Most managers worth their salt know that building a successful organization requires more than just hiring smart people with the right blend of professional skills. Managers must also strive to foster a tacit social order, a mutual sense of purpose, and shared values and norms — in short, a strong company culture.
But at a time when employees were already working in teams increasingly dispersed around the globe, even before the coronavirus pandemic led to millions of new work-from-home offices, nurturing a cohesive culture is no small task. How can managers promote consistent ways of working among team members from diverse cultural backgrounds who are based all over the world? What can they do to honor their employees’ individual work styles, while also cultivating a collective team identity? And how can leaders help workers develop solid relationships with their colleagues even though they may not meet them regularly — if ever?
New research by Darden Professor Yo-Jud Cheng sheds light on those questions.
“Culture is a group-level phenomenon. With co-located employees, managers have a number of go-to team-building strategies at their disposal,” she says. “But leading a geographically dispersed team creates a special challenge. Managers not only need to develop an appreciation of their individual team members’ different beliefs and social mores, they must also make a concerted effort to support communal values and work patterns within a group of employees who are spread around the globe.”
What Defines Culture? How We Respond to Change; How We Interact
Cheng’s research presents a framework for measuring and quantifying culture, which was developed with Harvard Business School’s Boris Groysberg and Jeremiah Lee and Jesse Price of executive search firm Spencer Stuart. Cultures fall along two primary dimensions: how people respond to change and how people interact. Taken together, they determine whether work environments are flexible or stable; and they reflect whether employees work independently or interdependently.
No single culture is inherently better than others. But, says Cheng, enormous value lies in building a culture that supports the organization’s strategy, and reinforcing cultural norms through leadership and communication. These organizational-level values play a critical role in influencing and guiding individual practices and behaviors; and yet, external factors can also shape employees’ actions and decisions.
The Impact of Geography on Culture
A recent study conducted by Cheng and Groysberg, based on a survey of over 12,800 respondents around the world, highlights both commonalities and differences in organizational cultures across countries. A sense of caring, collaboration and teamwork is consistently found in workplaces across the globe, but organizational cultures differ in their degree of independence between employees. They found that organizations in Western Europe and in North and South America lean toward a high level of independence. Organizations in Western Europe and North America show an especially strong emphasis on achievement. Employees in these regions tend to be more goal-oriented and accustomed to working autonomously. In South America, however, independence manifests in light-hearted work environments where employees show a greater predisposition toward spontaneity and excitement.
Asian and Australian workplaces, meanwhile, are characterized by greater interdependence and coordination. In these regions, employees are united by careful planning, preparedness and the anticipation of change.
So, what are the implications of these variations on setting a cohesive organizational culture?
“Managers need to be mindful of how regional norms may drive employees to behave differently in certain work settings. For example, many East Asian cultures place more emphasis on rules and traditions around seniority, whereas in North America and Western Europe, tenure and rank aren’t guiding factors,” says Cheng. “By first fostering an inclusive team environment that respects and supports differences in today’s global workplace, managers can then lay the groundwork for building a shared culture that serves organizational goals,” says Cheng.
Actions Leaders Can Take to Blend Corporate Culture With Geographic Variations
- Make sure everyone has a voice: “When holding a conference call, some employees — depending on their cultural norms — may reserve comments until their opinions are specifically solicited,” Cheng says. “Others might offer their views voluntarily. The onus is on you, the leader, to make sure everyone has a voice in group decision-making. You also need to be open to feedback and suggestions from employees about the team’s practices, protocols and work processes.”
- Get to know employees on a personal level: Of course, a wide range of organizational cultures exist in all regions, which is why leaders need to get to know their employees on a personal level and encourage their team members to follow suit.
- Leverage online communication technologies: Team members separated geographically ought to make liberal use of communication technologies like Slack and other direct messaging channels that allow for continuous, free-flowing conversations.
“Constant communication is key for establishing a shared group identity,” Cheng says. “Team meetings and calls needn’t start only when the boss gets on the line. Instead, the conference line or video chat should be left open so that team members can shoot the breeze with each other — similar to the way they would in real life, if they showed up to the conference room a little early.”
- Ensure employees are on a level playing field: “There is often a tendency for people who work at the organization’s home office to dominate the team conversation,” she says. “You as the manager need to be aware of power imbalances — and dispel even the perception of favoritism toward people from the home office. Make sure to keep all colleagues on track for advancement. There shouldn’t be a career trade-off for employees not in the HQ.”
- Show sensitivity to those in different parts of the world: “For instance, if you’re in New York on a 7 a.m. conference call with your global team, don’t start with, ‘Good morning,’ when it’s lunchtime for your colleague in London, afternoon for your colleague in Mumbai and late at night for your team member in Sydney.”
- Stay aware of national events and holidays taking place in their employees’ countries: “You need to show that you care about your workers as people and are making an effort to grasp the local environment and specific cultural contexts in which your employees live,” she says.
- Find ways to get employees to think about themselves not as sole contributors, but as part of a larger group: Cheng says this is paramount for geographically dispersed teams, as well as for teams in which some employees work from home or work flextime. “As a manager, you should highlight the individual achievements of your team members, but also emphasize the ways in which people come together — across countries and time zones — to accomplish goals,” she says. “Your objective is to build a collective identity that can support a shared culture.”
- Recognize the importance of community-building and create alliances between team members: Managers that oversee one large, centrally located work group and several other one- or two-person teams scattered around the globe could, for instance, create minigroups and subteams of individuals who are dispersed.
To be sure, creating a strong, cohesive culture among geographically dispersed team members requires a tremendous amount of time, energy, and resources. But, says Cheng, the effort is well worth it.
“Organizational culture is the glue that holds everything together,” she says. “It’s both a powerful lever for preserving, renewing and shaping an organization’s viability, and a critical lynchpin to maintaining an environment in which people enjoy working with each other and feel they can do their best work.”