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PART 3: 10 Common Remote Work Challenges (Dealing with cultural differences and building trust)

Studies have found remote workers are more productive, healthier, and enjoy a more positive work-life balance.

Challenges for remote teams

  • Managing projects

  • Remote collaboration

  • Tracking tasks and productivity

  • Working from different locations, time zones, etc.

  • Dealing with language and cultural differences

  • Building/maintaining trust

Challenges for remote workers

  • Maximising productivity

  • Overcoming distractions

  • Staying motivated

  • Unplugging after work

In Part 2 we looked at Tracking tasks and productivity as well as Working from different locations. In this post, we will focus on Language and cultural differences & Building/maintaining trust

#4: Language and cultural differences

When you’ve got a remote team of workers from around the world, you’re also likely going to have a rich mix of language and cultural backgrounds coming together on projects. The most obvious result of this is varying levels of English proficiency (or other languages) but there are more subtle cultural differences that also need to be understood.

For example, workplace expectations are wildly different in Japan and Korea from the UK. People are expected to work long hours, contradicting seniors is frowned upon and, in Japan especially, raising complaints is generally discouraged.

This is a generalisation, to some extent, but these social conventions are real and they can make certain aspects of collaboration uncomfortable – for example, correcting someone older or considered as a senior.

By having a cultural understanding of the people on your team, you’ll be in a position to recognise which aspects of remote working are more difficult for certain members and help them overcome them.

Not all cultural differences are quite so nuanced. Differences in religious beliefs can be more obvious and it’s imperative that these are respected, including religious holidays that may require time off or participation (eg: Ramadan). Where things can get tricky is social/political principles, especially if you’ve got team members in countries where human rights, animal rights or anything else are observed in a different way.

How to solve this problem

Above all, everyone needs to understand that language ability is never something someone should be criticised for or made to feel inadequate about. Whoever makes the call to hire team members is ultimately responsible for deciding whether they have the required language skills before bringing them on-board.

Native speakers need to be aware that misunderstandings will happen and take whatever possible steps to make them less likely/severe. Patience is crucial and speaking clearly, in simple English, will make it easier for non-native speakers to understand.

When it comes to important info, send details to non-native speakers via email. When you talk, people only get one chance to understand everything but they can read text at their own pace, read it multiple times if necessary and use a dictionary for any words they’re not familiar with.

The most important thing is for non-native speakers to know they can ask about anything that’s unclear to them without it being held against them.

Now, cultural differences are more complex and they can affect remote teams in two key ways:

  • Some cultural differences can impact the way your team works together.

  • Others can potentially cause misunderstandings, offence or disagreements.

For example, you’ll often find the level of openness people are comfortable with varies greatly around the world. As mentioned before, complaining is typically frowned upon in Japan and there is also a general reluctance to say “no” in many other parts of Asia.

The good news is, with a relatively basic understanding of workplace culture, you can anticipate these differences and avoid problems. Practically speaking, it’s no different from hiring someone who’s worked in an office their entire life and training them for remote working – it’s all about adapting work practices.

The more challenging cultural differences to manage are the ones that have the potential to cause offence. A rogue generalisation about religion, for example, or having a strict vegan working with someone from a country with a less-than-spectacular animal rights record.

To avoid potential issues, you may choose to encourage open dialogue about culture, religion, politics, etc. and promote tolerance and understanding across all topics – kind of a there’s no right or wrong philosophy. If that doesn’t work, you may have to discourage all sweeping statements about these topics and keep conversations on more professional subjects.