July 21, 2024

For the past two years, I have worked at a company whose workforce hails from around the globe, including the United States, Europe, and Latin America. I’m the only team member based in Santa Marta, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, and I work remotely — like many of my colleagues on the other continents. 

The experience has opened my eyes to a dynamic blend of workplace norms and cultures, but has also posed some challenges. Differing time zones, humour and customs, access to technology, communication styles, and various perspectives on work-life balance, have made it clear that building cross-cultural remote teams is tough. 

My experience, I’ve found, is not unique. Thirty percent of European Union (EU) workers regularly work from home, either all the time or as part of a hybrid model. And as remote work became widely adopted during the pandemic, more companies began looking beyond geographical borders for talent. 

Although most business process outsourcing (BPO) is sourced from other EU member states, 33% comes from countries outside the EU, and a recent study reported that three or more cultures constitute 62% of virtual teams.

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For tech workers and managers operating in remote, multicultural environments, here are some recommendations to create an efficient work culture with a sense of belonging. 

Education is key to cultural sensitivity

“Working with a remote, multicultural team is challenging but enriching for your teams and yourself,” Yasmina Khelifi, senior project manager at international telecoms provider Orange, told me. 

Taking the first step to recognize that, even if you’ve worked in cross-cultural teams before, there may be much to learn, and this learning can be fun, is important. 

Khelifi suggests managers and team members take an intercultural course to help understand how different cultural backgrounds impact communication, decision-making, and conflict management. 

Established colleges like the University of Cambridge and the University of California Davis offer programs and online learning platform Coursera offers a variety of courses. “This intercultural knowledge is critical to challenging your assumptions about other cultures and your own,” added Khelifi.

Another step both employees and managers can take is to adopt a mentor, either from within or outside of your organisation, that comes from a different cultural background than yours. While this may sound easy, adopting a mentor from a different culture — or mentoring an employee from a different background than yours — would be going against the grain, considering that 71% of executives mentor employees that share their same race or gender. 

According to Khelifi, team members and managers can gain immense knowledge by working with cultural mentors that can be handy in the workplace. For instance, understanding current events, work-life balance priorities, important holidays and technological barriers in countries where your co-workers reside can sensitise and help prepare you to react when challenges arise. 

In Colombia, for example, the internet can be spotty compared to the US or EU, so my co-workers are more understanding if my video calls drop out from time to time. And in Europe, companies working with Ukrainian team members must be sensitive to the daily pressures of life in a country under siege.  

Embed intercultural sensitivity into your behaviour at work

It has happened to all of us at one point. You committed an embarrassing gaffe by mispronouncing a person’s name, or mistaking their country for another. It happens. 

However, cross-cultural teams should take extra effort to avoid these awkward faux pas, and embed more intercultural sensitivity into the workplace. 

According to Khelifi, simple things like pronouncing names correctly and remembering those names can go a long way. “You can ask people to record the correct pronunciation,” she said, adding that team members should only shorten names or create nicknames with the person’s permission. 

When asking personal questions, even ones that may seem innocuous, team members should think twice to determine if what they’re asking could be negatively received. 

“You may ask questions with a positive intent, but they might be hurtful,” said Khelifi. “I often get the question, ‘How long have you been living in France?’ when I was born in France.”

Checking your assumptions, even the tiniest of them, at the door (or in this case at the Zoom or Teams login screen) can help to avoid creating more harm than good in the workplace. 

Clearly define the company’s culture 

Of course, the most important aspect of building a cohesive, cross-cultural remote team is adhering to company values, regardless of where team members are located. 

Managers should clearly explain company values to team members as well as ground rules for how the team must operate.  

According to Khelifi, managers should be explicit about the rules, but also be open to revisiting these rules from time to time with employees as a way to build empathy and a sense of ownership and belonging within the team. 

It’s the small things, too, that can help play a bigger role in building workplace culture. For instance, Khelifi recommends creating a set of company-branded virtual background graphics that team members can use on video calls with colleagues and customers. This helps unify the team, aesthetically, in a remote environment with all types of housing situations. 

She also recommends building a glossary of common company terms and business acronyms — such as EOB for “end of business” — as a resource for employees from different countries. Global English or “Globish” is suggested, as it’s easier for international team members to learn compared to American or British English. 

Finally, building a calendar that includes holidays and festivals relevant to all team members is another way to promote an inclusive company culture. According to Khelifi, drawing from the knowledge gained in the intercultural courses and from mentors, managers can better build inclusive calendars and help team members celebrate culturally significant anniversaries. 

As business becomes more globalised, and technology continues to advance remote work, tech workers and managers must start looking to build more sophisticated cross-cultural remote work environments. And with studies showing that companies with more racial/ethnic diversity outperform less diverse companies financially, all of the incentive is there to create the next generation of multi-cultural teams.  

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