Managing cultural differences with offshore teams

Building and integrating offshore teams is now an integral part of how most companies, big or small, operate. During the Covid-19 pandemic, all types of organisations discovered that it was actually practical for distributed teams to work remotely, whether in the same country or internationally. 

Going offshore, in particular, brings many advantages. This includes a larger talent pool, diverse sets of skills, international experience and contacts, and language capabilities. While such diverse teams add much value, their ultimate success often hinges on how well they are amalgamated into the organisation. In this article, we discuss how cross-cultural differences can affect offshore teams, and what strategies can be used to manage them.


How culture affects teams

Culture as a concept is somewhat hard to define. However, as it applies to professional settings, it can be thought of as perspectives, thinking patterns, behaviours, and habits common to a nationality, social group, or organisation. For our purposes, we will focus on cultural differences across countries, which is most relevant to the functioning of offshore teams. 

Consider an example. A person working at a US-based company may complement someone in their offshore sales team by saying, “You’re killing it over there!”. Although this would be recognised as a simple compliment in US work culture, in many other countries it could lead to ambiguity, especially in cultures that are comparatively more formal and reserved. 

This highlights issues that can arise when cross-cultural teams work together. It’s important to first identify the most common ones. 


High or low context communication

Contextual communication in cross-cultural teams is generally of two types: high context and low context communication, depending on how much background information is typically shared. For instance, in most markets such as the US, UK, and Australia are high context cultures, generally known for their clear style of communication. By contrast, many Asian cultures, such as  Japan and South Korea, usually use  more subtle forms of communication, which can require the recipient to pay close attention and read between the lines. 


Giving feedback

Another important issue in the working of offshore cross-cultural teams is how feedback is provided, as this can vary across countries. In some cultures, a more straightforward and descriptive communication style for providing feedback is generally accepted, which can include pointing out mistakes in front of the team. This can be perceived as harsh and rude in cultures used to more indirect feedback means, where criticism is generally communicated privately rather than publicly.


Managing confrontation

There can be differences in how various cultures handle potentially confrontational information. Western professional settings are generally more accepting of conflicting approaches being discussed, and usually distinguish the idea from the person. In many Eastern societies, this is not always the case, and questioning someone’s ideas can be perceived by that individual as a personal attack.


Expressing emotions

Some cultures tend to be more expressive than others. Again, in workplace settings such as the US, it might be quite common to have very verbal disagreements and back-and-forth, although that does not necessarily imply something negative. It’s often just how these professionals engage within teams, that in a very expressive way. This may not be the case for offshore teammates, however, where social norms may dictate a more reserved attitude when it comes to expressing emotions.


Strategies for managing culturally diverse teams

With these key potential issues in mind, the importance of managing cultural diversity cannot be overstated. According to the “Global Culture Survey 2021” by the consulting firm PwC, 66% of C-suite executives and board members believe culture is more important to performance than the organisation’s strategy or operating model. This becomes even more important when offshore teams have to collaborate, and keeping the following strategies in mind can be increase the chances of success.    


Cultural awareness training

It is not enough just to be aware of the differences between different cultures, if this cannot be communicated to both the onshore and offshore teams effectively. They need to be educated on these differences, and also to be trained on how to address and handle them. This is where cultural awareness training comes in. It involves putting together training workshops for the onshore and offshore teams, so that both sides can be adequately sensitised to each other’s cultural practices, which helps avoid issues when the teams start working together. This will require some extra resources to implement, but will pay off in the long run.   


Honest and regular communication

Companies need to establish a robust strategy, and choose appropriate channels to ensure smooth communication between their onshore and offshore teams. It is important to ensure that regular meetings are always set up to discuss ongoing projects, but also any cultural mismatch issues that may hamper the work. In addition to being open, the consistency of communication is important, and it is advisable to follow a regular schedule and meeting rules. Finally, this process can be made more effective by employing the latest video communication tools available, to help make team meetings more engaging.  


Clear goals and procedures

When working with offshore team members, it is vitally important that companies establish clear goals, tasks, and priorities for the entire duration of the engagement. Setting goals is essential because it gives each team member a concrete definition of what they need to get done. In the absence of this, there is room for ambiguity, which can lead to misunderstandings and conflict. It can also be helpful to establish the quality of work that is considered acceptable at the outset, such as by sharing past examples, to help define standards more clearly. 


Provision of consistent leadership 

When companies establish offshore teams, they need to ensure that a clear leadership role is defined. Establishing and communicating a chain of command to both the onshore and offshore team members is essential, in order to make sure that the company’s organisational structure is adhered to. Managers should be able to discuss tasks, address communication issues, and assign work as required. If all team members know who they are reporting to, it will significantly reduce the chances of any communication or culture-related issues cropping up.


Test for a good fit

Putting together an offshore team that is compatible with the company’s onshore culture is not a seamless process, and can become tricky despite using these strategies. For this reason, a good approach is to first test the potential cultural fit with offshore teams. This can be done by first engaging on a relatively small and time bound activity, and getting a sense of future prospects. This period can also be used to test the strategies discussed above, and assessing results, before committing to a longer-term engagement. 

At Bettersource, we specialise in recruiting, training, and deploying offshore teams for clients across a range of industries, and over the years have proven our success at helping clients manage cultural differences. We begin doing this early by only recruiting talent that is familiar with the cultural norms in our clients’ markets, and then reinforce this by conducting a comprehensive pre-employment cultural awareness training programme for offshore teams. Finally, we work closely with our clients to pre-empt and manage any ongoing issues arising out of cultural differences during the engagement period. If you would like to learn more about our process, we would love to hear from you.


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