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Building Teams While Maintaining Consistent Company Culture

Diversity
Company Culture

27 June, 2020

Tim Olshansky, EVP of Engineering at Zenput, delves into his efforts to maintain consistent company culture when building teams in different geographies.

Problem

We are trying to grow our team maintaining a common sense of culture within the organization. I would describe ourselves as a remote-first, but nevertheless office-centric company with a consistent set of company values as well as cultural norms relating to communication practices, prioritization decisions, decision making, etc. Over the years, we have grown the organization semi-organically, being opportunistically based on where we found people. However, mid-last year, we decided to grow the organization in another location outside of the United States and had opted for Mexico where we have had previous success.
 

We wanted the team in Mexico to align and reflect our existing company values while functioning as a semi-independent office capable of contributing to the organization's success. We went through the very complex and challenging process of opening an office in Mexico with a direct employment opportunity, but as we started to bring people onto the team, we noticed, unsurprisingly, that there were differences in cultural attitudes, working styles, and communication mechanisms many of which arising from different communication styles between English-speaking US-based offices and the Spanish-speaking office in Mexico.
 

Actions taken

As we were building the team, we couldn’t help but notice the existence of cultural differences and we immediately started coming up with a plan to address them. One of the first actions was to create a common language or at least empathy for our non-native English speaking colleagues on our Mexican team by having some of the English-speaking people going through the process of learning to speak Spanish. We found an organization that was happy to run classes for us which took place in the office late in the day so that people could participate without feeling they had to decide on their priorities. That helped them develop a great empathy for our Spanish-speaking colleagues who, while speaking excellent English, were often struggling to understand the nuances of communication overloaded with jargon and idioms.
 

In addition, the symbolism of the act was extraordinarily valuable and made the members of the Mexican team -- or at least the more vocal members of the team who were willing to speak up and share their experience -- feel as important as members of the US-based side of the business. That contradicted the well-entrenched expectations that the Mexico team should align with the US communication style and culture, but not the reverse. Moreover, our internal survey indicated that the symbolic gesture was actually measurable showcasing a steady and strong increase in their engagement with the business.
 

We also decided to bring people from the Mexican team onsite for onboarding and to make the effort of having them be a part of the experience within the office, taking them out for social events and getting them to develop a strong feel for the non-work related aspects of the organization.
 

This approach was not unique to the Mexico case -- we were always committed to maintaining our company culture when building teams across different geographies. To achieve that we did random coffees that get regularly scheduled so that people could meet people throughout the business on a regular basis. The feedback we were getting was that people working across different locations felt much more connected. Also, bringing people onsite, as we did with a few people who were located in Slovenia, helped them develop a strong sense of the team culture, including how technical decisions were made, how technical data is prioritized, what was important in code review, etc. One week of onsite onboarding was far more effective and rapidly increased their ability to become contributors than working solely remotely over a period of a couple of months.
 

We also traveled regularly to different offices acting as cultural atachés. I personally spent time onsite at various offices to get to know people and also promote our culture. For example, a member of the San Francisco team would be present in the Mexico office three weeks out of four with a regular rotation of people traveling and bringing the cultural context, building bridges and relationships across the organization. I highly value getting people together face to face and having a strong social interaction. Quarterly team or department onsites -- whether in office or somewhere else -- where everybody gets together and spends time together, are an essential part of our office-centric culture. All of those things have a directly measurable impact documented in our engagement surveys and noticeable in Net Promoter Score (NPS), as well as zero attrition recorded in the last 18 months.
 

However, the two main remaining culturally-driven challenges that would require our streamlined efforts are:
 

  • People are reluctant to speak up and share their thoughts in the presence of a person of a more senior rank being more respectful of the hierarchy within the organization. To address that I decided to emphasize disagreements that others were having with me and encourage them to have them in public settings, so others can observe that interaction. By encouraging people to have discussions and disagreements individuals who were previously hesitant to voice their thoughts or perspectives have started to do it more. This approach embodies one of our key values that the decisions are not made simply by virtue of the hierarchy, but that we value rationality and arguments.
  • Some people have difficulties publicly accepting responsibility for their mistakes. I’ve noticed a culturally-conditioned willingness to accept a mistake in private coupled with a strong and overwhelming apprehension and fear of acknowledging mistakes publicly. In contrast, the US team was always very willing to accept mistakes and responsibility and work through them which is a part of our blameless culture -- acknowledge the mistake, take responsibility for it, come up with a plan, fix it and move on. I resorted to one-on-one coaching rather than a broader communication setting (except for the meetings where mistaking argument is explicitly required) to instill our values of psychological safety in individuals who were struggling with it.
     

Lessons learned

  • Don't underestimate the importance of cultural differences when building a team. Cultural differences could happen between states in the United States let alone between offices dispersed across different continents. Cultural differences do exist, they matter and should not be ignored because they have a direct influence on productivity, engagement, and general happiness of employees.
  • Some cultural differences are harder to address and they should be managed through coaching and/or phone calls/Slack messages following the behavior that requires feedback and guidance in order to be changed. Small things could make a big impact. Even symbolic actions, like encouraging our team to take Spanish lessons, could have a strong effect on the engagement with the organization.
  • Cultural differences are a legitimate concern that requires active and continual effort.

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