Robert Logemann is an experienced corporate executive specializing in PE and public company turnaround. Chairman & CEO, PPG Inc.
Cross-cultural teams can offer tremendous value to businesses of all origins, sizes and intentions — provided, of course, they are managed effectively.
Before the pandemic, multinational expansion was a key strategy for countless medium- to enterprise-sized businesses. Leaders could tap talent pools and opportunities that were otherwise inaccessible at home by extending branches across borders and overseas. Globalization efforts were reasonably common before 2020; now, amid a remote-work revolution that calls the necessity of geographical proximity into question, they seem poised to explode in popularity.
Remote work has eroded geographical boundaries.
Before 2020, the idea of remote work was viewed with hesitance by some corporate leaders who questioned whether their employees could be effective and collaborative without a common office environment. But after the pandemic compelled many employers to move at least part, if not all, of their operations online, that question has been answered. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of executives view their transition to remote work as a success.
Business leaders are realizing that employees might not need to be on-site full-time to work together. Geographical boundaries mean less now than they ever did before — and I believe their erosion might empower more businesses to reap the benefits of a more globalized workforce.
The State Of Cross-Border Work Today
Even before 2020, interest in multinational teams was at a high. Worldwide employment by American multinational enterprises reached 42.3 million employees in 2016.
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There’s certainly no doubt that cross-border teams offer benefits. The most obvious boost stems from diversity. By definition, multicultural teams draw people of different backgrounds together; this convergence naturally bolsters an organization’s capacity for problem-solving and innovation as employees bring their varying perspectives and knowledge to bear on challenges.
One 2019 report by the Society of Human Resource Management on the human resources challenges and benefits of global teams found that multinational teams tend to enjoy higher employee retention rates and more employee satisfaction than their geographically restricted peers. These teams also tend to be highly collaborative; surveyed HR practitioners told SHRM that 48% of their global teams work together daily, and 86% work together at least weekly.
The Challenges Of Global Teams
All that being said, global teams don’t provide these benefits automatically, and managing them is a task that poses its own set of challenges. Ninety-four percent of surveyed HR practitioners who manage global teams say they struggle to do so “sometimes,” “most of the time” or “always,” according to that same SHRM report.
Building cross-cultural bridges in the workplace isn’t easy. If business leaders want to embrace the globalization opportunity that the current remote work revolution provides, they need to tailor their leadership approach to suit the needs of a culturally diverse team. Here, I’ve listed a few points that executives will need to consider as they tap far-flung talent pools.
Be mindful of cultural norms. To borrow a quote from a Harvard Business Review article by Erin Meyer, “The management approach that works in Lagos won’t be as effective in Stockholm.” As Meyer wrote, managers who don’t take cultural attitudes toward authority into consideration can unintentionally alienate their new team.
In Nigeria, Meyer wrote, children are taught to respectfully kneel when seniors walk into a room; in Sweden, youngsters are encouraged to call their teachers by their first name. Imagine how those cultural perspectives could translate in a cross-border workplace. A Nigerian leader might feel disrespected by a Swedish employee casually airing their opinions in meetings. Conversely, a Swedish manager might be frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of open dialogue with a Nigerian team member.
To avoid this kind of cultural fission, leaders should proactively research corporate culture in their new branch country and, without making assumptions, ask their team members what kind of support and communication they need to be successful. They can then use that feedback to establish a clear sense of purpose, direction, team roles and expectations.
This won’t be a one-off effort; executives will need to organize regular check-ins across their corporate structure and, if necessary, repeat the feedback process to maintain organizational alignment.
Encourage cross-border collaboration. Cross-border teams can offer significant benefits to multinational enterprises, provided that members feel valued. SHRM also found that employees who work in satellite offices or at home are less likely to trust leadership; almost a third of surveyed global employees felt that they belonged and were more connected to their direct team or country members than their company as a whole.
The answer to this lies in encouraging more cross-border collaboration and connectivity. The SHRM study learned that only 56% of employees who don’t regularly interact with their cross-border colleagues say that they enjoy working on global teams, but that number increases to 84% among those who do. This suggests that once team members build connections with their remote colleagues, they experience more of the benefits provided by a globalized organization.
Multinational enterprises will need to be proactive. If they don’t maintain regular contact with their team leaders overseas, they won’t build trust. If they lack trust, they will not reap the full benefits of having a diverse team and risk overlooking cultural or operational problems. Executives should make a point to be present — virtually or physically — in their overseas offices, establish clear lines of communication and cultivate a company culture and structure that encourages, if not necessitates, cross-border conversations.
In one year, the pandemic has reshaped our attitudes toward remote work and opened the door to a more globalized business future. Leaders should embrace the opportunities that multinational work offers — so long as they also take steps to support their cross-border teams.