Multicultural Working Environment: Challenges, Solutions, and Powerful Impact

Eskimi DSP is a global company. It has employees in nine European, Asian, and African countries. But our markets extend way further to multiple countries in these continents, as well as in Latin America and Oceania. A great number of different markets means not just a successfully growing business: it also means diverse cultures to get to know, to understand, and to get new viewpoints from. Besides broadening the view of the world, the cross-cultural challenges arise within a multicultural company—and when entering new markets and trying to grasp their peculiarities. As Eskimi Regional Director Eglė Ribačiauskaitė emphasizes, “you have to cope with these challenges communicating both with customers and within the team.“

There might be a temptation to “merge“ the countries of one region into a unified zone as if all of them share the same characteristics. Like, “all the Southern Europeans are extroverts”. However, things are way more complicated. Although there are some commonalities between same-region countries, even the neighboring ones may greatly differ at certain points.

Eskimi DSP Business Development Director Vita Garifulina and her colleague Eglė work with different markets around the globe and share their thoughts on the topic.

Getting to know a culture

Before entering a new market, doing your homework is a valuable step. “Sure, it‘s useful to know what to talk (and not to talk) about in a certain country, what is people‘s temperament. Religion, politics, even food—these are among the things I‘m interested in before working with a new country,“ Vita shares the important topics. However, she admits that she best learnings come from practice. “I want to get to know the country without preconceptions,“ Vita values openness to experience.

Her colleague Eglė holds the opinion that the topic of cultures and their differences is super intricate. “It‘s difficult to assess cultural differences because we choose our point of view—in our case, Lithuanian. So we have to be as open and empathic as we can,“ she expresses the sensitivity of this topic. “And no less tricky is that cultural differences are not obvious: sometimes it‘s difficult to name them,“ Eglė adds.

Cultural differences and ways to deal with them

Knowing and understanding a culture usually helps to build stronger partnerships and move on smoother. It means avoiding false expectations and getting into the right “mood” for a cross-cultural encounter. Cultural differences may highly impact the business processes—that’s why one should be prepared for them to get the mutually best result.

Vita and Eglė mention some cultural differences that play the role. 

1. Time perception. While somewhere punctuality goes without saying, elsewhere the time perception is more relaxed: people are usually late and don‘t hurry. 

Eskimi is founded by Lithuanians, which are on the punctual side. But there work many employees with a different view on time. “There‘s an adaptation challenge for colleagues who are from cultures where being late is a norm,“ Eglė admits. 

2. Communication style/tone. In some cultures, people value straightforwardness, while others quickly get offended with a straightforward tone. What‘s more, there are cultures where raised voice is usual and doesn‘t mean anything rude, while people from elsewhere interpret this kind of communication as a sign of anger and impoliteness. How to cope with these differences? “One solution is to soften the communication so that we offend no one,“ Eglė shares her experience. “In a multi-cultural team, it’s hard work on how to communicate.“

It’s equally important to remember the chance of miscommunication. If someone has reacted or wrote something in an unacceptable (for you!) manner, keep in mind that it’s not necessarily personal. “There may be a cultural difference,” Eglė says. “This is the basic rule when facing a challenge or miscommunication.”

3. Temperament. Even the neighboring countries of the same continent can differ in temperament. “For example, people of Ghana and Tanzania are more chilled, while Kenyans and Nigerians are more active. South Africa altogether differs greatly from the entire continent, it rather reminds you of Europe,“ Vita shares her observations.

4. Hierarchy. Eskimi seeks to maintain a linear (egalitarian) company hierarchy. However, the strict hierarchy is rooted in some cultures, and their people need to know who is the boss. Eglė discloses that in this case, people have to adapt to Eskimi culture—the company strives to preserve its values. Here, the conversation is indispensable: “Surely, we explain why we’re doing things this way, why this kind of hierarchy is important for us.”

5. Receiving and perceiving information. Different people perceive information differently. Some need meticulous details on a subject, for some knowing a context is essential. “Here, we use the principle of over-communication,” Eglė shares her practice. “For the multicultural team, you have to speak so that you tell things important to each of the cultures. Communicate everything a little more than needed: both in more detail and more context. That’s needed so that different people still understand the subject roughly equally.”

6. Formality level. Some clients prefer formal talks and explanations, while others prefer informal and warm communication. In some cultures (e.g., Latin America), a friendship is an inseparable part of a business partnership. “In meetings, you should talk not only about business. First, they have to trust you as a person, not a business partner. If you want to do business with a Latin person, you should have a personal, friendly relationship,” Vita shares her experience with the Latin American market.

7. Process of dealing and negotiation. Here, knowing the culture’s formality level is nonetheless crucial. “When dealing with clients from certain cultures, you need to become friends: go out for a coffee or dinner, to chill together. Simply, to show that you’re not just doing business, but building a partnership at all levels,” Vita says. “For example, in Latin America, negotiations end up according to communication—whether a person feels good with you. Elsewhere, contrary, it’s only numbers and quality that matter,” she emphasizes the different approaches.

8. Language. “I think language is one of the fundamental differences that impact the communication both within the team and with clients,” notices Eglė. “We communicate in English, but it’s not a native language for any of us. So, unsurprisingly, things are sometimes lost in translation.” However, language can also be a unifying dimension in a certain way—if you have even a basic understanding of it. “It’s very important to understand at least some of the language spoken by clients or colleagues,” Vita says. “Even if you don’t speak that language but can understand a little, those people will treat you as “their” person,” she underlines the power of language as an ice-breaker.

Positive effects: personal and business values 

Still, above all these difficulties, both Vita and Eglė agree that working in a multicultural environment is an invaluable experience that opens up the windows to the wider worldview. The value of working in a diverse environment is at least double. “Working in a multicultural environment helps to get out of the comfort zone and do much more in life—both on the business and personal side. Seeing the differences between Tier 1 countries and emerging markets completely changes the worldview, habits, and communication for the better,” Vita emphasizes the multiple values of being a part of an international team and working with markets across the globe.

– Personal value. Knowing new cultures gives one a global perspective and broadened view of the world, allows learning of different approaches, teaches tolerance and empathy towards different people. “These differences are the driving force – it‘s access to global perspectives,“ Eglė claims. “It gives a huge perspective on various lives and worldviews. You become tolerant of all cultures and religions. I believe it‘s relevant especially for us, Lithuanians, as we live in a small country with little immigrants and differences.“ 

– Business value. Multicultural experiences enrich a person, but the same goes for business. Getting to know different business models and business cultures is beneficial for any ambitious company that aims to scale and find the most appropriate ways to thrive. “For example, we can adopt new processes,” Eglė comments. “Anyway, it nurtures the team in many ways,“ she elaborates. “We adapt easier and easier to the new markets. It grows us up and teaches us how to get along in different cultures with different people.“