Country Culture vs Company Culture – How to Walk the Tightrope
Think of any startup that’s been around for more than 2 years. Visit their website and you’ll see that they have offices in at least two different countries.
It’s easier than ever to open an office and employ people overseas. What could only be afforded by large corporations is now fairly common even among smaller companies.
When we first started opening our offshore offices, one of the toughest tests was balancing company and national culture. It still remains one of the most incredible challenges not just for us but for organizations worldwide. How should one approach it? Should company culture take precedence over national culture or vice versa?
In this post, we’ll share some of the insights drawn from our own experiences. Let’s begin with probably the most relevant lesson:
Both company and country culture need to adapt to each other
None of them can take precedence and dominate the other. As much as you’d like everyone in your organization to embrace all your cultural values, it’s a utopian dream. Different cultures can also interpret the same values differently.
One of Taskworld’s most celebrated values is transparency. Almost all meetings have an open door policy and once a month we have a town hall where everyone’s encouraged to ask questions about anything under the sun.
When we first ran the town hall in our Bangkok office, it didn’t work out too well. Even though everyone was encouraged and even incentivized to ask questions (goodies/corporate swag), eventually we got only 2-3 questions from the same people every month. In Thai culture, it’s not common to ask questions publically in a community setting. So, after a few failed attempts we tried a tool called Sli.do that allows people to submit their questions beforehand and during the session. Suddenly the engagement spiked. Townhall sessions became a lot more interactive.
This is not an example of compromising on company values. The team still got a chance to interact with senior management and get strategic updates. It just had to be done better, and in tune with the local culture. In fact, as the number of questions increased in townhall meetings, people also started asking more questions in-person.
Local leadership is critical
I can’t stress enough on the importance of having strong and dynamic local leaders. For example, if you’re an American company that just opened an office in Korea. No matter how strong your culture values and seamless your processes are, you would need experienced leadership in Korea to drive the operations. Ideally, you’d look for a local leader whose personal values align with your company. Such a person would know how to adapt to broader cultural values locally. When to coach and when to adapt.
In our previous example of the town hall meeting, it was our local leader in Thailand who identified the problem and suggested its solution.
Hiring local rebels
No matter how strong national culture is, there are always rebels around who are dissatisfied with the status quo. Such people can be excellent hires if the organizational culture and national culture differ significantly. When we opened our office in Japan, we were aware of the strong competition for local talent. We couldn’t match the salaries offered by Japanese powerhouses such as NTT, Sony and Nintendo. On top of that Line was on a manic hiring spree in their new Japanese office. Instead, our recruitment campaign focused on the Taskworld culture (transparency, flat hierarchy, remote work, flexible hours), which is in stark contrast with traditional Japanese corporate culture.
We were pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic response. We received applications, not just from fresh graduates but also experienced professionals working in established enterprises. Once the people who join know what they’ve signed up for and are excited by that idea, it becomes a much easier task to balance company culture with the national culture.
Differences should be celebrated
Every time an office is opened in a new country; rather than an organizational culture challenge, it should be treated as an opportunity to enrich existing values. Every nation’s culture has a plethora of great ideas that the company can embrace.
This can be reflected in not just processes but office space as well. Google’s Thailand office is in the same building as ours. Google pioneered creating innovative workspaces that stimulate creativity. However, what struck me the most about their office next door was how well they embraced Thai influences in their decor. From tuk-tuk in their lobby to BTS (Thai metro) themed meeting room. The decor is not just a gimmick. It’s a celebration of the Thai identity of Google’s Bangkok office.
Best ideas can still prosper
Despite occasional cultural differences, an organization doesn’t need to compromise its core ideals. It also doesn’t need to be wary of discarding better ideas simply because they oppose local corporate culture. Some ideas can unequivocally be shown to be better than others. It’s easier to influence locals to adopt it.
For example, certain cultures are more punctual than others. No one can deny that punctuality is better for business. Therefore it’s fairly common for a German company to stress punctuality even when their office is in a country where punctuality isn’t the norm. On the other hand, ideas such as the direct style of communication are more subjective. There is no evidence to show that it’s a better approach worldwide in all cultures. Such behaviors are harder to enforce if opposed by local culture.
Diverse workforce helps
If the company has a diverse mix of employees, cultural differences become so common that everyone gets better educated in dealing with them. This helps in bridging the company and country culture. When I joined Taskworld’s Bangkok office in 2014, we had a team of 30 people, out of whom 12 were expats from 9 different countries. The cultural screening was (still is) an important part of our recruitment process. Therefore we were able to assemble a core team that was excited by similar values.
Because everyday work-life involved interacting with colleagues from different cultural backgrounds, everyone got organically introduced to new ways of thinking. This helped people make better adjustments to their habits and national culture and find common ground under the company culture.
What does the future look like?
The United States has been at the forefront of defining and propagating organizational culture worldwide. American enterprises in the postwar period and later the Silicon Valley took the lead in cracking the science of company culture and driving innovations in it.
Due to the massive reach of the internet, the evolution of common global culture and higher engagement across universities worldwide, Millennials have more in common with their international counterparts than any preceding generation. Certain values like individualism, breakdown of traditional hierarchies, work-life balance are getting popular all over the world. Even in our experience at Taskworld, we noticed that the fresh graduates were more culturally similar to each other than more experienced fellow nationals.
This doesn’t mean that national culture will lose its significance. It never will. However, the balancing act between company culture and country culture will get easier in the years to come.