• Steve Williams

5 steps to overcome cultural diversity barriers in the workplace.

Successful organisations need to continue to work towards better diversity, equity, and inclusion, especially as the world appears to become more inward-looking. It's fair to say, organisations that wish to be internationally competitive must embrace cultural diversity at work.

Across all industries, organisations are embracing the benefits of a diverse workforce. However, there are also challenges when working across cultures and languages. Diversity and global thinking are core benchmarks of Campfire. Our goal is to help people thrive in an unpredictable hybrid environment. 

As all organisations rapidly move towards a hybrid work model, we've pulled together our top 5 recommendations on how to support cultural diversity. But before we discuss the challenges, let's remind ourselves of the benefits a multicultural organisation provides:

You will have more opportunities for professional and personal growth - A diverse and inclusive business will draw talented, ambitious and global-minded professionals who will enjoy the chance for professional and personal growth.

It can be enriching to work across cultures, as it allows others to discover the perspectives and traditions of other countries. It is important to be able to bond over differences and similarities. This will help you become a more well-rounded and worldly person.

A variety of colleagues can enrich your professional life. They can expose you to new approaches and skills, and help you build an international network that can propel your career in new directions.

A diverse culture can spark creativity and drive innovation - How we view the world is influenced by our culture. The diversity of perspectives and the vast professional and personal experience of international teams can provide new perspectives that encourage colleagues to see the world, the workplace, and the world differently.

Diversity of thought has been proven to foster creativity and stimulate innovation. This helps solve problems and meet customers' needs in new and exciting ways.

Multi-voiced perspectives and personalities can lead to innovative thinking. Businesses can reap the greatest benefits of diversity at work by providing a platform for open discussion. Forbes recently published a study that echoed this idea, concluding "the best way for new ideas to be developed is through a diverse workforce."

Organisations are more successful - Multicultural workforces can provide an advantage to organisations when they expand into new markets. A product or service must often be translated for international success. A business can thrive by understanding local laws, regulations, customs, and the competitive landscape. International business development can be boosted exponentially by local connections, native languages skills, and cultural understanding.

Being more competitive eventually means being more profitable. For example, recent research by McKinsey also shows that diversity is beneficial for a company's bottom line. Ethnically diverse businesses are 35% more likely than the national industry median to achieve higher financial returns.

Improved marketing - The production of more effective marketing strategies and materials is possible due to cross-cultural understanding. Websites, brochures, and other assets must be translated with culturally sensitive quality. These can be missed if you don't speak the native language. Even famous brand slogans can be misinterpreted, for example, it's estimated HSBC had to spend $10 million to correct a rebrand, when it's tagline of 'Assume nothing' was wrongly translated as 'Do nothing'.

When it comes to imagery and design, market-specific insight and knowledge are invaluable. A billboard advertising an American company might be a success locally, but it could also offend or fail elsewhere.

Employing diverse marketing professionals can help to reduce the risk of making a major marketing mistake that can result in irreparable damage for a business or brand abroad.

Help attract and retain top talent - A Glassdoor survey found that 66% of job seekers said diversity was important when they evaluate companies and job opportunities. Your organisation's commitment to fostering a diverse and inclusive work environment will help you stand out in a global job market. Diversity will increase your potential employee pool by making it an integral part of your recruiting process.

Employing diverse talent makes your company more attractive to globally-minded, ambitious candidates. It also helps you retain them. Diversity, which includes diversity in gender, religion, or ethnicity, has been proven to increase employee retention as well as reduce turnover costs.

Employees are more likely to stay loyal in a diverse workplace if they feel valued and respected for their unique contributions. This encourages respect between colleagues who value the diversity of culture, perspectives, and experiences of their fellow team members. A collaborative environment that encourages cross-cultural cooperation can be a great way to build bonds between colleagues and team members.

Diverse teams are more productive - A diverse workforce can increase problem-solving ability and productivity by bringing together a variety of expertise, experience, and methods. Studies have shown that organisations with a culture based on diversity and inclusion are happier and more productive.

