Real work: One hell of a town

A glamorous job in New York sounded like heaven but, to unsuspecting Brit Ingrid Wisniewska, the reality came as quite a shock
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Good salary, great career prospects, creative and challenging work. That's what the advert said and that's what sent me heading for a glamorous job in New York. I felt I was entering a sophisticated world of expense accounts, business lunches and trips to conventions in Hawaii - or at least Florida.

I was going to work as a materials designer for a vast multinational corporation which specialises in travel and educational products. It has offices around the world and an international workforce. The company brochure described its US headquarters as "the ideal work environment for anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit". Cheesy maybe. And hardly playing hard to get. But it sounded like the kind of place I'd enjoy.

Stepping into the entrance lobby of the exclusive downtown office building immediately gives me a hint of what I'm in for. The lobby has a waterfall sculpture on the right, a stylish Italian restaurant on the left. Reception desk and security are straight ahead.

I'm issued with a credit card-like identification pass with a magnetic strip, then head for the "orientation session". Every time I swipe the card, my photo comes up on a monitor and the guard confirms the match between the screen and my face.

It's for security, I'm told. Or it's in case of fire, so they'll know who's in the building. (And of course it also tells them who arrives late and who leaves early). "We are so lucky here to have the benefits of 15 days paid holiday, plus two floating days," we are told. "We have a wonderful health benefit scheme where you can go to any of the doctors listed in this book and pay only 10 dollars per visit, or you can go to any other doctor of your choice and pay only 20 per cent of the fee." The young faces around the table are eager and grateful. Everyone is anxious to believe, anxious to belong.

They make notes: remember to attend lunchtime talks given by other departments within the company; sign a form that allows parking fees to be automatically deducted from salaries (employee parking within the building is pounds 8 a day); make diary entries for the monthly happy hour that allows busy employees to socialise and let off steam. (But not too much steam: after all, the boss is always watching. The morning after a happy-hour evening can be quite devastating should the wrong kind of rumour get around.)

Desk etiquette is explained in detail. No personal photos or pictures on desks or walls. No coffee mugs other than those with the company logo. Lunch is not to be eaten at desks, though snacks are allowed. (There is some discussion here of the difference between a snack and a lunch.)

All desks must be cleared at the end of the day. There are no rules about the colour of clothes to be worn while working at these desks, though there seems to be an unspoken assumption that we will try to blend in with the neutral colour scheme of the beige carpets and the white desks and walls. Only files and folders are allowed to be red, green and yellow.

The orientation session is supposed to play a pivotal role in making you feel part of a team working to a common goal. It's supposed to encourage loyalty and discourage criticism. The mood is cheerful and upbeat: "Look what the company offers you!"

Unfortunately I'm feeling as though I've just walked on to the set of The Stepford Wives. I'm about to become one of the corporate family - though I'm not yet wearing quite the right clothes and I haven't yet learned to smile in that "I'm so happy in my job" sort of way. In short, I may just turn out to be the sort of person who lacks the right sort of dedication.

But that's for later: right now it's still my first day. The employees are young - mid to late twenties. They are motivated, friendly, positive. I also see that they work long hours with few breaks; they have to keep up their performance quotas. And the salary, which seemed good by British standards, doesn't go as far as I thought. About a third goes on taxes and rent takes more than half the rest.

Forget any Ally McBeal-like days, when no work gets done and people spend all their time crying or kissing in the unisex toilets.

If there are any conversations to be had they take place in the kitchen. Unfortunately, "I'm supposed to take a break for lunch, but I've got to get back to work," is a fairly typical exchange.

As for the two-week holiday - most people don't take them. They sell them back to the company to make that little bit extra towards their New York rent. Julia is typical: ambitious, professional and career-minded. This is her first job after graduating with a business degree from Harvard. She's used to the fast-paced competitive atmosphere.

She works hard - 8am starts are normal and she is usually in her office until after 7pm. OK, she says, her salary isn't that great right now but she thinks the experience she's getting is worth it.

Personally I find it difficult to be creative amid the ergonomically designed furniture and the enthusiastic competitiveness. I linger around the coffee area, where there is a plentiful supply of coffee, herb teas, hot chocolate and instant soups, and keep my ears open for any hint of subversive comment.

But the conversations are about successful deals, performance quotas, the latest software, booking squash courts (staff discount at the local gym, but who has the time?) and weekends spent in the office. I can't spend too long away from my desk or my team sends out a search party. The corridor walls are made of glass so empty desks are always visible.

I'm not sure that I'll be able to fit in with all this cheerful workaholism. The smiling, perky, busy look is hard to maintain when you know there must be more to life than flip charts and ID cards.

I'm desperate to find someone to share a moan with. The irony is that a little rebellion might be just what it takes to create a truly productive work environment.


5 A junior manager in America earns less than the British equivalent with an average basic salary of around US$45,000 (approximately pounds 29,000), compared to pounds 32,500 in the UK.

5 Workers in the US get an average 19 days off a year compared to 24 days in the UK.

5 On average, Americans will get only five days off a year for the first couple of years of their employment.

5 Americans are expected to work hard - and they do, spending on average 43 hours a week in the office.

Meanwhile, the British

working week lasts an average

of 38 hours

5 Women in America work longer hours than their UK counterparts. The average working week for females

in the USA is 41 hours, whereas British women put in an average 35 hours a week.