When you think of Andalucia, the first thing that may come to your mind is not work, but sunny weather, great beaches, flamenco, amazing architecture and food culture. Paella, seafood, spectacular Alhambra palace in Granada or the Great Mosque of Cordoba, colourful feria festivals, a great variety of tapas and wine in bars…no wonder why this region in the south of Spain is a top tourism destination.
But…work? “Isn’t Andalucia only about siesta & fiesta”? – some will joke.
“What work?” – others will ask; Andalucia was hardly hit by the financial crisis and has the second lowest GDP in Spain. According to an Eurostat report from 2015, Andalusia has the worst unemployment rate at 34.8 percent in the entire European Union.
I lived and worked in Malaga, Andalucia, for four years, from 2009 to 2013 and I experienced all “the bad and the ugly” of the financial crisis first-hand. Low wages, unemployment, ambitious graduates picking low-skilled jobs, former middle class families queing for food at church. I met people who faced eviction and moved in with their elderly parents, whose pension was often the only source of income in the household. In my son’s class more than 70% of children were eligible for free school lunch.
Those were challenging years for our family , but also rewarding on many levels. Not just because we lived by the beach and we enjoyed sunny weather most of the year. Despite the financial crisis I experienced both professional and personal grow living in Andalucia.
One of the most important and rewarding experiences throughout my career was working for IPE, a family-run business school with over 20 years of tradition that became one of the most renowned schools in Spain.
I came for an interview in IPE to work at a language day camp they were running for children as an “extra project” alongside their business activities. I ended up teaching all kinds of business English and general English courses, developing marketing and Social Media strategy of the language department and running career advice workshops and seminars, both in-company and open sessions at the University of Malaga.
IPE was located in Churriana, a small town that was maybe 40 minutes’ drive from the coast. When I first came for my interview, I had read about IPE history and tradition and I was a little surprised to walk up a hill and see a house with a garden. I was thinking it would be a more modern looking structure.
Inside the house it smelt like homemade cake and a good coffee. It’s a good beginning, I thought.
Apart from coffee and cake, what made IPE – and Andalucian work culture – so special for me?
How could a girl who had travelled all her life feel welcome in a company where she was the only foreign employee? Where her colleagues were those “typical Andalusians” (los Andaluces) who cooked tortillas and went to Catholic Holy Week processions? More than that, whose colleagues were called Maricruz (which is a combination of the words Mary and Cross ), Maria del Consuelo (Mary of Consolation) and Mari Nieves (no kidding- that means Mary of the Snows). How could I feel comfortable among people who spent every Sunday with their extended family since I had travelled and lived on my own, far away from my home country, since I was in my early twenties?
You can find on the logo of IPE the words “humanismo y negocios” (humanism and business), because one of their core values was putting people first. As you can read on the company site, “People, individuals and teams, are much more important than current business tendencies and trends (…). They create the company goodwill and culture. Humanism and business are not only compatible…in fact, a business is NOT able to be stronger than their competitors unless you put people first (…) since their personal qualities and professional attitude is what moves a business forward”.
From the very first moment I met my future supervisor, management and colleagues, I knew that those words were not just a nice statement. It was the way they worked and moved their business forward.
The interview I had with my supervisor seemed more like a friendly chat. There were no “psychological” questions about my favourite colour or about my career plan for the next 15 years. We discussed teaching, classroom management and problems that may arise. We were talking about my job experience, laughing over some funny stories.
Then she told me “bienvenida a la familia” (welcome to the family), she showed me round the place and introduced me to all the staff. Everyone was kissing me on both cheeks and smiling. In Andalucia you call all your co-workers AND managers by their first name and in an informal “tu” (you) form, not the formal “usted” nor “señora” (Ma’am). All my students, from preschoolers to executives, called me by my first name as well. This way of speaking created a friendly atmosphere and a feeling of mutual trust.
People in Andalucia are straightforward. If someone’s chubby, they will call him el gordito in a friendly and affectionate way. I was often referred to as rubia (the blond one) or flaquita (the thin one). Words were just words and they didn’t do harm to anyone.
From the very first day of work everyone was friendly to me. They always asked me how my children were doing, if I had had a good weekend, what my plans for Christmas were. My colleagues brought me toys and clothes for my children, fruit and vegetables from their gardens.
The “people first” principle was valid not only at personal, but also at professional level. My supervisor eagerly listened to my ideas, motivated me to develop my own projects and praised my efforts. She understood that everyone has their personality and working style. I felt that I could discuss with her about any problems that may arise.
Speaking about management, there was never an “us” and “them”. We were all a team. Everyone was encouraged to speak up at meetings and contribute their ideas. A student on a few months’ internship was as respected as an employee with 10 years of experience. If there were problems, we discussed them in a friendly and respectful way.
Since I had worked in Social Media before, I came up with a few ideas on how to boost the company online presence. After a few months I was in charge of the company Social Media strategy, which helped us not only to gain new students, but also to interact with our students in fun, new ways.