Although it may seem easier to work in uniform groups, this can lead to a company settling for the status quo. The opposite is true. Diversity can foster healthy competition and help a team achieve its potential. An environment of healthy competition can help optimise company processes for greater efficiency.

Here are our top 5 challenges and our recommendations:

1. Colleagues from different cultures might be less inclined to speak up

Having a diverse workforce alone is not enough. It is also important to foster an inclusive work environment that empowers all employees.

This can be especially difficult for colleagues who are from polite or deferential cultures. Professionals from Asian countries like Japan or Vietnam may find it difficult to share their ideas or speak up, especially if they are less experienced or new to the team.

Conversely, assertive colleagues in Western Europe or from Scandinavian countries that emphasise flat organisational hierarchy may be more inclined than others to take part in negotiations or meetings.

What to do:

Promote healthy disagreement - Create and foster a culture of Healthy Disagreement, making sure everyone is aware of your policies. To make this work, you may need to clearly outline how colleagues can raise issues, debate, and ultimately resolve. Channeling comments effectively through senior team members.

Have regular and anonymous polling - Give individuals a voice and grow their confidence by installing an ongoing polling system with real-time results, much like Campfire. By allowing members to anonymously give feedback on a frequent basis, not only makes them feel included but gives equal say regardless of position.

Asynchronous communication - Clarify an asynchronous communication approach (this is when you send a message without expecting an immediate response). That way less confident team members will have time to gather thoughts and join the conversation at their own pace.

Turn the camera off - When it comes to organisation/team meetings in a hybrid world, we highly recommend you implement a screen-first policy. Meaning even those within the office should join meetings via their own screen. But equally important is the option for attendees to turn off their cameras - not everyone likes being on screen, so maybe get them to say 'hi' at the beginning but allow the camera to be turned off afterward.

2. Overcome prejudices or cultural stereotypes

Local expertise is an asset but it's important to encourage integration between teams to prevent colleagues from different countries from working together and limiting knowledge transfer.

This can be difficult to overcome, especially if there are deep-seated prejudices that make it less likely for people to work together. Negative cultural stereotypes could be detrimental to the company's morale and impact productivity. Sometimes, the antipathy between different nationalities can easily creep into the workplace, especially if there are stressful or demanding workloads.

Stereotypes can be both positive and negative for all types of groups. For example, the belief that Americans are confident can also be interpreted as loud and arrogant. Women, often perceived as in touch with their feelings, are then expected to also be motherly. Ultimately, they are all simplifications that can lead to division or limiting behavior in the workplace. While stereotyping and prejudice are a concern, it is more difficult to overcome ingrained cultural biases that can limit workplace diversity.

What to do:

Help educate managers and leaders - Set up training and leadership programs to help people "walk in the shoes of others". To help leaders spot when problems are occurring and how best to manage them.

Encourage hangouts - Encourage team members to spend time together in a more social environment - such as going for a coffee when in the office, or setting up short video calls to allow people to introduce themselves.

Organisation values - Make it clear through onboarding or organisational training, that diversity is valued and a key part of the working environment.

Increase the visibility and representation of those in minorities - More than calling out certain team members, consider how minorities can better share their opinions and experiences - possible through shared sessions or nominated leads.

3. Poor communication across cultures and languages

Quality translations are crucial for communication effectiveness, but there is a risk that understanding could be lost among multilingual colleagues. Language barriers are only one problem. It can be challenging to understand native speakers' dialect and comprehend a range of accents even in an office that speaks English.

Importantly, effective cross-cultural communication is more than words being spoken, non-verbal communication can be a complex and nuanced aspect of cultural interaction - a skill and understanding that will be more uncommon with a hybrid work model. It can cause misunderstandings or even offenses between members from different countries. Comfortable levels of space, eye contact, gestures, and making or keeping eye contact can all vary between cultures.

Even in the past, a simple greeting or handshake can have cultural implications that must be taken into consideration when working in a professional environment.

What to do:

Encourage a common language and/or basic learning - If possible, organisations should encourage the use of a common language. Furthermore, if they're able to, help all members have access to basic training within that language. Obviously, investment in translation services or tools would also be incredibly useful.

