Informal Business Environments
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After arriving in the United States and starting their internships/training programs, many participants have noticed that the U.S business environment seems rather informal. The level of formality in U.S. workplaces depends a lot on your position, location, and field. Be sure to ask your host employer about the company's work environment and company culture before or at the very beginning of your internship/training program. Understanding the type of work environment or culture at your host company will be conducive to high work satisfaction. If your company has a Human Resources representative, he/she is the point person to ask. You may inquire about the company's policies on dress code, taking time off, lunch breaks and any other aspects that interest you.
In the United States, the work environment can range from extremely professional to street casual. Of course, office etiquette depends on the policies of your workplace. The Wall Street business/corporate environment of New York City is known to be extremely formal. Google offices are known to address workplace satisfaction by utilizing a Real Estate & Workplace Services department to innovate new designs of workspaces to increase productivity. Google provides free food, three meals a day, in addition to unlimited snacks for their employees. Some offices even have treadmill desks since research has shown that walking while working can be beneficial to your health.
It is likely that your work place won't provide you with unlimited food 24/7, but most American companies offer some perks that you may enjoy for free. Offices usually have water coolers or coffee machines and a break room where you can relax or have lunch. There may also be a refrigerator or microwave so you may prepare your lunch accordingly. If your office does not offer these options, it is recommended that you ask your co-workers about the best places to eat in the area.
American office culture consists of an abundance of meetings. Some meetings regard important decisions about the company or personal work performance, but most of the time meetings are focused on planning, analyzing, and reviewing projects. Meetings of this type are often in the form of open discussions, in which all parties can share ideas and opinions. It is important to come prepared to discuss any of the topics that may come up; you may highlight aspects that do/do not work well in regards to a project, or offer suggestions for improvement. Informal business environments are conducive to all parties participating, so never feel too intimidated to participate.
Appropriate clothing at the informal workplace depends on many different factors: the climate in the region of the country you are staying, the industry for which you work, and your position within the company. Most U.S. workplaces have a business casual dress code, i.e. dress pants, skirts, blouses/sweaters, etc. However, more and more offices these days have casual dress codes in which jeans, sneakers, and t-shirts are permitted. Very few industries still require suits to be worn to the office daily, with the exception of banking/finance or law. It is always best to ask what the most appropriate attire is in your new office, but to be safe, always dress professionally at the start of your program, and observe what others in the office are wearing to work. Once you have a good idea of the dos and don'ts of your office's work environment, you can feel free to dress more casually if it seems like that is appropriate in your office. Regardless of formality within office environments, it is best to keep certain tips in mind. Hats should be off when indoors. Additionally, short skirts, flip-flops and low-cut blouses are typically not acceptable. Finally, regardless of industry, your clothing should always be clean and neat.
It is not unusual for companies to throw parties for various occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, or seasonal celebrations. This is the perfect opportunity for all employees of the company to get to know one another and not only talk about the workplace, but also about their lives outside of the workplace. Topics such as favorite sports teams, pastimes, television shows, and hobbies may arise.
Occasionally, employees will go out for drinks during "Happy Hour." Happy Hour is a time interval (usually between 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.) in which bars or lounges have discounted alcoholic drinks or food. Co-workers usually take this opportunity to unwind after a stressful day at work. It is not necessarily frowned upon to drink in front of your co-workers, but you should refrain from drinking too much. Further, you should only purchase alcoholic beverages in the U.S. if you are over the age of 21, the legal drinking age. Participation at these social events is highly encouraged so that you can get to know you co-workers better and develop a greater sense of camaraderie. It is important, though, to maintain professionalism and composure at all times. Some employees may use the social atmosphere as an opportunity to discuss the office or coworkers very freely (and not always positively). It best to be very careful about sharing your opinions about the workplace or your co-workers. It is recommended that you keep conversations light, casual, and positive at all times. Refrain from discussing sensitive subjects such as politics or religion, which can ignite controversial conversations.
Timing is Everything
It is important to inquire about office hours with your Human Resources manager or supervisor. This is important in arranging your daily schedule. Most offices try to ensure that there is always coverage during office hours so that at least one representative is in the office at any given time. Regular office hours are typically 9am – 5pm in the U.S. but will vary by company. However, more informal office environments usually offer a variety of potential office hours (Here's a secret: Official office hours at InterExchange are 9:30am – 5:30pm, but the staff works a variety of schedules—this is often referred to as "flex time".).
If you are running late to work, it is always preferred that you contact your supervisor as soon as possible to let them know. Companies with stricter policies usually consider the slogan, "early is on-time, on-time is late." More flexible companies will allow you to make up your time, either by taking a shorter lunch break or working late. However, it is always safest to arrive early or on time to work on a daily basis.
Policies for requesting time off also vary by company. However, it is generally required that you ask your employer in advance if you need to take time off. Most employers understand if you need the day off due to illness or a doctor's appointment.
Americans love to smile at one another and say hello in the morning to their co-workers, and even to people they do not know! It is often deemed polite to smile back and make small talk, if time allows. Small signs of politeness go a long way. Remember to always say "please," "thank you" and "excuse me" whenever appropriate.
Communicating with Your Supervisor
In the more informal business environment of the U.S., it is acceptable for you to communicate directly with your supervisor. If you have any questions or issues that you wish to speak to your supervisor about, it is acceptable to directly approach your supervisor to talk. If your supervisor is busy, or the matter requires an extensive conversation, a meeting can also be scheduled upon request.
Keep in mind that regardless of how formal or informal your workplace is, it is important to still maintain a certain level of professionalism at all times. When in doubt, ask! Asking people questions shows that you are interested and constantly striving to learn. People are generally accepting of others' cultures and beliefs, so by discussing the differences between workplaces in your own country and those of the U.S. it will be a great learning opportunity for your colleagues as well.
InterExchange Career Training USA is a top J-1 Visa sponsor for university students and young professionals who have already secured internships or training programs with companies in the U.S. If you still need to find an internship or training program in the U.S., check out our resources and start the J-1 Visa sponsorship process early.
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