In today’s deeply interconnected, global economy, having an internationally dispersed workforce pays. By breaking free of geographical restrictions, you have the power to build a team that features the finest talent from around the world, you can draw on deep local knowledge of promising markets, and you gain unique, diverse perspectives on strategic challenges.
There are two sides to every coin, however, and managing globally distributed staff can be downright challenging. Creating high-performing teams is hard enough when everyone is local and people share the same office space. But when staff members are based in different countries and have different backgrounds, communication can rapidly deteriorate, misunderstandings can arise, and cooperation can degenerate into distrust.
The solution, I believe, lies in cultivating a decentralized culture. Instead of imposing the company’s global norms onto each branch or remote team, aim to foster an environment where each team can develop its own ethos and working style. Rather than headquarters dictating cultural values and practices to local markets, a more effective approach involves learning about the business practices of each country, city, or region. In following this approach, you hire and build teams locally and listen to their insights. This way, you can understand the landscape, including things like how people observe holidays and other requests for time off.
So, although instilling a company’s overall cultural values is still critical — particularly around respect, ethics, and broader ways of treating people — establishing a flexible foundation is key. By achieving this, you can meaningfully boost your team’s performance, freeing overseas staff from norms that may have no local or personal relevance. As a result, you’ll ensure better outcomes for the organization as a whole.
What Does a Decentralized Company Culture Look Like?
Rather than forcing a one-size-fits-all culture on every branch of the business, a decentralized approach favors allowing individual offices to abide by local norms and customs. Although employees should always follow vital guidelines and rules, especially around the treatment of others, this method ensures local employees feel respected and that they can carry out their work with autonomy.
How to Bridge Global Divides
A strong company culture serves as the backbone of any business, driving its values, norms, and overall identity. Well-defined and widely shared, this culture is key to unifying your team, promoting a sense of belonging, and aligning everyone in pursuit of a common goal.
Problems arise, however, when attempting to implement a top-down company culture across global boundaries. Put simply, a professional approach that resonates in one country may not hit the mark in another. So, although you need to strike a balance by incorporating your key values and principles, you mustn’t try to force a company culture on international staff where a disconnect clearly exists.
These disconnects can manifest in various ways. Some are practical obstacles, such as language barriers and time zone differences, that present an obvious challenge to effective management. Arguably a greater problem, however, are the more abstract issues associated with leading a globally dispersed workforce.
Depending on where they’re based, employees may have different preferences and expectations regarding team hiring and firing policies, bonuses, healthcare benefits and social outings. Some might be accustomed to more structure and direction, while others prefer more autonomy and flexibility. Some may value individual achievement, while others prioritize collective effort. And certain countries place a far greater focus on work-life balance than there is in others. Denmark, for instance, enforces a rule that workers should clock in no more than 37 hours per week, while most Americans do 44.
Communication styles also have a strong regional component. Staff members telecommuting from one part of the world might be used to more direct and assertive contact from managers, while others may feel more comfortable with a softer touch. Don’t underestimate the significance of non-verbal cues either. In North America, looking someone squarely in the eye can project confidence and honesty, but in other parts of the world, a direct stare might be perceived as rude or threatening. When moving between different cultural environments, a savvy leader needs to avoid making assumptions about how things should be done. Instead, they should first take a step back, and watch, listen and learn.
Allow Space to Develop Distinct Cultures
Stepping back doesn’t mean abdicating responsibility, but rather something more nuanced. You’re providing the space for geographically distant teams to develop their own cultures within the organization’s overarching ethos. By encouraging autonomy, you allow for the integration of local customs, practices, and preferences, fostering a sense of ownership, accountability, and empowerment.
Achieving this requires a clear vision and purpose, ensuring that, within the parameters of their own working cultures, each branch of the business is pulling in the same direction. Effective and culturally sensitive communication is key here to build and maintain trust and ensure you can resolve any misunderstandings before more serious issues arise.
You should conduct this communication frequently, though not in an overbearing way, and always as a two-way process. The give-and-take that comes from asking questions and providing answers establishes a strong bond between manager and employee, irrespective of their physical distance. There’s also value in not moving too quickly when working with overseas teams, taking some time to ensure you fully understand any cultural component of a given scenario. Rather than simply acting on instinct, jump on a Zoom call and be transparent with team members about areas you need clarification on. A quick check-in can have the added benefit of conveying a sense of unity and belonging in the often lonely world of remote work.
Leaders should also actively promote cultural learning within their teams by organizing cultural awareness workshops, facilitating virtual interactions, and encouraging open discussions. This allows co-workers based in different countries to develop a deeper appreciation for each other's backgrounds, customs, and communication styles, fostering mutual respect and trust. Such cultural intelligence enhances collaboration, creativity, and problem-solving, enabling the team to leverage diversity as a strength.
Gaining a Competitive Edge
Building an internationally dispersed team means drawing on a rich variety of skills and experience, but it can also pose challenges around aligning work habits, values, and communication styles. These cultural differences aren’t insurmountable obstacles, however, but rather provide opportunities for growth and enrichment.
By acknowledging and appreciating the diversity of their global teams and actively encouraging the development of local subcultures, leaders can foster an environment of inclusion and create a space where every staff member feels valued, heard, and most importantly, empowered to reach their full potential. Fundamentally, by embracing a decentralized cultural model, organizations can tap into the strengths of individuals outside their immediate geographical reach, driving innovation and growth, and ultimately gaining a competitive edge in the global marketplace.