By Erik van der Meijden, CEO of Exact

We live in an age where globalisation is on most business agendas and where multi-cultural teams are rapidly becoming the norm. While this presents huge growth opportunities for businesses of all sizes, it doesn’t come without its challenges. To get the most from an international team and to get them speaking the same language, it’s up to business leaders and HR departments to ensure those playing their part in this new global workplace are given a better understanding of the possible cultural differences between people, how they can better ‘read’ specific behaviours or communications and therefore help them avoid unnecessary miscommunication. According to Deloitte, culture and engagement is the number one issue facing business leaders globally this year. Providing the tools to help employees adapt or modify behaviours and communications are therefore vital to ensuring a more connected workforce that is enabled to be more effective.

So why is cultural awareness so important? The same Deloitte research highlights the fact that organisations that do create a culture defined by ‘deep employee engagement, job and fit’ are more successful. As company success then is highly dependent on teamwork and cooperation, it is a critical that their most valuable asset, their workforce, is aligned and working towards the same goals. Often when there are instances of miscommunication, it can cause frustration and annoyance between team members. This emotional reaction can be incredibly damaging to personal drive, job satisfaction and team morale, and that can have an extremely detrimental impact on the effectiveness of a team.

Addressing cultural differences is fundamental for any organisation with global ambitions and ensuring their difference workforce does sing from the same hymn sheet. In my mind, there are three main areas where cultural differences come into play: sending and perceiving communications; the perception of time, and, the importance different cultures place on personal space.

The way messages are sent and perceived is a critical area of cultural awareness that can affect relationships with international colleagues. With email, cloud tools and web apps taking over the workplace, written and verbal communication with team members around the globe is as easy as 123, but it also has the potential to go horribly wrong. Without hand gestures, facial expressions and body language to help portray a message, teams can often misunderstand the tone or message that is being put to them and can even take offence. For example the Dutch culture can be frank and open in emails, whereas the British are veiled and often use lots of words to shield what they are saying out of an innate need to be polite and courteous. If a British employee is not made aware of this difference they might consider their Dutch colleague rude and take offence, where they will in turn be judging them as ‘waffling on’ or sending an email that is not clear (direct versus indirect speech). It is essential to help employees navigate the differences in the way that information is communicated back and forth through email and over the phone, as it is not personal. Once both parties understand this, it leads to a more harmonious way of working where both parties understand one another’s cultural quirks.

Time perception is an interesting one. This is about how people from different cultures perceive time and the importance of this based upon relationships. For example, in some cultures it is considered rude or disorganised if someone is late for a conference call, where in others this would be rationalised as the person being caught up in dealing with an important enquiry. The fact that they put relationships above time is again not personal; it’s based upon cultural differences. Once this is understood, it helps dilute the emotional reaction when one party misses a call or an online meeting.

The final area that can make an impact is space perception. It’s well known that some cultures are more tactile than others and have a habit of encroaching on what some consider to be their personal space, so being aware of the differences when meeting in person can negate the risk of anyone being offended. The main thing to consider with regards to space perception is around personal thinking time. For example, someone from Europe when asked a question would usually answer within seconds. In comparison, a team member based in Asia would pause for thought and might even defer input for a day or two to have time to think. Understanding this difference means that meetings can be put in the diary for a longer period of time, information can be shared ahead of deadlines to make sure everyone is comfortable with decisions and the team is on the same page.