In most organisations and businesses, the leadership team would have come up with a set of core values and purposes. However, as a business expands and grows across geographical borders, do these core values become diluted or misinterpreted? An article in The Economist entitled: "The etiquette of face-masks in Hong Kong" has given us food for thought. According to this article, different practices between cultures have caused friction in Hong Kong as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Apply this analogy to your business. While the same core values may be shipped across all your offices internationally, are they applied the same way and are the potential differences in interpretation causing misunderstandings?
A tradition in the head office may well be considered something totally offensive in another country and vice versa. Expand this idea further and ask yourselves whether you are interacting with your international clients with the appropriate cultural etiquette.
In this current unpredictable climate with the world combating the COVID-19 pandemic, it might be a good time to re-evaluate your business's way of dealing with cultural relations between offices and clients before face to face meetings resume in earnest.
As you expand your business and clientele internationally, do not let research and Intel fall by the wayside. One of the biggest preventable mistakes made is the error of assumption. As rightly pointed out by The Telegraph's "How to avoid offending business partners when working abroad" – "As well as misunderstandings created by linguistic subtleties, there are numerous entrenched cultural differences with the potential to cause embarrassment or even jeopardise your business deal. What passes for good manners or acceptable behaviour in one country, may be insulting and insensitive in another." This reasoning would apply equally to dealings with your international offices.
In growing your business, have you given enough thought to your messaging to international offices and clients? Have employees from the head office been taught to think about "loss in translation" events and how to rectify such mistakes? It is almost impossible for any employee to ever know everything on international relations and that's fine. The trick of the trade is not to assume that you do and to try and listen more before speaking!
And so the question is, how can the leadership team apply their cultural standards across global offices consistently?
What really matters then, isn’t what cultural standards you set but rather the fact that you set them and stick with them over a long period of time and over geographical offices (if you have regional locations). Consistency is what’s going to help you reap the benefits of company culture - no matter which location you are at.
Creating a consistent culture when your offices and employees are in many different locations can seem tricky. The answer is that environment doesn’t necessarily define culture and there are ways you can ensure that culture can transcend geographical limits.
Make Values Visible
Values are everything when it comes to culture. Startups, in their nature, are closer to their values because they were more organically generated and each new employee is more likely to have contributed to that vision. They are also well integrated and often physically together in one location so they can keep reminding each other of why they’re there. Early culture is often set by the founders, but it then evolves with every new employee thanks to the Founder’s personality and leadership style.
Larger organisations have lots of positives to take advantage of – they have histories, legacies and reputations that can help to illustrate the core values of the company. But if your company is based across multiple locations, the core values can seem pretty distant from the different parts of the business.
Manage the distance by keeping the core values visible to employees at all possible opportunities. Decorate the walls of global offices with huge bold posters showing the company's 3 core values. Set-up an engagement tool online to encourage employees from every regional office to post something daily they did at work that exhibits those values. This brings togetherness and interaction to keep those values authentic, rather than just words on a wall.
Create Open Channels of Communication
Employees of small companies often experience the business from many different angles, meaning the communication lines stay dynamic and open. But when companies are larger and more dispersed, employees from one part of the company often end up spending very little time interacting with those in other departments. Take a look at rigid organisational structures and see how roles can be made more fluid, even temporarily.
Take time to understand your counterpart from another global office and their way of life, the way they do things due to their timezone and culture. When communication between offices are increased and ideas get hashed out more often, the work flow will automatically start to improve and an organic company culture will then begin to be established.
Have Frequent Meetings as a Whole Organisation
One of the best ways of bringing values to life and closing the distance between employees is through a company-wide “all hands” meetings. Conduct quarterly presentations to the whole workforce to communicate how they’re doing ‘whether the results are good or bad’ in their respective regions as this is essential to making sure everyone is aligned. Plan these meetings once or twice a year, for it to be seen as important, it needs to include the entire company. The meetings themselves should be interactive, inspirational and fun – employees should leave feeling energised and appreciated.
Whole company meetings can be difficult and expensive to co-ordinate for large organisations, but don’t let geography or cost be an excuse. In this digital age with the abundance of Apps, using virtual technology to include everyone is not impossible.
It takes intention and action to align and strengthen your company's culture consistently in your workforce across all global offices, you need the right tools to make it a success. Direct a seamless communication and messaging to your teams before embarking on a global expansion programme. Stop to think about how such communication would be received overseas. If in doubt, keep things general to gather information first. Ask questions and seek advice. Reach out to us at Engaging Leaders if you need support in harnessing consistency of your company's culture spanning different locations.
Monica Tan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Monica Tan, Engaging Leaders, leads our clients through a journey of performance and change. With more than 15 years of client and project management experience, she serves as a key advisor to our clients.