Careers adviser Amanda Augustine discusses the benefits of tech and things to avoid when it comes to working with international teams.
Collaborating with international colleagues can be rewarding but it can also be fraught with communication difficulties – either because of cultural differences or because you’re trying to work with someone based in another country or even time zone on a video call.
In most cases, you can laugh the odd cultural faux pas off and maybe learn something in the process, but collaborating with international colleagues on high-pressure projects is no picnic even for the most patient among us. Sleep schedules, tech glitches, internet outages and inadequate communication are some of the things that go against teams with multinational memberships.
But let’s look at the positives. Technology can be frustrating, but it means we can work with people halfway across the world – as long as we are disciplined in our communication. Remote working, hybrid and flexible working means we can collaborate on projects with a global reach in our own time and understand that our international colleagues will do their bit too when they clock in.
To get some advice on how to manage working with international colleagues who may not be working to our schedules, SiliconRepublic.com consulted Amanda Augustine of Lebenslaufapp, an Austrian-based careers advice service.
Use tech to your advantage
“Tech can definitely be very useful,” she said. “Meeting virtually makes so much more international collaboration possible when people don’t have to travel and it can help establish personal relationships much better than email communication.
“Other tools such as organising software, shared whiteboards or shared drives are also incredibly important for asynchronous collaboration, because they enable everyone to contribute during their working hours and to see comments from co-workers/collaborators.
“Where time zones allow, being able to video call quickly when there are issues that are difficult to explain can make all the difference to a business relationship. When there are language barriers – for example if English isn’t either party’s first language – it’s much easier to avoid misunderstandings when we have facial expressions and tone of voice as extra context, instead of just email.”
Put common goals first
“Whether your company is composed of employees of different nationalities or you’re working with foreign consultants, clients or partners, it is best to establish mutual goals because they will be the common ground you can build on,” according to Augustine. “As long as everyone is working to achieve the same aim, differences become secondary and people will generally be happy to bridge gaps or forgive any mishaps in manners from a different culture’s point of view.”
Avoid cultural faux pas where you can
“That being said, if you brush up on manners or cultural norms, perhaps even small talk in a different language, that can make a big difference to any co-worker or client with a different nationality to yours. For example, when you are going out for dinner with a client in a different country, it can avoid a lot of awkwardness if you know, say, whether to tip a waiter or if that is considered rude.
“Knowing a different country’s ways also shows you care about the other person. If you are trying to reach a customer base in that country, knowing the basic societal norms will also improve your services or products, which will impress business partners.”
Don’t underestimate language barriers
“At a time when tools like Google Translate and ChatGPT are readily available, it’s easy to assume that language barriers are a thing of the past. But, beware,” warned Augustine. “While these AI tools can help with your written communication, they are not perfect.
“When drafting communication, keep your message clear and concise. Avoid using jargon, slang terms or colloquial expressions that may get lost or misconstrued during translation. If possible, ask a native speaker of your target language to review your translated email or other outreach materials first to ensure your translated message has no unintentional meaning that could lead to disgruntlement or plain disregard. In addition, research appropriate greetings and sign-offs to make sure you are always being polite and professional in your communication.”
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
“While it’s beneficial to learn some basics about the culture you are working with in advance, it’s impossible to be aware of every possible issue that could arise due to cultural differences. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. In fact, it’s important to establish a safe space for communication with your foreign partners or clients upfront so that everyone feels safe asking questions without judgement or embarrassment.
“It is much more important to avoid misunderstandings or false understandings than it is to seem perfect at discoursing in the target culture,” said Augustine. “There is no shame in admitting that you don’t understand something or aren’t sure what the other person really wants and it can help both sides. In fact, this is something we should also be doing with colleagues, partners and clients within our own culture to optimise communication.”
Celebrate differences and stay curious
“Working with different nationalities might mean extra work in some ways, but in others a different culture might just be the right fit for your products or services,” she pointed out. “It’s fascinating to learn more about different perspectives on life and business from another culture’s point of view, so make sure you stay curious and pick up as much as you can about the other culture. There are always opportunities to learn and improve your own practices or pass on wisdoms of your own.”
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