Just as we thought work would become easier to navigate as we gradually return to the office post-pandemic, it turns out cultural competency will be even more important to consider for hybrid teams.
Cultural competence is how well we can understand different cultures and use that knowledge to empathize and work productively with those of different national, racial, religious, gender, socio-economic, and other backgrounds.
As we cross the finish line of the pandemic, many organizations are turning to the hybrid work style: some employees work remotely and others in-person at the office at different times.
What does culture have to do with the hybrid world? In a word, everything. Every interaction you have with a colleague, client, or customer is rooted in each individual’s cultural programming. Thus, you cannot assume that those you interact with on a day-to-day basis think, work, or communicate in ways that are natural to you and your culture.
Ever have a minor miscommunication with a coworker that turned into a (bigger than it needed to be) blunder for the company?
Hybridity creates communication gaps between at-office employees and at-home employees, and cultural competence closes those gaps.
A lack of team comradery, internal networking, and acknowledgment of collective effort may result, BUT different cultures value individual and team contributions differently.
The culture component: Most cultures self identify with either an individualistic orientation or a collectivistic orientation. Individualistic leaning cultures place emphasis on individual motivation and personal achievement while collectivistic leaning cultures value group, community, and company interests over individual interests.
Example: A collectivistic employee working remotely feels detached from his team and lacks opportunities for internal networking and relationship building. This employee’s counterpart, an individualistic self-identifier working with the team in the office, feels constrained by the bounds of the team and that she can go farther independently.
Bridge the gap: If you are more individualistic, ask others for their input first and give people credit for their contributions. If you are more collectivistic, ensure you share your personal and individual contributions, responsibilities, and input.
All team members should understand the context around the work they are tasked to do. The need to provide context is even more important for hybrid teams because remote workers aren’t able to overhear or pick up on contextual clues occurring in the office. BUT, different cultures feed off different amounts of context.
The culture component: Some cultures are more low-context communicators (thrive on explicit, verbal communication) and others are more high-context communicators (place emphasis on implicit communication and non-verbal cues).
Example: A Japanese (high-context) manager gave feedback on a briefing to the American (low-context) employee who submitted it. The manager suggested that changes should be made by asking the employee, “Do you feel that this is ready to submit to the boss?” Rather than explicitly telling the American employee that the brief needs work, the Japanese manager asked that question to merely imply that the brief is absolutely not ready to submit to the boss. Any American could easily misinterpret that important feedback.
Bridge the gap: If you lean more low-context, make an effort to stand back, observe, notice the environment, and accept answers that are not ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ If you lean more high-context, make an effort to be as explicit as you can and provide clear goals and agendas so others don’t have to guess.
Hybrid teams allow for greater flexibility to organize work schedules and other personal commitments, BUT different cultures view rules and processes differently.
The culture component: Some cultures lean more universalistic (placing greater value on procedure, standards, rules, and processes) and others lean more particularistic (placing greater value on uniqueness, difference, and situational context).
Example: A remote employee (who is also a mother of three young children) needs to amend her working hours to accommodate school pick-up. Universalistic counterparts going into the office may perceive this as receiving special treatment, and thus unfair.
Bridge the gap: If you lean more universalistic, learn to suspend judgment when you witness someone bending the rules. If you lean more particularistic, ensure your colleagues know you take rules seriously and share factual reasons for your decision-making.
Intra-team communication with hybrid teams is tricky because technology can be a barrier to the more expressive and fruitful communication that occurs face-to-face at the office. BUT, different cultures communicate vastly differently.
The culture component: Cultures that have more instrumental communication styles typically demonstrate factual, detached, and dispassionate interactions. On the other hand, some cultures are more expressive communicators and often display emotions and eloquence in their interactions.
Example: An expressive communicator that heavily relies on gestures and feeds off the energy of people in the room, struggles as a hybrid employee since she cannot fully express herself from behind a screen. She notices that her instrumental leaning colleagues seem to be better suited for a remote position because the nature of remote working is conducive to more direct and to the point communication.
Bridge the gap: If you are more of an instrumental communicator, try to use more gestures and vary your tone and pace depending on the message you are trying to convey. If you are more of an expressive communicator, try to use vocabulary that expresses your message and think twice before you interpret your colleagues’ expressionlessness as disinterest.
In-office folks naturally and repeatedly shift their focus from collaborative projects, to social interactions at the water cooler, to individual tasks, to meetings. BUT, different cultures perceive time and tasks differently, and hybridity does not allow for as much freedom in switching from task to task.
The culture component: More single-focus individuals prefer focusing on one task/relationship at a time, while more multi-focus individuals pursue multiple things simultaneously.
Example: A Brazilian employee (typically multi-focus oriented) working in-person at the office views an American colleague (typically single-focus oriented) working remotely as unagile and unable to switch between tasks, socializing, new proposals, etc.
Bridge the gap: If you lean more single-focus, be prepared for potential interruptions and make an effort to appreciate others’ ability to switch gears and focus as needed. If you lean more multi-focus, make an effort to let colleagues finish their task before interrupting with a different matter (whether social or work related).
The pandemic has been difficult for everyone, but the bright side is that it’s been difficult for everyone. Not one country, not one culture, not one individual. Everyone.
As we resurrect out of this pandemic, it is important to continue the mindset of “we are all in this together.” Lead with empathy. Lead with cultural competence. And make sure your employees have a reliable wi-fi connection wherever they are.
Interested in eliminating those frustrating miscommunications that pop up at work? We would be delighted to discuss how we can help navigate your team with hybrid team training through the ‘future of work.’
Emma is a Cross-Cultural Consultant with Cultural Business Consulting. She is American by citizenship, and has significant experience studying and working in Belgium, Australia, and Japan. Emma is currently based in Honolulu, Hawaii.