without pay and to sacrifice their personal well-being to succeed in business—even if it is at the risk of their mental health.

As an American or other foreign manager, your employees may be optimistic that you will bring a welcome change—or they may be nervous that you will make things worse, so tread carefully to win their trust. Here are some of the expectations British employees generally expect from their managers:

  • Diplomacy: British employees expect a manager who is a management generalist, with strong people skills that allow them to deftly diagnose and diffuse difficult situations politely.
  • Sense of humor: A wry, understated sense of humor is a hallmark of British management style—and indeed, general British work style. Be ready for your employees to use humor to communicate and diffuse tension. Try to match their dry style (if you can!)
  • Planning: British workers will expect an agenda to be set and mostly followed in meetings. They will also expect you to be strategic and follow through with your stated intentions.
  • Small talk: British employees use small talk as a way to break the ice before meetings—usually sticking to non-personal or intrusive topics like sports, the weather, travel, or global news.
  • Praise, criticism, and self-promotion: British employees are not likely to brag about their accomplishments and will most likely react poorly if you do so. Likewise, they are not accustomed to individual public praise. They prefer to be spoken to about performance—good or bad— in private and will react with embarrassment if you heap either criticism or recognition on them in front of colleagues.
  • A pint or a “cuppa”: Last but not least, it bears repeating that British workers love going to the pub with their colleagues on almost any working day of the week, so do not be surprised if your team members ask you to go out for a pint. Or, offer to make you a cup of tea at work. Brewing tea for the boss is still more common than you might think, and most people expect you to offer to make another cup if you’re headed to the kettle.

What to Expect from Your British Employees

What should you be expecting from your team members in the UK? Here are some common attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs you might encounter from your British employees:

  • Deliberation before action: British employees tend to be less willing than Americans to make a snap decision. You may find that your team will wish to take a deliberative, consultative approach to issues you consider to be urgently in need of triage or action.
  • Tea breaks: A survey of British employees revealed that the average British worker spends 109.6 hours per year making tea at work. Brits may overwork and eat at their desks, but they won’t skip their tea break!
  • Vacation requests: British workers are entitled to 5.6 weeks (28 days) of vacation time annually—normally including 8 bank holidays. Compare this to the U.S., which has no statutory minimum paid vacation or holidays, and employees average 10 vacation days with 8 holidays per year. While the British are inclined to long hours, there is also a strong culture of supporting coworkers when they go “on holiday” and workers in the UK tend to use their time. While their counterparts in the U.S. only use about 54% of their allotted vacation, the British take more of their holidays than any other country in the world.
  • Work-Life boundaries: Do not expect your UK employees to work outside of work. While 66% of U.S. workers tend to work while they are technically on vacation and 25% of work in the U.S. is completed outside regular hours, 80% of British employees would prefer to switch off during vacation holidays. Working on off-hours is on the rise in the UK though, and two fifths of your British employees may check email outside working hours or on holiday. In general, however, the British are less likely to be faithfully checking their emails on a Saturday night than an American worker. Two-fifths say they will not check mail on holiday at all.
  • Employee turnover: Workers in the United Kingdom have a lower intention to leave their jobs than those in the U.S.—with 47% actively looking for new work last year compared to 60% of U.S. workers. Nevertheless they did change jobs at a rate of 17.6% in 2017, vs. 13% in the United States, and a global average of 12.8%. Similar to the U.S. and other Commonwealth countries such as Canada and Australia, people in the UK tend to advance their careers by moving to a new company. That said, Brexit is having an impact on voluntary job churn, as active job seeking declined 9.6% in the first quarter of 2019 and has decreased 13% year-over-year from the first quarter of 2018. It’s hard to know how this will play out as Brexit proceeds.
  • Tardiness: Transport in the UK, particularly in the vicinity of London and other cities, can be difficult, congested and unreliable. Don’t be surprised if your employees rush in a bit late, blaming the “tube” or the “motorway.”
  • Fear of failure: British work environments are famous for their “blame culture.” In the U.S., making mistakes and failing is seen—at least philosophically—as a step toward success. Some U.S. companies see failure as a way of learning and innovating. In Britain, however, managers tend to assign blame quickly and are less patient with the idea of learning from mistakes. Failing is not an acceptable risk for most British companies— and that has made British employees more afraid than their U.S. counterparts to take risks and fail. When failure does occur, you may see them looking for a place to settle blame.

For a more thorough overview of hiring employees in the UK, please visit our Globalpedia.

Looking for more advice on finding, hiring and managing your global team? Globalization Partners can help.

Globalization Partners’ Global Expansion Platform™ enables you to hire in more than 170 countries within days, and without the need to set up costly international subsidiaries. You identify great talent anywhere in the world, and we put them on our fully compliant global payroll—lifting the burden of global corporate tax, legal, and HR matters from your shoulders to ours.

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Contact us today to see how we can help you expand your team in the United Kingdom or around the world.

Emily Levin

Emily Levin

Communications Manager, Globalization Partners

Emily Levin joined Globalization Partners in July 2018 as Communications Manager. Emily has extensive experience in external and internal communications, content creation, and social media management.