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Tuning into different cultural norms in the workplace

More remote working does not mean intercultural competence cannot be maintained

Diversity and inclusion are essential to virtual team success on both a domestic and global scale, and intercultural competence is more important than ever.

Intercultural competence is the ability to function effectively across diverse cultural contexts. It is capacity to tune into, adapt to and productively work with different styles of communication, cultural norms and ways of looking at the world, says Maeve Houlihan, associate professor at University College Dublin’s Lochlann Quinn School of Business.

“At its best it is driven by curiosity and openness, alongside an ethos of respect, mutuality and adaptability. People with strong cultural intelligence make it their business to learn a lot about other cultures – with a view to better understanding and connecting with others. I think it really matters if we are to tune into diverse customers, clients and staff and benefit from the richness and opportunity of that diversity and think new thoughts,” she says.

One company that understands the need for intercultural competence, especially at this time, is Fidelity Investments. “It is hugely important given our size and scale and close working relationship with other markets, especially the US and India. We have approximately 37 nationalities represented in our teams in Ireland, and team dynamics and performance are heavily dependent on intercultural competence. On top of that, we are part of a global organisation and our employees in Ireland participate in global teams across Ireland, the USA and India – and so understanding and appreciating cultural differences is crucial to our success,” says Conor McDonnell, head of human resources at Fidelity Investments Ireland.

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“We serve over 71 million customers so it’s very important to us that as many cultural nuances as possible are captured within our teams so that the technology we develop and the business processes we support relate positively to serving our broad customer base. Without this we would not be able to serve them as effectively,” he says.

Maintaining intercultural competence

Moving to greater remote working does not mean intercultural competence cannot be maintained.

“Our teams have always been built on interconnectivity and worked together across geographies and time zones. In that sense we have been well-prepared for the shift to greater remote working. The foundations, as I see them, are well established working routines and practices. These are supported by the technologies that ensure connectivity, not only within teams, but across teams regardless of where they are located,” McDonnell says.

Tom Tully, industry talent manager at Bord Bia, says intercultural competence is also important for companies that operate in one market but have a diverse multicultural workforce. He says it is particularly important for team-building and to promote a genuine sense of belonging.

“That sense of acceptance and, more importantly, appreciation of background differences adds to the morale of a team. Secondly, if you add an overlay of operating globally in a multi-site operation, you have the additional need for global understanding, global co-operation and diverse teams innovating and delivering aligned to a single organisation purpose,” he says.

“Being respectful of cultural needs, recognising that employees may often operate in a language that is not their first language, that different cultures have different approaches to discussion and conflict resolution, and also now remotely, the need to be sensitive to time zones, local holidays and ensuring that everyone gets to operate within a local work-life balance are all key to maintaining this as work from home continues,” Tully adds.

Better business outcomes

Research shows organisations with inclusive cultures that invest in diversity, inclusion and intercultural competence outperform those that do not.

“Organisations with inclusive cultures are two times as likely to meet or exceed financial targets, three times as likely to be high-performing, six times more likely to be innovative and agile and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes,” says Valarie Daunt, human capital partner at Deloitte.

“Additionally, top talent is more attracted to organisations that are diverse and have a strong culture of inclusivity. Employees have a better employee experience when they feel they belong in an organisation. Promoting respect and fairness for all is a large part of many organisations’ diversity and inclusion efforts, and those efforts, when effective, pay off.

“A 2019 study by BetterUp found that workplace belonging can lead to an estimated 56 per cent increase in job performance, a 50 per cent reduction in turnover risk, and a 75 per cent decrease in employee sick days. The study found that a single incidence of micro-exclusion can lead to an immediate 25 per cent decline in an individual’s performance on a team project,” she adds.

While most organisations are now global and 17 per cent of people in Ireland are not born here, embracing all elements of a person’s culture is key to their sense of belonging and safety.

“Individuals that want to truly have strong intercultural awareness accept that there are gaps in their own knowledge of different cultures and are motivated to deepen their cultural understanding and to learn from the experience of working in new and unfamiliar environments. This leads them to show willingness to learn and ask questions, which put them out of their own comfort zones and value those cultural differences, as well as avoiding any tendencies to view other cultures as inferior to their own, enabling them to create stronger connections with people from all different backgrounds,” Daunt says.