By Sally Percy
Even before COVID-19 struck, it was a challenge for leaders in international organizations to nurture a cohesive culture. The arrival of the pandemic has only served to magnify the challenge many times over.
So, with millions of people around the world now based in their home offices, how can leaders promote consistent ways of working among team members from diverse cultural backgrounds, operating in different locations? What can they do to honor their employees’ individual work styles, while also cultivating a collective team identity? And how can leaders help workers to develop solid relationships with their colleagues – even though they may not meet them regularly, if ever?
Yo-Jud Cheng, assistant professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden, posits some answers to those very questions, based on her research.
“Culture is a group-level phenomenon,” she says. “With co-located employees, managers have a number of go-to, team-building strategies at their disposal. But leading a geographically dispersed team creates a special challenge. Managers not only need to develop an appreciation of their individual team members’ different beliefs and social mores, they must also make a concerted effort to support communal values and work patterns within a group of employees who are spread around the globe.”
Harvard Business School, based on a survey of over 12,800 respondents around the world, highlights both commonalities and differences in organizational cultures across countries. A sense of caring, collaboration and teamwork is consistently found in workplaces across the globe, but organizational cultures differ in their degree of independence between employees.
The pair found that organizations in Western Europe and in North and South America lean toward a high level of independence. Organizations in Western Europe and North America show an especially strong emphasis on achievement. Employees in these regions tend to be more goal-oriented and accustomed to working autonomously.
South America tends to have light-hearted work environments where employees show a greater predisposition toward spontaneity and excitement. Meanwhile, Asian and Australian workplaces are characterized by greater interdependence and coordination. In these regions, employees are united by careful planning, preparedness and the anticipation of change.
So, what are the implications of these geographical variations when it comes to setting a cohesive organizational culture?
Cheng suggests some important actions that leaders can take to blend the corporate culture of their organization with the variations presented by different geographies. These are:
- Make sure everyone has a voice.
When holding a conference call, some employees — depending on their cultural norms — may reserve comments until their opinions are specifically solicited. Others might offer their views voluntarily. The onus is on you, the leader, to make sure everyone has a voice in group decision-making. You also need to be open to feedback and suggestions from employees about the team’s practices, protocols and work processes.
- Get to know employees on a personal level.
Of course, a wide range of organizational cultures exist in all regions, which is why leaders need to get to know their employees on a personal level and encourage their team members to follow suit.
- Use online communication technologies.
Constant communication is key for establishing a shared group identity when team members are geographically separated. Team meetings and calls needn’t start only when the boss gets on the line. Instead, the conference line or video chat should be left open so that team members can interact with each other in the same way they would in real life, if they showed up to the conference room a little early.
- Ensure employees are on a level playing field.
There is often a tendency for people who work at the organization’s home office to dominate the team conversation. You as the manager need to be aware of power imbalances — and dispel even the perception of favoritism toward people from the home office. Keep all colleagues on track for advancement. There shouldn’t be a career trade-off for employees who are not based in the HQ.
- Show sensitivity to those in different parts of the world.
If you’re in New York on a 7 a.m. conference call with your global team, don’t start with, “Good morning”. It will be lunchtime for your colleague in London, afternoon for your colleague in Mumbai and late at night for your team member in Sydney.
- Stay aware of national events and holidays taking place in different countries.
You need to show that you care about your workers as people and are making an effort to grasp the local environment and specific cultural contexts in which your employees live.
- Find ways to get employees to think about themselves not as sole contributors, but as part of a larger group.
As a manager, you should highlight the individual achievements of your team members, but also emphasize the ways in which people come together — across countries and time zones — to accomplish goals. Your objective is to build a collective identity that can support a shared culture.
- Recognize the importance of community-building and create alliances between team members.
Managers who oversee one large, centrally located work group and several other one- or two-person teams scattered around the globe could, for instance, create mini-groups and sub-teams of individuals who are dispersed.
Overall, Cheng acknowledges that creating a strong, cohesive culture among geographically dispersed team members requires a tremendous amount of time, energy, and resources. But she believes the effort is well worth it.
“Organizational culture is the glue that holds everything together,” she says. “It’s a powerful lever for preserving, renewing and shaping an organization’s viability. Also, it’s a critical lynchpin for maintaining an environment in which people enjoy working with each other and feel they can do their best work.”
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