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Cross-Cultural Collaboration While Working Remotely: The Do’s and Don'ts

Posted by Hilda Wandawa on

Cross-Cultural Collaboration While Working Remotely: The Do’s and Don'ts

Remote working, otherwise known as working from home, is an attractive prospect for both employers and employees across the world. In fact, it’s the way we work here at Boost! A distributed workforce is becoming more and more popular, especially among tech companies, together with the need for cross-cultural collaboration.

Spurred by the high levels of internet proliferation worldwide - Europe holding the highest percentage at 96%, and Asia racking in the highest number of users at 2.5 billion - employers now have a large pool of global talent to choose from at their fingertips. Data shows that employers are making use of this greater access as worldwide employment by American multinational enterprises reached 42.3 million employees and this was just in 2016. Employees are also enjoying the benefits of remote working, with 61% of them preferring to be fully remote.

This trend shows no sign of slowing down, Forbes found that 74% of professionals expect remote work to become standard. So as the remote workforce bears the potential of becoming increasingly multicultural, how can managers and employees adapt to cross-cultural collaboration while working remotely?

Understanding Cultures

Renowned cultural guru, Geert Hofstede, defines culture as being "the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another". Each culture will hold a set of beliefs, norms and values which will influence how they work. 

Hofstede developed a framework for cross-cultural communication, identifying the key parameters we should be aware of when working in a multicultural environment. 

  1. Power Distance Index - the extent to which people accept and expect power to be distributed unequally.
  2. Individualism vs Collectivism - the degree to which people are integrated into groups. Individualistic cultures have loose ties that only relate to their immediate family, whereas collective cultures have tight-knit relationships that go beyond the immediate family. They are extremely loyal to the societal groups they find themselves in.
  3. Uncertainty Avoidance Index - this is a society’s tolerance for the unknown. It will dictate whether they avoid or embrace unexpected events or drift away from the status quo.
  4. Masculinity vs. Femininity - a masculine society values achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. A feminine one on the other hand prefers cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life.
  5. Long-term Orientation vs. Short-term Orientation - a culture with short-term orientation honors traditions and loyalty, whilst a long-term orientation sees adaptation and pragmatic problem-solving as a must.
  6. Indulgence vs. Restraint - this refers to the relative hedonism of a culture. An indulgent culture prides the gratification of fulfilling desires related to enjoying life and having fun. A restrained culture prefers to control these desires and abides by a strict set of social norms over personal wants.
hofstede's theory about working culture

(Source: iEdu Note)

Where a culture falls within these dimensions will dictate their working style. As this will vary by culture, an understanding and sympathy towards it are crucial for a harmonious cross-cultural working environment. 

Let’s take a quick look at these dimensions in action in the workplace.

Japan is seen as having a highly masculine working culture, with long hours, high pressure, and competitiveness being the norm. Potential clashing may arise with relatively feminine societies such as France where a 35-hour working week is implemented to ensure the quality of life.

The UK and Vietnam share similar scores with each other for some of the above indexes, however, they differ greatly when it comes to power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, and indulgence. 

Vietnam scores twice as high for power distance, demonstrating an acceptance of hierarchical order without a need for explanation. This means challenges to leadership are not well-received, something that is often welcomed in British culture. 

Britain is also one of the most individualistic cultures in the world, and is highly indulgent, believing that the route to happiness is through personal fulfillment. Vietnam, however, is a collectivist and restrained society, manifesting in the workplace as familial bonds between employers and employees, and a placing of importance on fulfilling duties over making time for leisurely activities. Therefore, the degree of loyalty and willingness to perform when individual needs aren’t being met will differ greatly.

Vietnam UK cultural dimensions in cross cultural collaboration

A comparison between British and Vietnamese culture. (Source: Hofstede Insights)

With these examples, we can see the potential misunderstandings which may occur by simply not being aware of cultural differences. The cross-cultural collaboration in a remote working environment is, however, also marred by other challenges. So without further ado, it’s time to jump into the do’s and don’ts of cross-cultural remote working.

The Do’s of Cross-Cultural Collaboration

Be mindful of cultural norms

We have seen that different cultures will carry their own set of norms which will filter through into the way people work. Hence, being aware of and sensitive towards these norms is needed. Brush up on the working norms of your fellow colleagues. What is their typical workplace culture? What are their expectations when it comes to forging relationships among colleagues? How will all of this dictate how they work? Knowing the answers to these questions will help you better communicate and understand how to work with them.

This type of awareness has been referred to as cultural metacognition. Coined by Roy Y.J. Chua, he suggests having heightened awareness of and reflecting on: 

  • what we think of other cultures, 
  • and what other cultures think about us. 

In doing so we can better address and respect the variety on our teams.

