The Art of Cultural Communication

Challenges our Leaders Face in the Global Work Community

I was born in a rural town in the northern most part of Maine. I had little cultural awareness as our small town culture was set in its ways, and a good 30 years behind the rest of the country. I knew even less about global culture. Even though Canada was a short drive away, my first impression of that countries culture was my parents telling me to go outside on the weekends until it was time for meals, but not to journey too far into the woods, as I may never come out of them and end up in Canada speaking French.

Now I recruit future team members across all of North America, and have had the privilege to travel the entire expanse of the eastern seaboard working with people across the globe in education and employment. I have valued the many roles I have held in my career with Sitel Group,working from home for over a decade. Sitel Group “employs 160,000 employees across locations in 40 countries, serving 700+ customers in 50+ languages” according to the companies site. That is a statistic that I proudly declare to future employees. It is an amazing feat, to say the least.

I first discovered the need for cultural awareness while working with clients in the US that hired employees from across the continent. These teams were virtually organized and managed. Early on we did phone interviews, and had meetings through teleconferences. I remember one meeting in particular, where our leaders were venting frustrations concerning the written responses phone agents would send to them when they were being supported in chat rooms, and when they spoke to these agents on the phone. The leaders felt these responses were disrespectful, and had decided that the agents who were using this type of communication would receive written disciplinary action. When I heard what the written and verbal offenses were, I had no choice but to intercede.

The agents were referring to the supervisors by their first names, which was standard procedure at the time, however, they were using Mr. and Ms. prior to the first name, such as Ms. Barb, or Mr. John. The leaders were certain they were being mocked because as soon as they would tell one person to use the first name only, later that day or week, someone else would refer to them in the same manner. They felt that this was a serious offense at the level of group organized insubordination, and demanded support in their corrective action plans to discipline the offending employees.

At this time, a majority of our leadership was from the Northern U.S. Hemisphere. We had recently expanded and a large portion of new hires were from Southern U.S. states that we had expanded into. My trips to Miami, and the Florida Keys came in handy in ways I could not have imagined. I remember by first encounter with this cultural trend. A friend and business associate giving us a tour of his business had employees who kept calling him Mr. Monty. I looked at him with such oblivious confusion he had to laugh when in a puzzled voice I asked if the people he was working with knew his last name. He explained to me that in this southern culture they were showing their respect acknowledging his authority by using his first name with a prefix.

Our leaders were about to take disciplinary action against agents for showing them respect.

Should we have then educated the agents, that their way of showing respect was wrong. Should we have enforced that they do it our way, simply because we were the leadership? After all wouldn’t this eliminate future cultural misunderstandings?

Becoming culturally aware in the global and virtual work force is not about standardizing our corporate cultures. This is the first mistake often made and best avoided. Cultural identity is what makes a global company strong. Rather than standardizing our culture, we can incorporate an understanding of what makes us different and acknowledge how those differences give us the competitive edge in the global market. We can do this by understanding how our cultural identity may interfere with communications that are coming from a different cultural identity than our own.

My experience working with a team in the Philippines exemplifies our need to expand our acceptance of differences in written structure and cultural idioms. Working in a combine chat between American leaders and leaders from teams in the Philippines, the habit of team members to be social in the work environment, joking with each other and poking “harmless” fun at our selves and our teams, created a rift that again quickly escalated to the head of the Philippines team wanting to take disciplinary action against the American team members for insubordination. In this situation I was unable to make my observations known as I was at a lower hierarchical level than the Philippines leader. Any observation I made during the meeting would be seen as further disrespect. Instead I called my supervisor into a meeting, explained the cultural issue and he, being equal to the leader in the Philippines was then able to have a private conversation and properly apologize for the misunderstanding. We did not demand that the Philippines team “lighten up”, we did however move our social and jovial team building discussions to a separate format to improve communications with the Philippines team members. We respected their cultural identity for a serious work environment and were even able to invite them to events designed to be specifically social in nature where they could be more relaxed and participate in social group activities.

Even common idioms can cause cultural rifts in team communications. One Operations Management meeting was cut short when one of the leaders from a brick and mortar complex stated they had to leave early in order to “put out some fires”. The Philippines team reacted with genuine concern for the safety of our employees, thinking that the building itself was on fire. This brought about jovial laughter from the American team and further insult to the Philippines team. They went silent and the meeting became non-productive. Due to our insensitivity and unintentional blindness to the cultural identity team members from this other culture valued, this also required follow up meetings to alleviate the damage caused.

My last example, I have learned while working with my Canadian team. Due to the benefits that working from home brings to future employees, we have had the opportunity to tap into human resources from many different cultures and areas, both locally and with immigrant populations. North America is constantly evolving as people from all over the global community settle here and seek to join our work force. Something as simple as differences in accents can manifest itself as a barrier preventing qualified people from promotions or hindering support, even preventing qualified candidates success at the hiring stage. This is due to our unintentional bias and cultural tendency to favor people whose mannerism and speech is similar to ours. Holding employees to correct grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary, when not directly related to job requirements is culturally insensitive.

