The year 2021 is expected to bring in a much-needed respite from the global disruptions brought on by the previous year. Yet, the world post-2020 will permanently alter some of the ways of life that were earlier considered the norm. Nowhere will these shifts be as relevant as they would be in the organization. As country-wide lockdowns defined the first half of 2020, many service and technology organizations had to scramble for resources to enable remote work, set the precedent for the virtual workplace. This shift to the new normal of remote work, when coupled with the ever-increasing influence of the globalised workplace, presents unique challenges, primarily associated with organizational culture and talent management.
Communicating in Digital Environment: Barriers
For instance, interpersonal communication in the digital-led environment is distinct from in-person communication. Unlike the physical workplace, the digital workplace does not allow for non-verbal cues to supplement the conversation between two people, thereby requiring explicit communication of every requirement and emotion necessary. Since the barriers to physical proximity have been eliminated, the workplace could now spread across geographies. Different cultural practices and norms will be harder to account for since people will have less time to understand contextual intricacies and build meaningful workplace relationships. In such cases, the ability to communicate effectively with colleagues from different cultures becomes a necessity and a point of focus for people management. Thus, cross-cultural agility becomes a crucial trait for the international workforce to have. It enables better communication and interpersonal trust in fellow employees.
Defining Cross-Cultural Agility
Cross-cultural agility is defined as the ability of an individual to effectively communicate and share ideas with others from different cultures. This is achieved through a mutual understanding of verbal and non-verbal cues that facilitate the effective sharing of intended knowledge. Although it is of the highest relevance in global workplaces, cross-cultural agility is gaining increasing significance outside commerce and industry to include education, healthcare, and other domains.
Enabling Cross-Cultural Agility
In the context of such complexities, there are two key enablers to increasing cross-cultural agility in any workplace. The predominant approach to organised cross-cultural agility development is through training programs. These programs are generally led by the people management department in an organization. These include the use of workshops, roadshows, group activities, and other forms of training interventions. Although effective, the fostering of cross-cultural agility through formal channels only serves half of the intended purpose. Because the core definition of cross-cultural agility is rooted in organizational culture, any truly effective change or development needs to be employee driven. The focus should thus be on the individual acknowledgement of cultural differences and advocacy for inclusive conversations.
To foster cross-cultural cohesion in organizational interactions, an individual employee needs to: (1) be keenly aware of culturally sensitive topics and issues; (2) look out for common ground with the other culture to initiate and sustain conversations; (3) be cognizant of non-verbal cues which are harder to detect in the digital setting; and (4) actively include the other person in the conversation. These above-listed best practices in cross-cultural communication can then be reiterated in a formal training set up.
Other ways to foster cross-cultural agility include the encouragement of knowledge seeking and sharing. The more open-minded an employee is, the more likely they are to be more inclusive and empathetic to another individual from a different culture. The conscious encouragement of cross-cultural interactions can serve as an effective tool to build cross-cultural agility. People managers can promote and encourage trans-national teams to work on innovative projects that would aid in the transfer of best practices from one region to another. Workshops and brainstorming sessions can also be a part of the toolbox.
Creation of “communities of practice” and nominating champions for inclusivity can also be part of the toolbox for building cross-cultural agility, depending on the size of the organization and the industry of its operation. These champions could serve as torch-bearers for best practices, and resolve issues that employees might be hesitant to report to the HR department or management. Digital forums can serve as a platform where they come together in the virtual workplace.
Role of the Management
The management also has an important role to play in serving as the example that the other employees look forward to following. An executive team that is representative of the cultural diversity that prevails in the workplace goes a long way in showcasing the organization's commitment to driving cross-cultural agility.
The assembly of a culturally diverse team in the US President Joe Biden's administration has set the stage for cross-cultural inclusivity in the global political ecosystem. The tides of nationalism are giving way to democratised welfare for different races and cultures. However, incidents like the alleged firing of senior Google associates over underlying racial grounds indicate that there is still a long way to go before inclusivity becomes the norm. The shifting winds, however, pave the way for the inclusion of cross-cultural agility as one of the key tenets of organizational culture.