The Productive Workplace: The Cross-Cultural Space

Cross-cultural competency: ability to operate in different cultural settings

It’s worth starting this post with some definitions of culture:

Culture: The behaviours and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.

Culture: The way in which people solve problems and reconcile dilemmas. (E. Schein)

Culture: How contrasting values and conflicts are habitually mediated. (F. Thompenaars)

Cross-cultural competency is the ability to move between different groups and still perform, to stay productive. Cross-cultural competency also enables people with different ways on solving problems and reconciling dilemmas to come together to deliver value.

I’ve travelled and worked across a number of cultures.

My birth was in London, I was raised in Yorkshire and have lived in Lancashire for all of my adult life. For those of you with little knowledge of English culture it’s enough for you to know that Yorkshire and Lancashire both have roses as their emblem, but of decidedly different colours and often went to war over it.

I work for an organisation that is Head Quartered in the USA. We joke that the USA and the UK are “two nations divided by a common language”. We may both call it English, but we use it very differently (a question for my American friends: have you ever wondered why no one in the UK is named Randy?) It’s not just the language tough, our beliefs and behaviours are very different.

My job has meant that I have worked across organisations in many sectors including defence, public sector, finance, healthcare, automotive, utility and alongside many IT organisations. Every organisation has its own culture some inspiring, some draining.

Yet, in each of these contexts certain things remain with little differentiation: the five legged chair, the formica covered desk, the ugly phone, the bland partition, the three drawer pedestal and the rows. All bolted together to stop anyone changing anything.

All of the billions of people on this planet seem to have made it a global goal to turn all working environments into a mirror image of every other working environment.

There is lots of research that shows that diversity, including cultural diversity is a facilitator of innovation. It’s the differences in experiences, ages, skills, disciplines, working styles and thinking styles that together makes us different from the machines. Diverse groups achieve things that one-dimensional groups don’t.

Is it not conceivable that diverse working environments can complement the culture of the diverse team? If culture is the way people solve problems and reconcile dilemmas is it likely that the standard office configuration helps or hinders cross-cultural competency?

Many people have experienced the positive impact of taking a piece of work to a different place. So why have we created working environments that are globally homogeneous? It has the advantage that if I travel to the other side of the world I know what I am getting I suppose, but at what cost?

One of the most inspiring places I’ve ever worked in belonged to a travel company who had decorated each of their meeting rooms in the style of a place that they took customers too – a Greek taverna, an American dinner, an English bar. It felt weird to be working in these places knowing that they were in the middle of a normal city office, but it was inspiring.

The other element of the standard office that drives out diversity is the lack of flexibility. People tend to sit in the same rows for years and years. They can’t break the rows because they are bolted together. They can’t move because that would mean arranging for other people to move, and those people are cemented where they are. In my previous post on this topic I highlighted Building 20 at MIT where one of the key factors in its value was its flexibility. As I look out on an open plan office there are some people who are sat at the same desk as they were 15 years ago, I know because I used to be here 15 years ago also.

At the travel company site the open office space was provisioned on a flexible basis. Everyone had a mobile pedestal with their things in it, they all had mobile phones and none of the desks were in rows. Some of the desks were in groups and some were on their own. Each night people were expected to clear the desk they had worked at and placed their belongings into the mobile pedestal and place it back into the storage area for pedestals. No one had a desk they called their’s. Each morning people would sit in the most appropriate place. If they were working together with other people they could reserve a set of desks that were near to each other. If they were working on their own, they could sit on their own.

The flexible nature of the office was completed by having mobile flip-charts, whiteboards and projection screens that could be wheeled to wherever they were needed.

I didn’t work in this office long enough to know whether this was successful, but I loved the concept.

Some videos to make you think:

3 thoughts on “The Productive Workplace: The Cross-Cultural Space”

  1. This is such a great series of posts Graham, I was planning my own but I don’t think I need to now, at least not without more investigation as you have set a high bar


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