With a global client base, a multicultural workforce, and teams based in London and Tokyo, TAMLO knows well the problems cross-cultural working can bring. Connecting cultures is what we do as an agency. So it’s a no-brainer that we would first tackle language, culture, and time zone barriers within our own internal structures before anything else.
Aside from poring over Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map (an insightful and instructive read on overcoming cultural obstacles in business) - which, incidentally, almost all TAMLO staff members have - we’ve developed processes that help break down communication barriers.
Our team consists of Japanese, Canadians, Americans and a Brit. There is no dominant language and some, but not all, are bilingual in Japanese and English. For TAMLO, fine tuning how we communicate wasn’t just an HR exercise, it was crucial to our existence as an organisation.
So, how have we done it?
Emojis, translators, compassion
‘We always have someone translating in meetings’, says Nanako, TAMLO’s Chief Localisation Officer. ‘They’ll either translate themselves or they’ll ask a bilingual staff member to interpret after each section.’
‘Often it’s Nina’, adds James, TAMLO consultant and one of the self-confessed ‘non-bilingual ones’. ‘She’s the most incredible interpreter. And she always thinks of others! If someone forgets to translate, Nina will remind them or do it herself.’
Compassion is required for effective communication anywhere, but within multilingual teams without a dominant language, it’s essential. And for TAMLO, it’s also business critical.
‘Because we don’t naturally get a fluid transfer of information, it’s important to have people who are naturally considerate’, explains James. ‘Of course, this also bleeds into our client work. If our Japanese team is working on a project for a British client that doesn’t speak Japanese, or if one team knows something about a project in one language only, problems can arise if we don’t think to translate and share information.’
So that’s verbal communication sorted, but what about written comms?
‘We mainly communicate via Slack’, says James, ‘and we’ve set up a bot where, if you react to your own message with a country’s flag emoji, it’ll automatically get translated into that country’s language. It’s brilliant because now we can easily communicate with the whole team on our corporate channel!’
Details vs ideas
Japan’s work culture is detail-oriented, unlike the UK’s, America’s and Canada’s which tend to be more ideas-oriented. These opposing styles mean that miscommunication between the two cultures can run rife and it can be confusing - at first. It’s certainly something Canadian-raised Nanako found when she initially joined TAMLO.
‘I would go along to Yuichi’s (TAMLO founder and managing director) Japanese meetings,’ she recalls, ‘and I’d watch how he set up discussions and I’d copy. But he’d always have to stop me because I’d launch into the product details without giving background information on the project or client.
‘I eventually learnt that if you're speaking to a Japanese person about a project, regardless of who they are - colleague, boss, freelancer or client - you need to give them all the details. You can't just relay what you want them to do. You have to give the full picture; The Japanese need a holistic view. And sometimes that involves creating slides - something I never did in Canada!
‘Initially I thought it was so much extra work and really inefficient! But actually, once you get used to the process, you realise there are fewer mistakes when the project starts because all the details are already there.’
As the TAMLO teams have discovered, working with different cultures comes with an array of positives for both employees and the business as a whole.
On his exposure to a more detail-oriented work style, James admits: ‘It definitely helped me in my personal development. Naturally, I’m more of an ideas brain. Us Brits want to know straight away how something’s going to work for us in the long run! We don’t want detail or slides, whereas my Japanese colleagues and clients usually do.
‘And actually, I’ve come to realise there is a real value in giving detail. For one, it removes the potential for communication breakdowns between both internal stakeholders and clients because everyone knows exactly what's expected.’
Strategy and experimentation
When it comes to deciding the best communication and collaboration methods across teams, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. All strategies have to start somewhere and for TAMLO, as Nanako puts it, it's been a ‘gradual process’ and a case of ‘waiting, observing and changing - like an experiment’.
James adds: ’In the beginning, it was just Yuichi and I, so it was easy. There was no communication breakdown then, but as we grew, we started to realise “oh my God! We need to put processes in place!”
‘Internally, we're more honest with each other. To my Japanese colleagues, in the beginning, I'd say I needed help on a particular project. They’d then ask for the details and tell me what they needed to start the conversation. The process trained me on how to prepare for a project effectively.’
Removing some traditional, hierarchical elements of Japanese work culture has helped too. In Japanese offices, formalities rule. For example, addressing one another by surname, adding the honorific suffix ‘san’, is expected. This is a sign of respect and everyone does it, no matter their relationship to the person. In the Western world, it is not deemed rude or overly familiar to address colleagues by their first name.
So, TAMLO made a rule.
‘To level the playing field and put us all on the same page,’ says James, ‘we all call each other by our first names.’
Although initially it was difficult for some Japanese staff members, both James and Nanako have noticed a positive shift:
‘I used to call Yukie “Yukie-san” for months,’ says Nanako, who is a Japanese native. ‘It felt natural because she was older than me, so it came from respect. But one day she came to me and said “Why are you still calling me Yukie-san? I feel left out and like you’re putting distance between us.” So, I started calling her Yukie and after that, I felt like we became closer because of it. It was the same with others too.’
Another traditional and unhelpful aspect of both the Japanese and Western corporate worlds is siloing (where teams insulate themselves and withhold information, sometimes deliberately).
‘There are no silos here,’ explains James. ‘Different people come together on different projects, there are regular crossovers. And there has to be because of the nature of our USP. Rather than it being a hierarchy, it’s more about “how can this person help this person? Who has this skill set?”
‘In fact, at the moment we’re looking at our mission and vision. We’re asking each team member to give their own points of view and we discuss each one, it’s very democratic. We’re spending time getting it right. And yes, it might take longer, but it means everyone is aligned.’
Language and culture differences aren’t the only communication barriers organisations can face. Working across different time zones is a hurdle to overcome, and not just for the reasons you’d think.
As James explains: ‘Because of different time zones, people might receive messages at any time of day/night. And not everyone is able to completely switch off and ignore them if they receive them after hours. So Yuichi created an employee handbook which was a game changer. A big part of it is about sending messages and time zones. We have rules: emails are to be scheduled to go out at certain times, notifications on Slack are to be turned off, and our working hours are shared with the team. Expectation in our team is really important.’
At TAMLO, this is all the more pertinent because of the flex hours structure (employees have an allocated number of hours per week that they work, but they choose when they work them). The structure is in place to help those with families, but also to enable time zone crossovers for meetings.
‘We have a shared calendar so everyone can see when everyone is working and their availability,’ says James. ‘And everyone knows “the golden hours” - that part of the day that is doable, meeting-wise, for Japan and the UK. It’s not too antisocial for one team. Being remote, and not having morning or evening commutes, makes this much easier!’
Not only do these structures help on a practical level, they ensure team morale. With no time zone taking precedence over another (which is often the case in big corporations, depending on the location of head office), everyone feels connected and considered.
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For TAMLO, having all of these processes in place has led to an inclusive, cohesive and positive working environment. We believe that, if embraced and managed effectively, organisations can reap the rewards of cross-cultural working. Teams gain fresh perspectives, new ways of collaborating and a better understanding of projects (as well as each other and themselves).