I’m sure everyone has an idea in their head of what working in finance in London would be like. I sure did – I saw myself all busy running from one important meeting to another, surrounded by skyscrapers and ruthless businessmen and women in fancy suits. I heard horror stories of endless nights at the office, impossibly heavy workloads and therefore, having virtually no possibility for any kind of personal life. But did the reality turn out the same as my expectations (or concerns)? Not quite.
Even though I’ve only been working here for a little less than 2 years, I’ve had two quite different experiences of the working life in London. As I mentioned in my earlier post, my first job in London was in a huge global bank based in Canary Wharf. I found the work environment a bit contradictory as at the same time, the work was extremely fast-paced and deadline-driven yet due to hierarchy things like getting accesses to the systems vital to your daily work could take weeks or even months. Also, a lot of the work had been off-shored to Poland or even further to India and all the tasks were segregated to specific teams, and most of the teams weren’t aware of, or even interested in, anything happening outside their own teams. Hence, finding the correct team to respond to your query was often a quite frustrating endeavour and when you finally managed to find it, getting the actual response was usually only after an endless rounds of chasing and escalating the issue.
All’s well, that ends well?
When I first started the job, it felt like jumping off the deep end. Even though I had studied in English it was nothing like actually having to get through everything without the chance of resorting to your own native language when the brain goes blank. I did’t really make it easier that my manager at the time wasn’t the most helpful kind and one of my colleagues was absolutely the most difficult and obnoxious person I had ever met. And I mean this, not just a worked with but ever encountered in my life. I must admit that there were many times that I was on the verge of tears but never once did I question if moving to London wasn’t the right decision. I knew that starting a new job is never fun, and admittedly this one came with a few more complications, but I also knew that things will get easier after a couple of months. And they did. Looking back, I see my time in the bank as a great learning experience – without the knowledge and skills I obtained there, I would never have gotten the role I’m currently in. And once I got settled, I did make some good friends, with whom I’m still in touch with, and have many fond memories of the afternoons filled with playful office banter.
Even though my current role has some similarities to my old one, the work environment couldn’t be more different. I really enjoy the professional yet relaxed atmosphere in our West End office and working for a smaller company is definitely a better match for me. Getting to know people is so much easier when you are all located in the same office, or let alone country, and the company events like Christmas and summer parties offer a more informal opportunity to get to know your coworkers – as a taciturn Finn, those couple of glasses of wine are well needed for unleashing my inner extrovert. Also, often the smaller companies are able to offer benefits that the employees in the big global ones can only dream of.
The stark contrast between the two workplaces got me thinking that there is no way of giving any universal description of what it’s like to work in finance in London. However, what I can do is to offer my own views on how working here compares to Finland and to the general image people often have.
People often have the misconception that if you work in finance in London there is no way of having any kind of social life. This might have been true in the past but in modern day, no employer can ignore the importance of happy, balanced employees. In my previous job I did do a lot of overtime but no one really forced me – I was actually quite happy to stay overtime as the company paid 1.5 times the salary for those hours (which came in handy when you are living in one of the most expensive postcodes in the UK). Currently, there is hardly ever any need for me to stay overtime and when it comes to Mimosa’s work – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a finance job as flexible as hers. However, if you are a graduate still trying to prove your worth, or working in a front office role, things are probably different but in no means can it be said that having a work-life balance in London is impossible.
One of the most obvious differences compared to Finland is diversity. Especially in my previous job, there were people from different backgrounds all over the world. Personally, I see this as a great asset and an opportunity to widen one’s perspective by learning about different cultures. Based on the conversations I see going on in Finland, I wish the Finns would have the same opportunity. Currently, the majority of my colleagues are British, or at least from the Commonwealth countries, and in general I would say that the office culture is much more social than in Finland. Therefore, be prepared to chat in the elevator and never start a phone conversation without asking how the other person is doing first. Mimosa wrote about this general politeness just in her latest post.
But if I’m being honest, I’m still unsure what would be the appropriate response to often heard “Y’alright” – is it a question, a greeting or what? For the time being, my response has usually been a slightly confused smile. However, one of the hardest things to learn has actually been the following, as it’s essentially non-Finnish – when going to the kitchen/coffee machine to get a drink, you must ask if anyone around you would like a drink as well. The kitchen is like 20 steps away, and as a Finn I would never bother anyone by asking them to fetch something I’m perfectly capable of getting myself (but not that I’d mind at all if someone asks me to bring a cuppa).
I’ve also noticed that Londoners don’t seem to share the same passion for lunch related discussions as Finns. I remember back in Finland that the upcoming lunch was pretty much the dominant topic during the morning hours. Here lunch is taken far less seriously and seems to be often enjoyed at your desk which even has it’s own phrase – ‘Lunch Al Desco’. A small bag of crisps is also a regular fixture in the lunch time dining which you would definitely not see in the Finnish workplace canteens.
Show me the money
A general perception seems to be that while you can have a higher salary in London, the sky high living costs pretty much evens everything out. It’s a bit of a taboo with Finns to talk about money but there’s no denying it – you do have a good chance for getting a higher salary in finance sector in London than in Helsinki. There are a lot of finance jobs in the city and in order to attract skilled professionals the companies are willing to pay more. It’s no secret that Finland has one of the highest income tax rates in the world so it’s hardly surprising that the taxation in the UK is significantly lower.
I did a simple calculation and discovered that if I’d have the same annual salary in Finland that I now have in the UK, my take-home pay would be about 12% lower. It’s mostly due to the lower income tax rate but also many of the benefits that are tax-free in the UK, like our free daily lunch delivery, would be taxable in Finland. Also, pension schemes work a bit differently around here – currently the total contribution must be at least 8% of your annual salary, from which your employer has to pay at least 3%. I’m lucky enough to have an employer who covers the whole requirement plus some more and therefore, there are no pension payments deducted from my salary and the contribution is not even included in my calculated taxable income.
However, I do admit that that the prices for renting or buying a flat in London are crazy high. But when it comes to the other living expenses, like food (& wine), clothing, public transportation, medication etc. – these I find actually lower than in Finland.
Holidays & workers’ rights
Another common misconception is that the annual holiday entitlement in the UK is significantly lower than in Finland. While the actual number of days depends on your contract, it can’t be any less than 28 days (including bank and public holidays). Besides the annual leave, the companies often offer additional holidays like a birthday day off or personal days. For example, I currently have a day or two more of annual holiday than I did in Finland. I think the most distinctive difference between the two countries is how we spend the holidays. The Finns’ habit of taking 4 weeks off in July would definitely raise a few eyebrows in the UK – it’s not very common you see anyone taking more than two weeks off at a time.
When it comes to the employees’ rights, I think the two countries are pretty much on the same page. The notice and probation periods are virtually equal and I’ve also heard that it’s almost as impossible to get rid of a problem employee as it is in Finland.
So all in all, what most surprised me when I started working in London was how I didn’t face any major culture shocks. Besides the little quirks, the basics were quite similar and after the first six months, going to work to Canary Wharf felt just at natural as heading to the office in Pitäjänmäki. The first couple of months were definitely one of the most challenging ones of my life but as they say – life begins at the end of your comfort zone.