Being an engineer in the UK

Being an engineer in the UK

3 July 2019
Incrediblengineers UK
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So close to Europe yet isolated by seas, the UK has its own way of doing business. From the most obvious cultural differences to small tips that can make a difference, Fanny Fouin, a French engineer who has been working in the UK for 5 years, and Tom Jones, Assystem vice-president International Business Development and a British engineer, share with us the main similarities and differences of what it is like to work as an engineer in the UK.

A formal hierarchy yet a challenger spirit

In Fanny’s opinion, the hierarchical structure is usually well defined in a UK business. “If you want to talk to a senior manager, your direct manager and everyone in between, has to be informed in the UK. Whereas, work relationships can be less formal in France.”

Nevertheless, British engineers don’t hesitate to question and challenge their colleagues and senior managers. According to Tom, “British people can be perceived as reserved in society, but they are not in the workplace. Even in a command and control style of hierarchy, everyone feels empowered to constructively challenge an idea or a plan.”

Structured meetings ending with a clear decision

Tom noticed that in Asia and in the Middle East, people tend to avoid conflict during meetings. “I have participated in many meetings in China or Japan for instance, in which the minutes and decisions were often written before the meeting took place. On the contrary in the UK, a detailed agenda and reading material is normally shared before the meeting, but debates happen with actions and decisions being taken inside the meeting rather than outside.”

On the other side of the spectrum, meetings in France, Italy or Spain are much more flexible and relaxed. According to Fanny, “meetings are more about sharing ideas and brainstorming in France. And if people don’t come to an agreement, it doesn’t really matter. It can seem cliché, but British people have a more pragmatic approach. They come into the meeting with a prepared presentation that everyone has read, with precise questions and a clear goal. People may discuss ideas, but in the end, they agree on a consensus that everyone accepts, whether they agree or not.”

Innovation over exploitation of technology

British engineers are expected to study a broader spectrum of subjects than their Asian colleagues for instance before they are required to make a decision to specialise. Tom explains: “in China, engineering students tend to specialise in their chosen professions much earlier than in the UK. The educational system in the UK encourages a broader understanding of lots of disciplines before specialising. This approach allows for the development of a more diverse knowledge base but can take longer to become an expert.”

This brings a real competitive advantage for British teams who are innovating across boundaries, as the educational system focuses on the development of knowledge.

A clear separation between work and personal life

In Fanny’s opinion, the British give more importance to employee’s personal lives than many other countries. She explains: “when I started working in the UK, I noticed that the separation between personal and professional lives is much clearer than in France for instance, even in higher spheres. Employees typically spend about 8 hours a day at work, with flexible working hours. And when they leave the office, they usually leave work aside. This could be perceived as a lack of involvement, but it really is cultural. In 5 years of working in the UK, I rarely received an email from work during the weekend whilst it happened more frequently when I started working with a French team.”

However, relationships at work can easily become more personal. “British engineers easily become friends and see each other outside of work in the UK,” says Fanny. Team members also like to bring a cake or a bowl of fruits on their birthday, as another way to engage with their team.

Sometimes, a sarcastic sense of humour

If you ever work with British people, you need to accept that some of them can have a very dry sense of humour. Tom considers humour at work very important for the development and well-being of the team. Be warned: “British humour can sometimes be a little sarcastic. If someone is saying something which makes absolutely no sense with a straight face, they’re probably joking!”.

As a final piece of advice, Fanny admits that British engineers are used to structure, processes, and methodology, and can sometimes feel uneasy in a more flexible and agile environment such as in France. But these characteristics have their benefits too – and in the end, what matters is the outcome, isn’t it?

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Tom Jones

Vice-President International Business Development Assystem

Fanny Fouin

Mecanical Engineer Assystem

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