Use approved platforms where possible - In a hybrid and international world, the written word will be more important than ever before. To avoid confusion and missed conversations, ensure the whole organisation has an approved list of platforms to communicate on and even outline which is used for what role.

Keep it simple, respectful, and repeat - It goes without saying, use simple language when talking to colleagues who might not be using their first language. Be respectful, you might not understand their cultural values. And don't be afraid to repeat yourself, better to say it twice, than just assuming all is ok.

Use examples and visuals if possible - More than words alone, having access to examples and/or visuals will help transcend even the best translations.

4. Understanding various professional etiquette

Different cultures may bring different workplace attitudes, values, and behaviors to their work environment. These can be beneficial and enriching in a diverse professional environment. However, they can also lead to misunderstandings or unhappiness among team members.

It is possible for cultures to have different expectations about formality, organisational hierarchy, and working hours. For example, a Japanese colleague might feel the need to start and leave work before and after their manager respectively, but a Nordic professional may have the exact opposite approach, often used to a much shorter working day. Maintaining an equitable approach to punctuality and attendance, especially in a hybrid working world, will be very challenging.

What to do:

Have a clear policy - First and foremost it will be essential to make a decision on what type of hybrid working your organisation will take - office-first, remote-first, or fully hybrid. It then naturally follows that if you have a clear policy that all members can follow, it will make things that much more manageable. To ensure success, make sure someone is managing that policy and that it is updated as circumstances change.

Be flexible around working hours - One of the cornerstones of the policy will be working hours. More than ever before, people now expect flexibility within their roles - Covid-19 has changed so many working behaviours. Where possible, allow as much freedom for individuals to pick what works best for them.

Refine what the office space means - After defining 'working hours', the next most important factor will be the role of your office. What is it for? And when do people use it? Is it a collaborative or social space, how do people utilise solo working spaces? The answer will vary from organisation to organisation, team to team, and will be dependent on their individual needs. Some key tips we can suggest;

  • Make it safer - in a survey from Webex, 97% of people said they wanted a safer work environment before returning.

  • Consider the layout of the office as far as more collaborative and spacious workspaces, not so many solo desk spaces.

  • Flex desking, consider allowing people to book their desk/spot before coming in. Encouraging people to utilise different workspaces for different tasks or to collaborate with other individuals.

5. Conflicting work styles

In addition to professional etiquette, the working styles and attitudes of individuals can differ greatly within teams. Conflicting approaches to work can slow down productivity if they are not acknowledged and accounted for.

There are many approaches to collaboration and teamwork. For example, some cultures value collective agreement when working towards a common goal. Others, will place an emphasis upon the speed, assertiveness, and decisions of an individual. The underlying cultural values can place unnecessary stresses upon an organisation - do the leadership team favour order and rigor, versus spontaneity and flexibility. More often than not, we find organisations switching between the two depending on the latest circumstances.

What to do:

Hybrid policy matches the leadership team - Even with the best will in the world, if your working policy doesn't match your leadership team, then it will simply cause issues around people being excluded. Before deciding, be realistic, how do the key decision-makers work - will they really adopt a different way of working? And can those who work differently, gain the same benefits and perks as those mirroring the leadership team.

Survey the whole team - Find out what the team thinks by regularly polling or surveying. Get to understand what is working and how improvements can be made, as we all adapt to a new life.

One-on-one catch-ups - In addition to finding out the general consensus, make sure you're having regular catch-ups with individuals. We find a good way of doing this is using Campfire to survey people beforehand - get their feedback on the previous week. Then when you're both in the office, arrange to sit down one-to-one and catch up. Or at the very least, chat over a video call.

In summary

We've built the Campfire platform to help encourage cultural diversity. It introduces you into a collaborative and diverse working environment right from the beginning. It will provide thoughts and opinions from all corners of your organisation, helping to understand cultures and appreciate diversity in the workplace.

Are there any particular positive or negative aspects to working with a multicultural team that we've missed? With work and life more blended than ever, we find all aspects of a persons wellbeing is impacting workplace culture.