We are the leading standard for excellence in Business Process Outsourcing for both Work from Home and as a global corporate community. Learning about other cultures so that we do not project our values onto other individuals on our team is essential to the development of a healthy global corporate community. Culturally diverse teams are often more innovative and offer creative results that benefit the team as a whole. Our goal should be to create a culturally diverse and inclusive work environment through understanding and cultural awareness. This is the art of cultural communication and challenges our leaders face in the global work community.

About the author:

Salie Davis has worked as a virtual employee for over a decade with Sitel Group under Legacy Sykes. Starting as an agent she has served in many roles, working with many diversified teams and clients.

She has three degrees earned through distance learning with active contributions to the global educational community and has shared her creative and written talents through virtual conferences and global communities.

My mission statement

SalieDavis

Throughout my varied careers and experiences is a thread of commonality, the desire to see others achieve their goals. This desire has manifested itself in my pursuit of leadership and teaching opportunities in my careers, personal pursuits, and in volunteer work. Removing barriers such as the limits poverty and distance have on individuals is a focus of mine as these are personal barriers I have faced. Technology and distance learning as well as virtual employment have been beneficial in this. I myself have achieved my education only do to the availability of distance education. In addition, my virtual employment has overcome the barrier of limited local resources in employment.

Through self-reflection and analysis of my experiences key words that express my personal goals, how I wish to impact others are: to uplift and inspire, broaden horizons, deepen understanding, enlighten, strengthen and support, inform, increase awareness, protect human dignity, share beauty and joy, challenge people to think – to examine their beliefs and the effect these have on themselves and others, and to minister on a spiritual level of truth. This is likely why my future goals fall into a desire to teach and to express myself in creative fields through technology.

Words of wisdom from a virtual student and a virtual employee.

For those who do not know me I have been isolated by poverty and distance since childhood. Technology has freed me from those bounds. I have been a virtual student since 2001 and have been a virtual employee for almost as long. I am forever surprised at the fear of technology that exists in our schools and in our professions. I worked for five years as a teacher and was daily faced with having to defend technology and argue its value and importance. Even as a Masters student I am still shocked at how slow educators and professionals are to accept technology due to misconceptions and fear. So here are my thoughts on the benefit of hybrid meetings using technology to facilitate networking and engagement.

While students and employees continue to benefit from face to face networking in a function room, new technologies are increasingly advancing with the ability to draw in participants who would otherwise be isolated. New technologies, not subject to physical boundaries are becoming increasingly more accessible.

This can be accomplished through personal mobile devices or virtual meeting environments, technology is the key to expanding outreach and the way content is communicated, both in conjunction with and separate from face to face communication. Not only are people who are limited by distance or other boundaries drawn into the discussion where they would otherwise be excluded, but those within the physical environment have access to a more engaged degree of interaction.

Overcoming fear of new technologies as taboo has always been a challenge. From the onset of telephonic conferences, rejected as impersonal, to video conferences rejected as intrusive, the taboo of having any electronic device in a classroom or meeting, all these taboos have been overcome and can now be looked back upon as the fear of change that slowed networking progress. 3D environments is the current taboo that professionals face in all fields that require networking and collaboration.

Mobile technology and social media are the current most active trends. 3D environments are quickly catching on, from virtual worlds to the development of walk in 3D web pages. The use of 3D environments are proving to increase engagement with the ability to learn and collaborate in meeting spaces. It is becoming common place to see layered meetings, even with face to face interaction, combined with distance communication and participants, live streaming, recording, gamification within the presentations, and multiple levels of interaction with links, slide shows, and even independent exploration of all of these options inside virtual environments.

Virtual meeting technology is efficient and cost effective. It eliminates travel, saves time, reduces expenditures, and increases convenience for the participant. It is also more environmentally friendly and quickly being adopted in the business fields, even as an alternative to the brick and mortar work space for all of the reasons mentioned above.

Companies have virtual employees using adobe rooms, Skype, Zoom, messenger, virtual networks and remote desktops because it is cost effective and convenient on a global scale. Colleges are needing to help students embrace virtual technology not only as a social and educational venue, but in career preparation in order to encourage future success.

Hybrid or blended meetings are the bridge for those still uncertain when it comes to improvements that require open mindedness towards newer technologies. Hybrid meetings have real time face to face components as well as virtual components, such as live streaming a conference or meeting with a group to experience a 3D immersive tour and discussion. Back channel conversations on social media, twitter, Facebook, or even meeting platforms such as Zoom, can work in conjunction with live events or live virtual immersive events.

Virtual meetings and immersive environments will never replace face to face interaction but they can greatly enhance them. We are social beings and physical proximity will always be a major aspect of networking and engagement. Emerging technologies merely enhance the experience and remove the boundaries that prevent many from participating. Those individuals who would otherwise feel isolated due to financial, physical, distance or other challenges, through blended environments are able to contribute and collaborate. The exploration of these interactive and immersive formats challenge us to become more relevant and more engaging. What a great opportunity to continue developing relationships that may start at a college or business event and be able to be nurtured and continued through the use of virtual and immersive technology.