It was my supervisor who discovered my interest in HR and working abroad since I often talked with my students on how to search for jobs in UK or Ireland and I gave them ideas based on my own experience. She proposed me to develop a series of seminars about working in UK at the University of Malaga.
When we spoke about our idea with the manager, I was quite nervous; I had no experience in public speaking, how was I going to represent my company in front of more than 100 people? However, we saw that there was a huge interest in this topic among Spanish students due to unemployment in the area.
Our project was approved. A few months later I had succesfully presented my conference at 7 faculties of the university. I spoke with hundreds of students via company e-mail and Twitter, answering their questions about working abroad. Some of them came to my business English courses, aimed at people looking for jobs abroad.
It was a huge success. The company mission statement was right; it’s the employees’ passion, engagement and talent that moves the business forward.
Despite my professional success, those years were challenging for my family on many levels. My husband was unemployed for a long time, my younger son was dealing with health issues, we struggled with money. All of that was contributing to a stressful atmosphere at home.
My supervisor would always listen to me. More than that, she brought me fruit and vegetables from her own garden and she offered my husband 1 day maintenance jobs whenever something had to be done at the premises.
I helped my colleagues’ children with homework. The company accountant helped us all with tax forms.
Once a colleague was crying on my shoulder when her family member was getting evicted.
The next day I was crying on hers when my Grandma in Poland was undergoing a major surgery.
It was not considered “unprofessional”. We were more than colleagues, we were “la casa”, “la familia”.
It was not uncommon in Andalucia to get support in workplace in times of crisis.
When my husband got a maintenance job at the beach in the summer, his supervisor’s wife let him take our children to work and she took care of them until I arrived for work. She never asked for a penny. My supervisor took care of my children together with her daughters when I taught evening classes twice a week in the summer.
Sharing meals, helping each other with childcare, inviting neighbours for a tapa and coffee was very common in our neighbourhood.
Sometimes it felt like we were all like la familia.
In Andalucia, for the first time in my life I learned that lunch at work means much more than a quick sandwich at your desk. A lunch break in Southern Spain usually lasts two hours. There is also a 15 minutes breakfast break in the morning.
Those of our colleagues who lived close to the office went home to have lunch with their families. The rest of us had lunch together. We shared a lovely, slow meal for more than an hour. Lots of stories, jokes, anecdotes. Then dessert and coffee. Then more stories and jokes.
Nobody looked down on their phones. Our meals were loud and happy.
Many of my colleagues often brought homemade cake or paella to share. They taught me a lot about Andalucian food. It was there, not in a fancy restaurant, where I first tried many local treats – and loved them!
Since I’m not good at cooking, I brought chocolates and ice cream.
Once or twice I even had a siesta on the sofa in a meeting room that wasn’t used on that day.
Honestly speaking, as a mum of young children I prefer to have a quick sandwich at my desk and leave the office at 4pm, not 8pm as I did in Andalucia. However, bear in mind weather and cultural differences. In Southern Spain it’s so hot during the day that you won’t do much about 2-5pm anyway. On the other hand, young children stay up late and often have dinner with their parents at 9pm or 10pm. In Poland most families with small children have dinner at 6-7pm and kids go to bed early. Again; since it’s getting dark early in autumn and winter, the Spanish siesta time (2-5pm) is the optimal time to go to the park after school and work.
Do you think it was a huge paella party, where people discussed their private lives and cried on each other’s shoulders rather than getting work done?
There’s a common stereotype that work life in Spain is focused on socializing, that companies lack proper organization and people are lazy. None of that is true.
The atmosphere of friendliness and trust made everyone feel appreciated and motivated to work. Everyone worked hard and focused on their goals.
Since everyone felt respected and encouraged to provide their feedback, people were not afraid to speak up when things were going wrong and discuss possible solutions together.
Our students had individualized attention and their goals were put first. There was the same atmoshphere of laughter, friendliness, trust in the classroom as among staff. Even at the most “serious” business course or workshop, there was always a moment to share a joke and a coffee.
People like to joke on how the Spanish are always late. Well, well. There were employees at work who came early to all appointments and those who would come 5 or 10 minutes late but who would stay a little bit longer.
Since nobody felt nervous about coming 5 minutes late or lack of support from the management, everyone concentrated on the crucial thing: meeting professional goals. Getting the work done. Moving the business forward. Because when Los Andaluces put their passion and energy to work, the results are outstanding.
In 2013 we left Andalucia and went back to Poland.
However, even though my hair is no longer blond from Andalucian sun and my Spanish accent is getting more and more guiri (foreigner) every year, there is still a little of Andalucia in my professional “self”.
I’m the one who likes to call her colleagues by first names, to make jokes and share meals. I like to bring some chocolate for my colleagues, stating that “chocolate will not solve our problems but neither will lettuce”.
I believe in motivating people and appreciating everyone’s opinions. I believe that people go first.
And yes, sometimes I’m late and after lunch I miss siesta.
Think of working in Spain? I have compiled a list of job sites in English and Spanish as well as Social Media resources for job seekers HERE;
Have you worked in Spain and would you like to discuss your experience? Are you considering a move to Spain and you need assistance with job searching? Please contact me!