Don’t Let Cultural Snafus Sink Your Global Remote Workforce


As businesses start to embrace global remote workforces, one of the challenges they must deal with is managing employees spread across different geographies. It’s important to understand that this task involves much more than just being considerate of different time zones. For a global remote workforce to be truly successful, organizations must also take into account important differences in culture. The prevailing values, behavioral norms, and personal situations in different parts of the world can affect how organizations support and manage their people effectively.

You’re not just managing remotely: You’re managing globally and during a time of unprecedented uncertainty. Clarity is key.

Closing the Affinity Gap

Slowing down to give your people full transparency into your day-to-day expectations is important when managing any employee, but even more so when you’re working with remote employees abroad. Not only must you navigate cultural differences, but also your employees may be new to working from home and therefore experiencing additional levels of stress.

So, communicate clearly and keep in mind the three kinds of distance involved in managing global remote teams:

  1. Physical distance: An employee’s geographical location and time zone
  2. Operational distance: How “far” an employee is from you in the organization in relation to team size or your bandwidth
  3. Affinity distance: How connected an employee feels to your corporate values, which in turn affects their level of trust and emotional commitment to the organization

For newly remote teams, physical distance is a constant and operational distance is in flux. However, managers can effectively shorten affinity distance by prioritizing clear communication.

Working remotely across international territories requires emotional intelligence. For instance, leaders who can demonstrate genuine empathy will develop more open and mutually trusting relationships with colleagues than those who don’t. Building empathy requires understanding the motivations, concerns, and capabilities of other people, and this means managers must go beyond stock, surface-level conversations with employees to uncover shared values and personal situations. In our current climate, leaders should not only be asking “How are you doing?” but also “How are your kids doing? Your parents? Are you able to find time for yourself around your responsibilities?”

The Cultural Considerations of Remote Work

Global companies with employees in different regions of the world should also remember that what’s considered appropriate behavior in one location might not be the right approach elsewhere.

In certain regions, for example, working remotely is not a widely accepted practice, so an easy transition for one culture may be difficult for another. In these cases, keeping lines of communication open is critical. Leaders who proactively engage those employees for whom this may be an especially difficult transition can go a long way in easing the associated stress.

Of course, cultural differences are much wider in scope than just differing attitudes toward remote work. When we’re advising clients on setting up global remote teams, we always recommend they do their homework. You have to really understand a culture’s professional norms before you can effectively support employees in those cultures.

For example, in the US and other individualist cultures, being singled out for recognition and praise is commonplace. In contrast, people in more collectivist cultures — such as China, Korea, and Japan — prefer not to be singled out. Team members from collectivist cultures often focus on teamwork rather than the contributions of individuals, so gestures of gratitude to the entire team often go over much better than individual shoutouts.

For some, it can be hard to imagine that saying thanks could ever be anything other than positive. In many cultures, however, “thanks” is a watered down word at best and actively insulting at worst. For example, a thank-you email could, in some places, suggest you are surprised by the recipient’s positive behavior — a highly insulting insinuation. Instead, these cultures prefer to be thanked through acts of respect, rather than an exchange of words.

The consequences of cultural misjudgments can be quite severe. For example, Thunderbird School of Global Management professor Karen Walch tells the story of a US technology firm that, with the best of intentions, gave its Singaporean employees Chinese New Year gifts. Unfortunately, the gift was $4 — and the number four is heavily associated with death in some Asian cultures. Employees were shocked by the gesture, and morale plummeted. Despite subsequent attempts to correct the mistake, company leaders were never fully able to make up for the mishap.

Many cultural considerations can affect the cohesion and effectiveness of an international remote workforce, which is why organizations that manage global workforces must put a lot of courtesy, thoughtfulness, and effort into getting it right for everyone. With remote work and global teams likely to be bigger features of the working world for the foreseeable future, now is the time for companies of all kinds to start planning how to build and maintain strong cultures for all employees, regardless of where they are located.

Nicole Sahin is CEO of Globalization Partners.

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