• Transform magazine
  • November 28, 2022

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The world in your hand: how to manage a multinational, multi-cultural team

Tom Otton Headshot

Tom Otton is MD of digital communications agency Create Media Group. He discusses here the complexities that a global workforce can bring to brand agencies and why it is worth getting to grips with cultural differences.

One increasingly apparent by-product of the growth of hybrid and remote working, the ongoing war for talent and the ‘Great Resignation’, is that agencies are having to look further afield than ever before when it comes to recruiting. If the best person for the job lives in Stockholm, Tokyo or Johannesburg, that’s no longer a deal-breaker.

This is creating a new approach to the workplace. Agency leaders have traditionally been used to dealing with a range of personality types and behaviours – most have had training or coaching on how to get the best out of a group of people who all think and act differently.

When a single team is spread across multiple countries or regions, or the people who come together in one physical workplace hail from many different parts of the world, the challenge can be greatly exacerbated, as leaders are dealing with an even broader spectrum. There aren’t just different ways of thinking, but different nuances, cultural norms, religious values, political mindsets and approaches to work.

Leaders have also historically been familiar with broader diversity issues covering race, gender, age, disability etc, but cultural diversity is talked about much less often. That needs to change if they want a business that provides a great working environment and delivers on all levels for staff, clients and other stakeholders in this new world. It can be implicit, built into the culture of the business in terms of how people engage with each other.

My agency is based in Dubai, where there’s a large expat community from around the globe and we’ve had employees and clients from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, America and everywhere else. It’s not always easy to manage such a breadth of nationalities, but it can be done.

Understand what you can – and can’t – do

Broadly speaking, dealing with a culturally diverse organisation can be broken down into the hard and the soft factors.

The former are mandatory and non-negotiable things to bear in mind when you have employees based in (or from) a particular country or region. For example, several European countries like France and Portugal have laws that prevent bosses getting in touch with employees outside working hours.

Similarly, most people outside the Middle East have no idea just how much of an impact Ramadan can have on the work cycle and rhythm, as employees will often be dealing with fasting and much less sleep. And just as people shouldn’t expect colleagues in the UK to be working on Christmas Day, national days and public holidays like Eid and Diwali can cause staff in other countries to be unavailable.

Learn the cultural nuances

The ‘soft’ factors are more about nuance and require agency leaders to learn new ways of both listening and communicating.

Without falling into clichés and national stereotypes, it’s true that some groups prefer different ways of communication – just as with different personality types. Some are happy with direct approaches, while others prefer their leaders to take a more conceptual approach.

Leaders will have to understand the different perspectives of those cultures and show people that they’re being listened to.

And this leads to the other key factor when it comes to managing a range of cultures: listening requires that leaders need to create a clearly signposted safe space for conversation and dialogue. That can include someone outside the line manager or senior leadership that people can talk to, or holding spaces to let people know where the company stands on volatile or sensitive issues.

Don’t be afraid to ask

We all have our own cultural biases – what we’ve read about on the BBC, CNN or Al Jazeera for example – but people from those countries have the real lived experience that might be markedly different to what leaders think they know.

That means understanding the different underlying issues that might trigger difficulties among staff and always being ready to learn. Something might be a hugely emotional and inflammatory issue to staff who come from a different culture, religion or country. Having to negotiate between employees riled up by a subject about which you may know next to nothing about, can be tricky indeed.

Plus, of course, a company may have staff from countries that have a difficult history with each other, or people who don’t see a post-work visit to the pub or bar as a regular, normal part of the day but don’t want to lose out on that face-time with the boss.

In my experience, it may be awkward at first to ask questions and to worry that you’re being seen as insensitive, but if it’s clear that it’s coming from a genuine place – of wanting to learn so you can provide a better working environment – it will be warmly received.