May 2018
Text by Jacqueline White

Image: © istocksdaily/istockphoto.com

Jacqueline White has 20 years’ human resource experience in the technology and educational sectors in Australasia, Asia and Europe. Presently based in Germany, she is contracted to oversee liaison between a large European process automation company and one of their technical writing teams in Bangalore. She holds a Masters of Arts (Hons) in History and a Diploma in Secondary Education.


jackie.white[at]goetzundweise.de
www.goetzundweise.de


 


 

Interculturalism within the tech-sector: Successful integration of Asian satellite offices

Offshore offices – particularly in Asian countries – are a common and often essential part of many Western organizations. Cultural differences between home and satellite offices might be subtle; however, for successful collaboration and a prosperous work climate, a good understanding of these differences is vital. So how can companies bridge the cultural gap?

The concept of the offshore office is nothing new within the world of business. As long as inter-regional or inter-continental commerce have existed, traders and companies have invested in offshore representation. While the notion of overseas staff has been a constant, one thing that has changed has been the purpose and location of that staffing. For centuries, offshore offices were either focused on establishing and broadening a company’s foreign sales potential or managing and processing raw resources at the source, before importing the finished or semi-finished product to Western markets.

All this changed with the globalization of technology, standardized education and the growth of English as the commercial and technological lingua franca. Since the 1980s, a new and increasingly ubiquitous offshore office has developed. This office is neither a sales hub nor a warehouse or factory, but rather, a location employing highly educated, English-speaking engineers and technical writers working in a virtual world. These satellite offices, commonly based in Asia, are an appealing option for companies operating in an increasingly competitive global market, where a small edge can be a decisive edge.

With an educational curriculum modeled on Britain, India produces countless graduates each year with a grasp of the English language that comes close to that of native speakers. This makes tech and science graduates from the sub-continent extremely attractive in the global workplace. The question is: How can you integrate these geographically distant and culturally different groups into your team in a manner that is mutually beneficial?

Cultural awareness is key

When starting a new project in our Western home base, one of the first questions a good management team needs to ask is: “What competencies are needed?” Based on this question, a team is created that covers the required areas of expertise. We appoint software and hardware developers, testers, technical writers, and team managers. The overall balance of their skills will hopefully create a successful symbiosis. But when creating a satellite office, there is an extra consideration that is often forgotten, viz. culture, or better, cultural difference. A frequent problem that is identified by many managers, who have implemented satellite offices, is the cultural contrast between the head office and the staff in non-Western cultures.                                                   

Although globalization has helped to spread Western culture, values, and business practices, the reality is that there are still significant cultural differences between the West and Asia. It is important that Western head offices realize that "difference" goes well beyond linguistic. Difference can be seen in etiquette, attitudes, behaviors, structure of the working day, and a myriad of other issues. Awareness, as well as the acceptance and embracing, of such cultural contrasts can make all the difference.

To achieve this, it is recommended that someone in the planning team has a deep awareness of the target satellite culture. By this, I do not mean that this person has been to Thailand on holiday, but that they really have a clear grasp of the target culture and how the people think, live and interact. It is not always easy to find such a person, especially in countries with negligible Asian populations. In Germany, for example, the Indian population is approximately 0.2 percent and the Chinese population 0.25 percent. In a country where the representative population of Indians and Chinese is almost invisible, cultural differences can be puzzling and a source of frustration or conflict. Having someone on board from the outset who is knowledgeable in the target culture will mitigate cultural miscommunication and help the local team in accepting the different (but equally valid) work practices of their new colleagues.

Don’t let quick profit dictate lead-in times                                                                            

One of the main reasons offshore offices fail is that the expectation of an immediate financial return is so central to planning that things are often rushed. Rushed implementation is commonly manifested in a lack of infrastructure and support for the new team. When things do go wrong, the recriminations begin and staff in the home country becomes vociferous in voicing the belief that an offshore office was never a good idea. Such dialogue is destabilizing and can only lead to increasingly fractured relations with both management and the colleagues abroad.

Although it sounds simple enough, staffing a satellite office is considerably more difficult than staffing a local office. One obvious difference is that, within an established company, staffing is added incrementally and can be smoothly integrated and inducted. It is less manageable when a whole team of ten, 15 or 20 employees are being appointed from scratch, arriving in a brand new office space on the other side of the world with no pre-existing colleagues (with all the institutional knowledge preexisting colleagues have). It is not enough to simply think, "well, we need five technical writers and two software engineers".

Experience suggests that the best satellite offices are created through gradual development, not wholesale appointments all starting on the same day. We all know that "to make money you need to spend money". But it is equally right to say "to make money you need to spend time" and, in this context, this means building a team slowly over a period of several years.

Don’t ignore your local staff’s concerns

In the early stages of planning a satellite office, management must never forget the potential impact that the news of the offshore plant will have on local staff. If the local employees are excluded from the dialogue and then presented with the news of an office in Asia as a fait accompli, this will almost certainly engender resentment and fear. In our globalized marketplace, employees in Western countries are only too well aware that outsourcing to Asia or other parts of the developing world can mean layoffs at home. A management team that values its local staff must be aware of this fact and work to maintain morale. This can be done through transparency and liaison. Ideally, representatives of "shop floor" staff should be part of the deliberations, as they often have insights and institutional knowledge of the business that management is unaware of. They can highlight pitfalls and help develop structures that enhance the likelihood of the offshore office becoming a valuable element within the broader company.

