[24] A Tale of Two Workplace Cultures

It’s been a bit quieter on the Big Little Lives front, right?

Well, maybe on the surface (sorry, everyone) but I can assure you it’s been anything but:

Make like a duck. Calm on the surface, legs paddling like nuts underneath.

I know I’m only four weeks into work life in the US, but wow… the change has been immense. More than immense. Sure, it’s been a really positive (albeit very tiring) cognitive challenge but the strain it’s placed on my ability to juggle a bazillion things at once deserves a big, ol’ honourable mention too.

Taking this all into account, I feel primed and ready to share with you my initial impressions on how the work culture here in Silicon Valley differs from that back at home.

Think the tech vs. banking, US vs. Australia discussion might not relate to you? Maybe not at first glance. But if you’ve ever felt nervous about starting a new job, fitting in, struggling to find your place amongst a sea of well-adapted colleagues, I guarantee you… there’s likely something in this for you too.

First cab off the rank?

Annual leave (or ‘paid time off’)

When I first got my job offer, I made a beeline to the section of my contract outlining my entitlements. Knowing all too well that in the United States there’s no statutory minimum paid vacation or paid public holidays, I was wholly nervous about what I’d be offered.

Surely the terrible, oft-quoted two weeks per annum is just dramatic urban legend? Let’s see.

“We provide a generous paid vacation schedule that includes select national holidays”.

Okay. Not sounding too bad.


“The annual paid time off (PTO) allocation is 12 days”.

WUT? Hang on… did I read that right?

…ah, yep.

I mean, wow. I had four full weeks (20 days) paid, annual leave in Australia and a mighty fine five full weeks (25 days) in the UK. I mean, Cam even gets a truly generous 21 days per annum here in a Silicon Valley workplace just down the road.

Jealous, much?

Regardless, it would seem that I’m actually pretty lucky. Why? Because employers in the US aren’t even required to provide anypaid time off at all. Yep! Talk about state sanctioned workaholism.

Regardless, because a number of other major private employers in the bay area provide around 10 days off per year, my measly little 12 days seems to put me in a relatively strong position.

Or, at the very least for this spoiled-rotten Australian, a position slightly above average.

Public holidays

So… reading through this beast of an employment contact, I thought: well, even if I don’t get much annual leave, at least I’ll get public holidays off to lie on the couch (covered in children). Woo!

A quick Google tells me that California observes 10 national and state public holidays per year. Awesome. That’s on par with the 10 we get in Victoria, Australia (or 11, now that there’s a regular AFL Grand Final public holiday in the mix… I mean, seriously… wtf?) and compares favourably with the eight annual public holidays observed in the UK.

I wonder how many I get?

nine? I pause.

Okay… not so bad. While Cam’s employer gives him 11 (yep, they throw in one extra), my workplace is observing nine of the ten, the one exception being Presidents’ Day.

I think I can live with working on Presidents’ Day.

Now, speaking of public holidays, you know what’s weird? They don’t do Easter holidays in the US! I mean, here’s one of the more heavily Christian countries known to the human race, and Easter is just a plain, old, normal weekend (with a little chocolate thrown in). But no glorious 10-day trips fuelled by careful planning and bountiful accruals of annual leave combined with a four day weekend? Shocking. It’s laughable, right?


Of course, all this really highlights is that I’m much more about quantity (more holidays, thanks) and much less about quality (don’t care what they’re for) when it comes to consideration of paid time off.

And no, the culture doesn’t alter when it comes to leave of any other kind. In a nutshell, leave entitlements are entirely at the will of the employer.

Speaking of which…

‘At will’ employment

“At will”.

I remember baulking at the term the first time I heard it. Of course it’s my ‘will’ to be employed. Isn’t it your ‘will’ to employ me?

Well, yes… that is, until it’s not:

Your employment relationship will be at will. This means that either you or [employer name] may terminate the employment relationship at any time and for any or no reason with or without notice.

Whoa, now!

I’m used to a whole range of protections for employees, both in the UK and Australia. And as a person who’s largely worked in management roles, I know first-hand the support and protection offered to people, even if they’re struggling to complete what’s asked of them in their role.

Not so much here. It’s kinda scary when you think about it. Especially scary if Cam were to lose his job as my visa is hitched to his employment status. Neither of us would have the legal right to remain in the country. We’d get little more than 10 days to extricate ourselves, move back to Australia, and resettle.


But, no… it’s not all terrible…

Silly perks & benefits

As per my last post:

Feeling a tad overwhelmed, I decide to get a few chores out of the way before heading to my next meeting. There’s no need for sneaking out of the office to get sh*t done here though (unlike my time in Australia). I can pick up a campus share-bike, drop off my dry-cleaning, catch up on banking, get a mani/pedi, fly by the gym, charge my electric car (not today, people… I’m in my ‘Stang!), pick up a crème brûlée for afternoon tea, freeze my eggs…

Yes, that particular blog was intended a send-up. Funnily enough, however, there’s actually a fair amount of it that’s true.