Establish an internal working culture 

A useful tactic when it comes to working remotely with people of different cultures is to establish a working culture specific to your team so that everyone is on the same page, regardless of where they come from. Make sure that your team is aware of the company’s goals, vision, and values - these will be the foundation of the internal work culture. You can ensure your employees are passionate, invested in, and advocates of these by involving them in defining the workplace culture. Armed with this, employees will be able to work in a way that is aligned with these common aspects, and workplace expectations will be clearer.

We can look at InVision to see this in action. With 700 remote employees across the globe, they lean on the company’s core value of trust to unify their ways of working. This translates as their workforce being trusted to show up on time and to be well-equipped to get on with their working day. They also have established workplace norms, such as using Bonusly to congratulate and reward employees.

InVision multicultural remote workers

InVision’s 700 employees come from all over the world, yet they have been able to establish a remote working culture that they are widely praised for. (Source: Forbes)

Focus on communication

Being a part of a remote team, particularly one with a variety of cultures, will render communication super important. Did you know that 84% of employees who regularly communicate with their multicultural colleagues say they enjoy working on a global team? This falls to just 56% when it comes to international teams that do not regularly communicate.

To encourage communication and have your employees fall in love even more with their workplace, messaging tools like Slack and Discord can really come in handy. Set up work-related as well as fun groups on these apps so employees can build a rapport with each other, and to keep the conversation flowing even when they don’t want to talk about work.

Why is this a better way to relay information for a remote team with cross-culture collaboration than over video conferencing apps like Zoom?

Well, it could be hard to set up a meeting for employees in different time zones. Additionally, we can take our time to clearly write a message that provides all the necessary information. If you do need to set up virtual meetings, ensure you are mindful of time zone differences. Consider turning on multi-time zones on Google Calendar to inform when you set meetings.

Select the best project management tool

Finally, to streamline all the work that is being done by your employees around the world, you’ll need a great project management tool. Here at Boost, we’ve just switched to ClickUp. It has a great user interface which helps your employees easily see the tasks assigned against a timeline along with color-coded progress buttons. It can also be downloaded as a mobile app, which will ping you notifications when a task has been assigned, progress has been changed, and when a task is overdue.

The Don’ts of Cross-Cultural Collaboration

Make assumptions

Whilst it is important to understand your colleagues’ cultures, you must also remember that they are individual people and will have their own unique reactions to certain situations. Do not assume that a particular action will definitely result in a set reaction because of their culture. Whilst we can learn about cultures from credible resources such as Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, the most valuable source will be from your personal relationships with your colleagues. So take the time to get to know your teammates as individuals as well.

Use slang terms

Slang terms are a natural part of our vernacular, so it can be very easy to let them slip into communication with our international colleagues - particularly if we are well-acquainted with each other. Even if your workmates are fluent in the language you all communicate in, misunderstandings can arise when slang terms are used. 

Ricardo Fernandez, Chief Marketing and Sales Officer for Prodigy Finance, learned this during a meeting with one of his remote workers. In a bid to congratulate him, he told him he was “killing it out there”. To Fernandez’s surprise, he later found an email from the employees asking what he had done wrong, and how he could improve! So try to use simple terms when communicating to avoid potential offense.

Set time-based deadlines

Of course, deadlines are necessary to ensure your business is running smoothly and efficiently. However, with a global team time zones will be different. 

Setting tasks to be completed by a particular time could make it extremely difficult when the time differences are large. You don’t want to force your employees to stay up working at ungodly hours, so why not add a little flexibility by setting deadlines based on days. One of the benefits of remote working is the level of autonomy workers are able to have when it comes to structuring their working day. Foster this by asking for work to be completed on Friday, rather than 17:00 on Friday, for example.

Give up on cross-cultural collaboration

Whatever you do, don’t stop trying! It won’t always be smooth sailing when it comes to cross-cultural collaboration in a remote working environment, and a lot of experimentation will need to be done, from both managers and employees. Don’t be discouraged when misunderstandings occur, or when the work you’ve put into creating a harmonious workplace doesn't work out. The great thing about mistakes is that we can learn from them, and use them to improve ourselves. Ensure you and your colleagues don’t feel disheartened by cross-cultural mishaps with a healthy dose of positive reinforcement.

Final Thoughts

Working remotely in a cross-cultural team presents some challenges, and requires work from the entire team. However, these challenges can be overcome simply by taking the time to understand the different cultures your colleagues come from, and building personal relationships with your teammates to deepen this knowledge. 

Despite these hardships, cross-cultural collaboration while working from home can be incredibly rewarding. You get to work with and form ties with like-minded people you may never have met in the real world. People who become an indispensable part of the team.

Let us know your tips for cross-cultural remote working on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. We’d love to hear your thoughts!