Spain vs the US: The importance of informal relationships in the workplace

I just came across this article in the New York Times commenting (explicitly) on the importance of  “awkward” office chit chat and (implicitly) on informal networks in the office. This article really struck a chord with me, mainly in thinking back upon the differences from when I used to work in Boston 13+ years ago.

In my opinion there is a big difference between office cultures in the US and Spain, especially related to the importance of networking and getting along well with others. The “avoidance strategies” in the US definitely ring a bell. I think you can see this as well in movies with the idea (myth?) of everyone rushing in with their morning coffees, heading to their cubicles (or in modern day open spaces) and the prevailing silence that follows.

From my experience working in both the US and Spain, a big difference I noticed is that in the US the final result of your work is most important  –  there is not as much control over the actual work hours and time in the office, but more a focus on the end result. In Spain, it is equally (or in some cases even more) important how well you get along with your coworkers and the informal relationships you maintain within (and after) working hours. Although this is important in the US as well, I definitely noticed it to be much more important here, to have visibility within the company, be recognized and/or suggested for a promotion, etc. For me this was a big culture shock when moving to Spain. The “awkward” office chit chat or morning coffee/full out breakfast seemed too forced to me. And the importance of having lunch with coworkers (not just once in a while as a special occasion or team event, but as a regular occurrence) is a big deal here. I would say 80-90% of the people where I work sit down and have their hour lunch with other coworkers. In Boston I could probably count on one hand the number of times I sat down and had formal lunches with coworkers; lunch time was reserved for going to the gym and running errands.  However, over time I have come to realize the importance of these informal gatherings, especially within my previous working environment in FMCG.

Personally I see the benefit and importance of informal chitchat and getting along with coworkers, both for professional and personal reasons. But I still feel that the end result of your work, not the degree to which you get along and are popular with coworkers or the amount of actual time you are seated in the office, is more important. I guess it’s about finding that right balance – on a personal and cultural level.





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