Managing a global workforce

by External01 Mar 2016
Organisations are expanding their business operations across continents: A 2013 Worldwide International Assignments Policies and Practices report revealed that 70 per cent of companies worldwide intend to increase the number of employees on short-term overseas assignments, and 55 per cent of companies plan to send more employees on long-term international assignments.
 
Meanwhile, people are also increasingly travelling the globe for employment opportunities. PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that by 2020, there will be a further 50 per cent growth in mobile employees.
 
What do leaders have to do to break the cross-cultural boundaries facing their workforces and ensure everyone is on the same page and achieving business outcomes?
 
Step 1: Start with what is not being achieved and work your way backwards to address issues
Business leaders must first identify the key business outcomes that are not being achieved; be it difficulty in driving change, developing global solutions or low profitability and results; and then identify the corresponding issues that are impeding the business from achieving results.
 
Silos and divisional conflict, low trust and fractured relationships are some common examples of business issues in today’s working environment that can even be more complex when teams are based in different places. A lack of communication and cooperation between departments or regional offices can also get in the way of a company from achieving broader business goals.
 
Step 2: Understand the five boundaries that impact your global workforce’s interactions
There are five core boundaries that commonly exist amongst culturally diverse workforces, based around the geographic, demographic, cultural and organisational intricacies of each regional group. Tensions can exist across any of these boundaries which, if unchecked, can undermine cohesion of any cross-boundary team.
                                                                                                                                  
Vertical boundaries relate to tension based on differences in rank, authority and power and can be common amongst teams working across boundaries with different cultural perspectives around authority.
 
For instance, in Indian business societies, hierarchy and rank are important to one’s status while in western cultures like Sweden, the workforce operates from a flatter platform. So for a cross-cultural team working between Sweden and India, conflict may occur when a Swedish team member does not communicate according to an Indian team member’s rank, therefore upsetting the Indian employee and potentially resulting in a fractured relationship or divisional conflict. 
 
Horizontal boundaries separate employees based on their expertise and can be referred to as functional departments, front/back offices for example.
 
In the case of Sales and Marketing, it is not uncommon to find conflict between the two functions even if their respective goals are the same. Typically, the marketing team is sitting in the back office and may focus on data, analysing trends and buying behaviour to build future competitive advantages. Salespeople, on the other hand, are at the frontline talking to customers, knowing which products are preferred by customers and may not think marketing’s proposals match the actual situation.
 
Stakeholder boundaries relate to the different people who have a direct interest in a company’s performance. They can be internal or external to the organisation including shareholders, employees or customers and are affected by the company’s decisions.
 
In Asian cultures, the parties in charge of a proposal are expected to guide the agreement direction and organise business meetings in line with their culture or tradition. Chinese clients may, for example, expect the project leader to talk shop over an expensive meal and then follow up by entertainment, whereas in western cultures entertainment following business meetings is not so common. Leaders and employees in a multicultural environment need to know what their stakeholders want, their comfort zones, how they best communicate and tailor their behaviours, communication and business activities accordingly.
 
Demographic boundaries refer to a person’s unique background characteristics such as gender, age, race, religion and education. Different cultures place different values on each demographic group and different expectations of these groups are formed. When put together in the same working environment this mix of expectations can result in lack of trust, low engagement and motivation.
 
For example, the Korean culture places a strong emphasis on respect on age. As a result, it may put a young western professional who is in a higher position in a predicament because the older subordinate may feel disrespected having to report to a young manager with less experience. On the other hand, the younger manager may feel intimidated managing an older counterpart. Such conflict can lead to lack of trust amongst peers and fractured relationships.
 
Geographic boundaries are the physical difficulties associated with working with teammates on other sides of the world. Many problems associated with distance have been overcome by advancements in technology, making working in global office possible. However, hurdles still exist due to language barriers and differences in time zones. In fact, determining how to integrate regional offices, particularly around time zones and localised content remains a big challenge for many multinational companies.
 