As already mentioned, management must also be sensitive to the fact that local staff will worry about what this expansion means for their job security. They understand that offshore colleagues are likely to be paid less to do the same job. Ultimately, good management is honest with its staff about expected outcomes (at least in the medium term, as long-term outcomes are usually unknown). While all employees fear the prospect of layoffs, they are more likely to cope with it if management is open from the outset.

As uncomfortable as it is for management, it is important to spell out motives. In many cases, the aim of outsourcing is not to close or downsize local offices. But if it is, how does one manage this? Does the management team hide this truth by issuing denials every time they are asked, or do they put their cards on the table in an effort to make a stressful situation less taxing?

Ultimately, extensive, consultative pre-planning and long lead-in times are crucial. Pre-planning needs to include a clear rationale as to why this step is being taken, an awareness of how this might affect local staff and a willingness to enter into honest and meaningful dialogue with local staff.

Satellites are not silos

Experience shows that bringing the satellite colleagues to your home base can be one of the most cost-effective ways of building team spirit and providing professional development. Such visits build competency, institutional knowledge and, above all, positive working relationships. Further, by investing in such travel, you make it clear to your satellite staff that they are valued members of your broader "family". This can only bear positive fruits for the company.

As for the visits themselves – "more is more". A visit of two to three weeks is unlikely to suffice if the satellite staff is expected to become familiar with your products and systems. To build any real competence – they should ideally be brought over for a period of several months.

By working with the local colleagues over a longer period and in the same office space, they become more than exotic visitors – they become part of the team.

Let Asians be Asian

Just as Westerners do not leave their Western culture at the door when they enter the workplace, neither do nor should non-Western colleagues leave their culture behind. It is an indivisible part of who we are. To expect satellites in Asia to conform to Western expectation of work hours, modes of interaction, team structure, etc. not only inhibits performance, but also shows an inappropriate, mono-cultural attitude.

Businesses in the West increasingly recognize the benefits of providing their staff with a flexible work environment. From flexi-time and home office to free bananas and climbing walls, companies are always looking for ways of matching the workplace to the personalities of their staff. Clearly, if a company can provide its staff with free video games and haircuts because research shows that it improves staff well-being, then it must also be accepted that a satellite in Beijing or Goa works more productively in an environment that is more comfortable to them. 

Given the ubiquitous nature of Western culture, it is sometimes difficult to spot what "Western" culture actually is. Rather it is just seen as "the norm" – inferring that Asian culture is "abnormal".

So, what if a Japanese multinational set up a satellite office in Europe and required their European staff to work within a Japanese business mindset? This would mean only 18 days of annual leave. However, in line with Japanese work culture, the staff is expected to take less than half this leave. Furthermore, this would mean 40+ hours of unpaid overtime per month. How likely is it that the European staff would work at their optimum in such an environment? Chances are – they wouldn’t. By the same token, there are elements within the Western workplace that feel alien and unreasonable for Asian staff. A good employer recognizes these elements and works to mitigate potential problems.

Racial stereotyping is never acceptable

As any child knows, when things go wrong it is easiest to blame the person who isn’t there. Likewise, in business, local teams can be tempted to scapegoat the overseas team.

While such finger-pointing is often incorrect and the error lies closer to home, if the error does emanate out of the satellite, it needs to be handled with caution.

Statements such as "The Indians have messed up again" or "The Asians don’t know what they are doing" are never acceptable. These are inappropriate on a variety of levels. First, it is a patronizing and a public declaration that the "Indians" or "Asians" are incompetent. But further, it places the fault on an entire racial group rather than on an individual. By extrapolating one person’s mistake as that of the whole satellite team, there is a risk of critiquing work on a racial basis – which is both counter-productive in terms of creating intercontinental team culture and, more importantly, racist.

When John at the head office makes a mistake, and perhaps makes the same mistake regularly, Western staff does not stand in the middle of the office and state: "The Europeans are useless" or "How many times do I need to explain things to the Europeans?" 

It is vital that managers take a lead in creating culture. If a company has committed to a satellite office, then the assumption is that it is committed to the satellite succeeding. Therefore, managers must act as a positive role model. It is important that they demonstrate positive and respectful talk about and with foreign colleagues. It is also important that managers challenge inappropriate comments wherever they witness them. It is not that satellite colleagues should be above critiquing if they underperform, but such criticism must take place in the right forum and in a respectful manner. 

Conclusions

Clearly, satellite offices offer companies huge opportunities. But they also bring with them risks and obstacles that need to be considered in advance – not once the venture is up and running. If the intention of creating a satellite office abroad is to quickly make a lot of money by paying staff less, then you are setting yourself up for failure. If you want to be successful in such ventures, the right pace is essential, both in terms of the time spent pre-planning and in terms of the model used to employ staff. Problems can and should be expected in the first few years. However, if this is factored into the company’s planning, these problems have a reduced impact on morale and performance.

The differences between Asian and Western culture, or indeed between various Asian sub-cultures, are nuanced and often subtle. They are like metadata: insignificant to the casual observer – but still vitally important. While a satellite relationship, by its very nature, is not a relationship of equals, we must never view it as a master/servant relationship. We all know the idiom "success breeds success". But in a satellite dynamic, a more salient idiom could be "respect builds success".