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Key Challenges of Working with Teams in India

By Keith Warburton

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By Keith Warburton

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At Global Business Culture, we have run hundreds of training programmes with clients in the US, UK and across Europe on the perceived challenges of working with remote teams in India.  Our clients come from multiple sectors and include outsourcing, offshoring and captive projects and we work with clients who are new to India and those who have had operations in India for many years.

I decided to write this blog in response to a new client meeting I had earlier this week with a company in the UK who want us to help them improve their interactions with Indian colleagues.  What really surprised me about this meeting was how predictable it all was.  As the client started to list the challenges that they felt they face when working in India, I was thinking about how consistent the feedback was to a new client I spoke to the week before and another one last month.  Always the same issues; always the same challenges.

I am not raising these issues to point a finger in the direction of Indian teams – all I am doing is reporting what I hear on a weekly, sometimes daily basis.

So, what are these common concerns raised by western client after western client?  I’ve listed them out below.  They don’t always appear in the same order – but they always appear.

  1. Lack of proactivity: The most consistent complaint about working with teams in India would be that ‘Indian colleagues want to be told exactly what to do every time and in great detail.’  The concern is that there is no initiative being used when things happen which fall just outside the normal run of the process and that, instead of working out the correct solution, colleagues in India just want to be told how to solve each ad hoc.  Western clients then usually go on to say that they don’t have the time or inclination to get involved in each of these ad hocs but rather that they just want things addressed – quickly and correctly.  From a western perspective, ‘where is the cost arbitrage if we need to use expensive US or UK resources to solve each issue which slightly deviates from the norm?’
  2. Quality concerns: Another consistent issue is the tension between timeliness of delivery and quality of deliverables.  There often seems to be a feeling in the West that quality will always be sacrificed on the altar of getting things delivered on time which then leads to conversations about subsequent revisions meaning that deadlines are missed by a week or so rather than the few hours it might have if more attention to quality had been given at the outset.  This leads to a feeling of suspicion and a need in the West to micromanage the output from India and then a reciprocal feeling in India that people are not trusted or respected (which in turn can negatively impact on attrition rates – see later in the blog.)
  3. ‘Yes, yes, yes’: Indians always say, ‘yes’ to every request; they never say, ‘no’ and they never push back.  (I am told.) This ‘yes’, yes’, ‘yes’ culture leads to a frustration in the home teams because they don’t have a clear understanding of real team capabilities in India or a grasp of actual resource availability.  If people don’t ever say ‘no’, then we will just keep piling on the work which will eventually lead to some kind of breakdown in the process.  This problem is then exacerbated by the issue of a lack of red flags being waved.  ‘All we want’ say the home team, ‘is honesty and directness.  If you can’t do something, just tell us – don’t pretend you can.’  This seems to be a vicious spiral which gets worse over time with neither side seemingly able to find a solution.
  4. Relationships: ‘Indians seem to want to have a very personal relationship with me and, tell me lots of personal things about themselves and then ask me about my personal life.’ India is a very relationship-oriented culture, and many Western countries simply are not – Western colleagues often see the remote business working relationship is a transaction rather than a personal relationship.  You do your job; I’ll do mine and that means we will get along just fine.  Where is the mid-point here?  Who should bend to whom?  In a culture where time is money (the US), then social chit-chat can be seen as inefficient and a waste of resource.  In a culture where relationships are critical (India), we can only produce our best work when we have a sense of belonging.  There’s obviously a gap between the two approaches and expectations.
  5. Don’t speak in meetings: Expectations about meetings differ widely around the world and, from a global cultural perspective, there is actually no such thing as a ‘good’ meeting.  In some culture, people are expected to speak up in meetings regardless of their seniority or level of experience whereas in other cultures people only speak if asked to by the senior person in their team (usually about a specific issue of information.)  The problems arise when one culture (the western home team) expects everybody to be vocal throughout the meeting while people on the other side (India) feel it would be inappropriate to be too verbally participative.  This difference in approach is very keenly felt, for example, in an agile/scrum environment where stand-ups are often said to be ineffective and one sided. ‘Can Agile even work in an Indian cultural environment?’ I am asked. (Obviously the answer is – yes!)
  6. Tech challenges: This area of concern doesn’t really relate to individual employees and their level of technical capability but is more around infrastructure problems, connectivity and bandwidth – especially when people are working from home (and this became even more of an issue during the Covid pandemic.)  This discussion point has often struck me as a strange because during the pandemic there have so many times when problems have arisen due to poor connectivity (on both ends) when working with clients in the US, UK and Europe.  Maybe these problems are more common in India (it’s a fast-developing country) but they are by no means unique to India.  For some reason the home teams seem to make more of this issue when it happens when connecting to India.  Why might this be the case?  Beats me!
  7. Attrition: Where to start?  I’ve written other blogs on this topic and there is no doubt that attrition is currently (July 2022) a major headache for clients who offshore work to India.  The constant round of recruitment, onboarding, training and capability-building which seem to quickly lead to resignation is a time-consuming and costly headache.  All countries and all companies suffer from attrition, but the levels experienced in India are unprecedented and should be an issue of great concern to India at a governmental level.  If this churn mentality (and there are multiple reasons fuelling this) isn’t addressed, prospective inward investors will increasingly start to look to other countries as alternatives.  I can point to multiple clients who have already decided that this issue alone is sufficient reason to repatriate work or move it to a third country.
  8. Poor English: There is a bit of a common misconception in many Western countries which is that everybody in India speaks good English, and this is simply not the case.  Estimates vary but it is widely held that about 10% of the Indian population speak English – granted this still gives you a total of about 130 million English speakers!  However, among that 130 million, language levels vary enormously from those with native levels to those of low intermediate levels.  I think that because of this misconception, home teams are sometimes less forgiving that they might be with a colleague in Brazil or China.  People seem to complain less about strong Spanish or Polish accents than they do about strong Indian accents.  For most Indians, English is a second language just as it is for a Romanian or a Mexican.

If my Indian contacts and friends read this, please don’t get mad at me.  I am not criticising India or Indians – I am just highlighting what multiple clients have said to me over the past 15 years or more.  I know that Indians have as many challenges working with the West as home teams have when collaborating with India.  (Maybe my next blog?)

The issues highlighted are real, day-to-day interface problems which impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of the cross-border projects.  I know that these challenges can be overcome because we have worked successfully on very many such projects – but it takes awareness, knowledge, understanding and, above all, a will to make things better.

We passionately believe we can help with this and are determined to put our corporate muscle and intellectual shoulder to this wheel.

Let us know if you’d like to chat through any of these areas with us.

About the author

Working with Teams in India