6 tips to prepare expats for a different office culture

25 September 2018

You’re a professional. You’re successful. You know how offices work and how to get by in any business. But when you go out on your global assignment, don’t expect the office culture to be like the one you left.

We address 6 areas in which office life differs more than you might think. Fail to observe them and you may be home sooner than you think.

Cross-cultural communication

There is often a language barrier to overcome, but be prepared for communication difficulties that transcend language itself. High and low context cultures differ in the way they communicate.

In a German business meeting (high context) information is required, shared and acted upon. Decisions are taken based on information – often written and formally recorded rather than simply said. Low context cultures (Japan is often quoted as an example) tend to expect the meaning to be inferred.

Another classic misunderstanding can arise in Indian business contexts where employees are often (unsurprisingly) unwilling to say “no”, especially to a superior. So even if something is simply not feasible within the given timescale or budget, an Indian colleague may say “I’ll try” or “Maybe” when a more direct answer would be more useful.

Societal hierarchies

One of the reasons for the Indian example quoted above is their natural adherence to hierarchy, which can be clearly seen in everyday working practices. In the same way that countries can be divided (approximately) into low- and high-context cultures, anthropologists also talk of collective and individualistic cultures.

In a collective culture, hierarchies are strictly observed. But in individualist cultures, notably the US, there is a strong sense of personal freedom. When you are brought up in the collectivist culture, personal achievement simply does not have the same allure: many workers are far more content to be part of a successful collective.

Saying ‘hello’

Even the simplest job of saying hello to colleagues or customers can be a cultural minefield.

In Thailand, bowing with hands clasped (known as the “wai”) is common, but only to peers or superiors – not close friends or those considered subservient to you. In Japan, a slight bow will do, along with a handshake – but don’t overdo it. In Europe and the Middle East a gentler handshake is the norm. In the US or Africa, by contrast, expect something rather more robust. Either way, ask your hosts in advance what is expected of you.

Paid holidays

The amount and frequency of paid time off varies significantly from culture to culture – along with the attitude towards it. The USA is notoriously reluctant to grant paid time off (but compensates with a lot of national holidays), while Austrians have the best deal of European nations with 38 (25 average days in paid time off and 13 national holidays).

Naturally, national holidays vary around the world. They are frequently combined with a day off work (not to mention traffic chaos as everyone leaves the cities to spend time with their families). Check out the special holidays in your host country to make sure you don’t turn up to work on the King’s Birthday or Day of Independence and find the office locked and deserted… 

The line between business and pleasure

But while paid time off might be clearly defined (if variable), where does work stop and personal time begin? It’s not always clear. In the US, for example, employees may feel that working late into the evening or over weekends is a sign of dedication to the corporate cause.

In other cultures, it is a sign of inefficiency. Why didn’t you get your work done in the week? Note also that there may be official measures that prevent the erosion of “you-time”: in 2017, the French passed a law that gave employees the right to ignore emails sent outside office hours. Whether that practice leads to career advancement it’s too early to tell…

Forced relaxation

You may be used to an office culture where people are expected to work solidly during the allotted hours. You may find, however, that your new host country sees things differently.

In Sweden, for example, coffee breaks are actively encouraged rather than permitted. The practice of “fika”, when Swedish workers down tools to enjoy a drink and a chat with friends, is believed to promote rather than hinder productivity. The Japanese can be similarly accommodating. Sleeping at work is not only acceptable, it is admired. Known as "inemuri," or "sleeping on duty," it was reported by The New York Times as being most popular among senior workers.

Be ready for a change

Wherever you are going on your assignment, many aspects of life are going to be very different. Indeed, that’s part of the appeal. But the office environment is one where your conduct, and your sensitivity to different working practices may make the difference between success and failure. The best way to avoid mistakes will be to do your research and speak to your hosts about what is expected of you.

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