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A world of difference
Print – Issue 169 | Article of the Week

Annabel Jones


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In times of uncertainty, both politically and commercially, businesses face ever-greater challenges on a global scale. It’s crucial to work across borders in order to compete in today’s market, but this can lead to issues on many levels, particularly when attempting to establish a single company culture across different territories – one brand with a unifying passion and purpose; however, things must also be approached according to a country’s specific culture.

Annabel Jones, HR Director at ADP UK

Global companies face steep challenges when trying to create a unifying corporate culture, while also addressing the cultural divergences of different regions. It’s a difficult balancing act but, when achieved, it allows for improved employee engagement and opportunities for innovation. We know that the most successful companies operate at a high level because of a solid and consistent ethos. A single unified corporate culture is crucial to business success in more ways than one. It can help to maintain employee turnover rates at a low level while keeping productivity high, and ensuring happy employees. However, by not addressing local needs and cultural divergences, employees are likely to feel unsatisfied and face business challenges in their local regions if they’re unable to approach their marketplace as is required. So how should businesses react to this contradictory challenge?  The overarching aim for any company should be to have the same foundational principles and values which guide employees, but also empower them to adapt as needs be. Key to this is establishing a shared purpose. Employees need to feel they are working towards a common goal, and this also allows workers to more easily adapt their actions to suit the goal they are pursuing, while still being guided by the company’s culture. To achieve this fundamental objective, it is necessary to name and regularly revisit your goals, purpose and values – even if you feel your employees rolling their eyes as you air them for the umpteenth time – you probably still haven’t said it enough. Missions and values are what will most effectively bond your team together, even when they are scattered around the globe, and so ensuring that everyone is always working to these goals is of great importance. This should mean continually emphasising your messages in meetings, internal communications and letting different regions know how their work contributes to the mission.

Employees around the world should feel empowered and motivated to perform to the best of their potential, while doing what is right in their own market. So developing an open culture that encourages feedback is key as this ensures that that even employees operating in remote locations know that their opinions are welcome, while you will also get the knowledge of what is happening in different regions to use and adapt activities as necessary. Other key challenges lie in the more subtle areas of a company that prove more difficult to define, such as; cultural nuances that may lead to professional misunderstandings. One example could include debate and disagreement, which will be highly-valued in some countries where passions run high and workers feel the best way to innovate is to debate passionately, perhaps what may be even perceived by some as aggressively. Whereas in other countries, for example Japan, people may find this direct attitude insulting, which could lead to a number of potentially damaging situations. If a company is challenging in nature, they may tend to recruit people who are suited to this, but in different markets this could lead to organisations missing out on key local talent and another negative outcome could be that the new employees may fit in the company culture, but struggle to handle local customers and partners. To tackle these challenges, it’s important to make key investments, for example, it can be highly beneficial to offer cross-cultural training opportunities that allow different regions to learn about how business is approached in another market. Not only does this strengthen bonds, it also allows for a learning opportunity that forces employees to consider new ways of working, instead of the tried and tested methods. Critically, it ensures that different offices have the chance to understand how things may be approached differently by their colleagues. It achieves this while not pressing regions to act in ways that aren’t natural to them, by simply opening up conversations around different styles. Relevant sessions could include; discussions and training on disagreeing with colleagues, managing performance or leadership skills.

“Revisit your goals, purpose and values – even if you feel your employees rolling their eyes as you air them for the umpteenth time – you probably still haven’t said it enough. Missions and values are what will most effectively bond your team together even when they are scattered around the globe”

Linked to this, it’s also important to offer less formal cross-border programmes, such as internal company networks that help to bridge the physical and cultural distances between difference offices. Maintaining a company blog, perhaps both a public one as well as an internal version that is dedicated to employees, means employees can keep up to date on other locations and ensures they feel part of something bigger. These activities should highlight individuals’ achievements or share interesting learnings from the workplace which reinforce the company’s core values. It also allows regional offices to learn about how things are being done in different areas; ensuring employees receive topline practical examples of how activities are being undertaken. It also does so in a way that doesn’t the force message but allows employees the autonomy to adapt their activities as they see fit. When considering these issues, it can be tempting to helicopter leaders out to run each international office, yet this could be more damaging than beneficial. While more likely to ensure a single workplace culture, it leaves the overall running of a company to a leader not acquainted with the local culture, which may alienate regional employees. Instead, it can be fruitful to hire local leaders who are first sent to the company’s headquarters for special training and immersion in the company’s values and culture. This ensures they can utilise their regional knowledge and local values, while incorporating the training they have received.

It is of course also important to offer global work opportunities and employ foreign workers in each region, perhaps at non-leadership levels, which can help to cement cultural bonds between different divisions, while also attracting talented workers motivated by international opportunities. A useful strategy could be a commitment to having assorted cultures in each location, so a certain proportion of each office must come from different offices around the globe. While costly, and potentially difficult to manage at times, you will create opportunities for employees to act as a bridge, and therefore improve communication, innovation and diversity of thought in your company. Fundamentally though, it helps to create a unity that brings employees together while increasing understanding between workers across cultures.

Companies should also recognise where they can enforce unity without doing so at the expense of alienating regional employees. Areas such as; office layout, benefits and regulations should be kept as consistent as is possible, as a way to make employees feel they are working in one space, and for one company. This is an easy way to ensure consistency and a single identity without disrupting local practices. Offering company-wide benefits that everyone receives, such as; extra days off in the summer or special perks on an employee’s birthday, is also a simple way to allow employees across the world to receive similar experiences and ensure they feel part of one company.

We are braced for uncertainty as politics, business and technology continue to change the standard order, quicker than many can keep up with. Consequently, culture often falls bottom of the list of business considerations, particularly in global companies who face a consistent flux of locations, with offices opening and closing around the world. But as companies grow, it’s crucial to establish from the beginning that employees everywhere feel part of the same mission. Each company will often find their own way of doing this, but any programme or action should consider the local needs of each region. Even when not operating in the business’ headquarters, each employee in every office forms the true core of the company and their needs must be considered. By consistently advocating the company’s key goals, while trusting employees to implement these as best suits their territories, and carefully cultivating internal programmes, companies stand the best chance of success at competing in a global world.

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