Yep: Silicon Valley is a caricature of itself.

The perks are seriously mind-blowing. And yes, I mean the perks on top of just working here which is already a huge boost to your résumé. You can even get your eggs frozen.

…yes, your eggs. The ones inside your body. Let that sink in.


Hey, Jane! Great to see you! No, sorry. I can’t take lunch with you: I’ve got an appointment. To freeze my eggs. See you at our 2 o’clock!

I can’t help but think of the implications. Yes, I’m gonna keep working these ridiculous hours for the foreseeable future because now I know I really can have it all… a career (now) and a family (later… much later… if my haggard body can still manage it). I mean, each to their own of course, but gee whiz… what an incentive to overwork oneself.

Moving on, if you’re a gamer, there’s the additional perk of huge, onsite gaming arcades at many Silicon Valley firms. There are actual music festivals at places like Facebook and Google. You can even get a basic car service and detailing done AT WORK. Food is totally free at some places! Commuter buses are free! Swag* is practically thrown at you. There are vending machines full of technology must-haves (headphones, cords, adaptors, you name it)… and those machines are, you guessed it, FREE as well.


As you might imagine, the level of entitlement is totally scary. For some employees, this is their first job out of university. They think it’s completely NORMAL to get all this cool s**t hung on them.

All I can think is I’d love to see you have a conversation at a ‘normal’ workplace, one where the jaded office manager informs you that no, you cannot have a new pen as the stationery order hasn’t yet been placed. “Wait a month,” she’ll tell you. And no, there is no free food. “Go find a café nearby.”

But no way am I complaining. Free stuff is always a good news story.


Look, this was – to be honest – the first thing that struck me, even before we’d made the move. In America… they’re just not big into flexible working arrangements here. Still, people tell me they have flexibility all the time: “Oh, I can leave early if I absolutely have to” or “my boss lets me work from home sometimes” or “I do condensed hours”. What? Hmmm, dear colleagues, this should be the norm: can you do your role part-time? No. Can you work non-traditional office hours? No.

As I previously lamented, it’s full-time or bust here, and to me, in the beginning, that meant one thing: I had to make a hard choice… full-time work, or full-time motherhood. There really was no middle ground. And so, I chose full-time work. By contrast, in Australia, both Cam and I worked part-time (three of four days a week) in similar-level roles, juggling childcare and our careers with equal, shared effort.

And it’s not just parents I’m talking about who may want a better balance between home and work-life. There are people with caring responsibilities for elderly parents; those who are studying and would like to fit work around that; people who for health reasons want to work fewer hours; some run their own businesses and want to juggle entrepreneurship with a regular income. And there are those who would just like to work part-time, thank you very much.

I feel dizzy.

Dress code

There’s a big difference between the dress code in corporate Melbourne and London and the dress code here in Silicon Valley. I could sum up the approach of my previous employers as being, well, not quite formal, but not quite smart-casual. Suits and ties for blokes, yes. Suits or something smart (and heels) for the women. But certainly no jeans in the office. Unless it’s a Friday. Ah, Casual Friday.

But what a thing of the past. Here, it’s jeans every day. And t-shirts. And Converse. Sometimes I glimpse a male colleague wearing a shirt (no tie) and I wonder what special kind of thing he’s up to. If a woman is wearing heels, I do a double take!

dress code

Tattoos are on display here, not hidden under long sleeves. Personality comes out in the way people dress. And people simply don’t spend as long analysing what to wear as they do in Australia. That’s especially so judging by the number of people who wear their company’s logo’d gear all day.

Yep – all that swag* actually comes in handy!

Look, I’m the first to admit that I’m a dress girl at heart, but hold your horses… I have an announcement to make: I am seriously loving this new dress code. It feels non-judgemental and inclusive. And I do think that having a relaxed approach to clothing frees up time to worry about other, more important things.

I will say, though, that interviewing here is a nightmare when it comes to deciding what to wear. I had no idea how to approach this in terms of dress code, and Cam right well felt the same. You may recall this snippet from his guest post back in December:

Almost six months earlier I had been in for interviews and the instructions had stated, “Leave the suit at home. We want you to bring your authentic self to work.” Which is a quandary because my authentic self likes wearing ties.

It would seem that my ‘authentic self’ has evolved a little. So has Cam’s. There’s gotta be a lesson in that, right?


For all the immense differences, there are also some (horribly, albeit comfortably) familiar things about the US workplace too: conference calls… video calls… open plan offices…

And while the change has been challenging to say the least, I’m probably at an advantage with my solid track history of ability to adapt, right?

Right. Onwards!

clare x 1

* There’s some pure Silicon Valley lingo for you: ‘swag’ (noun): the free, branded stuff you get from your company as a proud employee of a Silicon Valley firm. Yay for free things!

2 thoughts on “[24] A Tale of Two Workplace Cultures

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