Thanks to Covid-19 working remotely has never been more popular. Companies now have the chance to hire talent that was previously unreachable. Engineers all over the world now have chances to work for companies that where previously required relocation. But what about managing cultural differences?

Hiring new talent remotely does not only have upsides. A major downside to hiring someone from a different country is the cultural difference. Getting someone from a different culture integrated into your team can be quite a challenge.

In my experience as a Scrum Master and Engineering Manager, I’ve had the pleasure of managing cultural differences, including Dutch, American, Ukrainian, Indian, and more. With the tips from this blog post, you can make your intercultural collaboration a success!

Avoid Us vs Them

A very common mistake to make when you start experiencing cultural differences is to take a “us vs them” mindset.

Let’s say you have a team in The Netherlands, all with pretty similar backgrounds and can all relate to each other. Now with the opportunity to hire worldwide, you hire an Indian developer. And after a few weeks, you notice this is not working. All you hear is your colleagues complaining about the new hire.

We all expect the new hire to adapt to Dutch culture to fit in with the company. What is usually overlooked, is that the Dutch coworkers also have to adapt that this is now a cross-cultural collaboration. If your local coworkers do not adapt to understanding different cultures, hiring abroad will never work out to be a success.

If you catch any of your coworkers falling into the “us vs them” mindset, make it clear this is a shared effort on both sides.

Understanding the differences

A great way to make managing cultural differences a success is to understand the challenge. What differences are there?

To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.

Sun Tzu

To be fair, “enemy” might not be the right fit for this example. But the essence of this quote is, to understand someone, you have to put yourself in their shoes. An important part of having a successful collaboration is to understand which differences there are. Things that are perfectly normal in your culture can be considered rude in another. How can you collaborate if you (without knowing) are extremely rude to your new hire?

My go-to bible on cultural differences is the Culture Map by Erin Meyer. It contains a few scales on which cultures can be compared. Some examples are low/high context communication, how feedback is given, how leaders operate, and more.

The insights from the culture map combined with Hanlon’s razor have given me great insight into explaining behavior and differences. If you notice you find something rude, try to reflect. Is this something that is considered rude in my culture or their culture? Or can it be explained by something else?

What is their feedback style?

This tip adds to the previous point. Feedback is a delicate thing, especially when managing cultural differences. In the Netherlands, I’m used to direct communication and people speaking their minds, even when a manager or CEO is in the room. In fact, I expect people to speak their minds.

In the Netherlands distance to power is low compared to India, which is why it is also common to speak up to leadership. Not only the distance to power is different. In India, it is rude to give negative feedback in public. If you have negative feedback you only give it in private, and not even in all cases.

Consider you are having a meeting, where a teammate presents a proposal for a new project. You ask if everyone agrees. But you have a mixed culture. Do you recognize which members of your team are unlikely to give public criticism?

Objective distribution of feedback
A funny view of feedback in different cultures

Making timezones work

A logistic puzzle can be that your new hire works 5+ earlier or later. How can you make this big gap in availability a success?

A big part of making time zones work is moving async. Instead of doing your standup face2face, make it a text form. This requires some trust from both sides.

Going async is not the best approach at the start. While we started out with a team in India we had a daily standup at 7:00 local time, to make sure we could prevent them from being stuck for a few hours until everyone was at the office. We rotated team members on the Dutch side who got up early. This is also about making an investment. But be sure to make it clear the extra time spent can be used to quit earlier.

In these cases where instructions are the thing that blocks people, async might not work best. I would recommend switching to async when you have the feeling people can manage on their own without too many instructions.

Before you leave

Managing cultural differences is all about understanding each other. People from other cultures need to adapt to your company’s culture. But the company needs to adapt to being multicultural as well. My top 4 tips for managing cultural differences are:

  1. Avoid us vs them mindset
  2. Understand what cultural differences there are
  3. Know their feedback style
  4. Making sure timezones work in your favor

If you liked this post on managing cultural differences I recommend checking the following posts to make sure you set up your remote teams for success:

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