Business leaders need to be aware of and understand which of these five boundaries their teams are most at risk of encountering and how to address them before they cause unnecessary business issues that could be detrimental to overall results.  
 
Step 3: Act upon your findings
Once a business leader has identified the most pertinent boundaries impacting their cross-boundary team, action must be taken. A structured process of identifying and implementing appropriate activities to break down boundaries and proactively prevent business issues from occurring can include the following tactics:
 
 
Providing security
Employees who do not belong to the local or primary culture of the organisation may feel insecure amongst the broader team. To improve synergy and help employees work together across boundaries business leaders can clarify the mission of the group. This could involve integrating the identities of each group member into this mission by creating clear roles, expectations and lines of authority. This way, everyone will better understand their roles and responsibilities as part of the overall direction of the team.
 
Being respectful
Leaders of cross-boundary teams should always put themselves in the shoes of their international or other department colleagues to better understand how they work. Sometimes leaders may have to do some research to gain this insight; use the internet, talk to other colleagues/friends about their experiences interacting with people from particular cultures, attend international calls or even spend time at a regional office to experience how their counterpart’s values, roles and needs differ from theirs. This will lead to better understanding and acceptance of difference and hopefully lead to an underlying respect that sometimes interactions may have to be modified to take into account cultural and organisational differences.
 
Building trust
It is important for leaders to create a neutral space where employees of all cultures can feel comfortable in expressing their thoughts. This means proactively building links with individuals and the team through coffee sessions, outdoor activities or even establishing a physical conversation corner. Although a little forced to begin with, these types of initiatives can be the catalyst to facilitating interaction between group members, helping to open up the team, eliminate misunderstanding and build trust. Of course, thought must be given to the type of activities undertaken, to ensure they are appropriate for the cultures represented in the team.
 
Developing a sense of community
To build a sense of community amongst international cross-boundary team, it is important for the team leader to highlight the similarities that bring the team members together. Instead of focusing on the multicultural differences amongst the team, leaders should look for similarities between cross boundary employees and focus should be drawn upon the common values and goals shared amongst the team. This can be achieved by setting goals collaboratively to avoid silos.
 
Creating an intersection
Instead of isolating different cultures, embrace them. The multicultural workforce should be encouraged to bring in their cultural diversity to the meeting room and have an open conversation on the company’s direction and operation. Before this is possible all team members need to feel comfortable in speaking openly like this, highlighting the importance of building trust in the team.
 
Reinforcing competencies
To manage teams across boundaries effectively, business leaders need to make sure they have the necessary competencies first. To cope with a globalised workforce, leaders should build skills and capabilities to establish broader cultural acumen amongst the team. This can include networking or team building exercised to create a global mind-set to cohesive a team. Aside from this, business leaders should also make sure performance management is aligned to competencies reinforcement so that they have the right capabilities to tackle the real problems.
 
Establishing policies
A company that welcomes diverse backgrounds and values different perceptions is more likely to encourage employees to embrace difference. To promote a multicultural working environment business leaders should create or improve the current policies that support cross boundary work places. For example, business leaders can improve talent management policies by revamping appraisal and reward systems to ensure minorities have equal opportunities for career development.
 
Monitoring and reinventing
Employing isolated tactics will not be enough to tackle compounding business issues emerging from a poorly managed global workforce. Therefore, business leaders must carefully develop a targeted plan consisting of a range of tactics and continue to monitor the interactions of their team and modify when necessary. When boundaries that divide the team re-emerge, tactics may need to be modified to refocus and reinvent the group identity and create grounds supportive of renewal.
 
There are many positives that come from working with multi-cultural teams, it is not worth letting boundaries get in the way. A good leader will focus on the positives that bring a dispersed team together rather than the voids that separate them. Although hard work, well managed multi-cultural and cross-boundary work environments can be the most dynamic, colourful, creative and also humbling places to spend the majority of your day.
 
About the author:
Cynthia Stuckey is the Managing Director, Asia Pacific of The Forum Corporation. Forum is a recognised global leader in linking learning to strategic business objectives. For more information, visit: www.forumasiapacific.com.sg.

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