Building bridges: when cultures meet in the workplace

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To be successful in the global economy more companies are hiring an increasingly diverse workforce. Different cultural backgrounds and nationalities bring different perspectives into the workplace, potentially making teams more agile and dynamic, but can also bring along some challenges. We look at how to avoid the potential pitfalls of working in multinational teams and how to make the most of cultural diversity for success.

Multinational teams made up of staff from potentially very different cultures and backgrounds are held up as the ideal model for companies focused on the global market. But what challenges do these teams pose in terms of working side by side on a daily basis, and how can those differences be harnessed for success rather than becoming an obstacle to it?

Communication conundrums

One of the first barriers to overcome in a multinational team is language. When a variety of nationalities are together in a single team, the language that they choose to speak among themselves is crucial. The one most often chosen is English as it is largely seen as the current lingua franca for business.

“In our operations in Lisbon we deal with 10 different languages but about 16 different nationalities,” explains Maximino Gouveia, Head of Lisbon & Valladolid Delivery Center for Cognizant, whose Lisbon base is at LACS Conde D´Óbidos. “However, across the company, English is the standard language for communication purposes,” he adds.

Maximino Gouveia – Head of Lisbon & Valladolid Delivery Center for Cognizant

Simon Wehrli, a full stack engineer with LACS-based software firm freiheit.com, says that his company also employs a number of different nationalities including Swiss, German, Syrian, Portuguese and Russian. English is not the native language of most of the people in the freiheit.com workforce but that is the language most used among its employees.

Although freiheit.com was initially based in Hamburg, Germany, after it made the decision to employ people focusing on their skills rather than their region, teams had to switch the language they used daily. “We develop software, so it was not too hard to switch to English,” says Simon Wehrli.

Simon Wehrli sitting left on the sofa, with the freiheit.com Lisbon-based team 

Different outlooks bring benefits and challenges

“Multinational and multicultural teams typically involve different understandings of behaviours and expectations,” says Maximino Gouveia, identifying both the greatest benefit and the biggest potential pitfall of these diverse teams. This variety of outlooks makes teams more innovative and creative and fuels company success, he says, but also requires careful onboarding of new team members and close supervision of associates needs in the longer term.

Company culture and flexible workspaces are an asset

The most important factor for international teams to fulfil their potential is the culture of the company they work in. An organization that actively promotes integration and focuses on what each individual can bring along is working towards its own success.

“Professional culture matters as much, if not more than technical skills,” says Simon Wehrli.

Cognizant’s Maximino Gouveia agrees and notes that his company’s culture has “diversity and inclusion as part of our DNA.”

Additionally, working alongside other companies with multinational teams, within a flexible workspace like LACS can further benefit company culture by increasing opportunities for contact with other cultures and teams outside the confines of the organization.

“The fact that not only Cognizant but also other tenants at LACS have multinational teams definitely contributes to our associates’ integration, by establishing connections among them,” says Maximino Gouveia.

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