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Cultural Diversity in Distributed Global Teams

Gianluca Ameruoso
February 16, 2023
Read: 11 min

Cultural diversity is a hot topic in companies with distributed international teams. Extreme levels of connectivity and the challenges of maintaining closely knit internal communities finally draws attention to important issues that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) experts have long been urging companies to address.

 

I am Gianluca Ameruoso, Managing Director at Infinite Lambda, and I would like to share an honest commentary on our experience with cultural diversity in our distributed global teams.

First, let me introduce myself. I feel my own background is worth adding not just because it is the story of how I got to be in this role but also my personal reason to be invested in diversity and cultural experiences.

Since I was a student at the Computer Science Engineering University in Pavia (Italy), I have always loved data. I remember being intrigued by the idea of finding hidden information in large data sets and by the importance of backing decisions with facts. After graduation, I tried exploring several areas of the data spectrum: from BI and data modelling to architecture and engineering. Until I jumped into management roles and everything seemed to finally click.

Diversity is personal.
So let’s start with a personal story.

When I left my hometown, Bari, and moved to a city in the north of Italy, initially I thought, “I am so different from them.” Then I moved abroad and I thought, “Wow, it turns out I was so similar to people in northern Italy and so different from people in the UK.” Later I went to work in China and I reflected on how similar I had been to people in the UK.

It was exactly through these ruminations that I discovered how fulfilling it was to work with people from different places. I finally came to the conclusion that I would not be the person I am today without all of the diversity I have been exposed to.

I strongly believe diversity is only as precious as one’s understanding of how it can be an enriching experience. Now, as a manager, I have made it my mission to encourage people around me to make the most of the chance to be exposed to different cultures.

Coming home

After 20 years away from home, I decided to go back to where I started. Colleagues and friends pointed out there would be some cultural shock. Given how much I appreciated being in diverse environments, they pointed out moving back was likely a mistake because sooner or later I would lose a big chunk of what I had learnt throughout this journey. I did not agree back then and I still do not agree now.

Every time I joined a community which was different from the one I was coming from, I felt richer. To make the most of intercultural experiences, we need to be aware of the fine line between what one has to change in order to encourage the people around them to open up and what they should keep to themselves. Conversely, is it also essential to suspend expectations, be mindful of what others share and maintain awareness that what we hear could be distorted by life-long habits and prejudice.

The Infinite Lambda story

Infinite Lambda is an empowering place for a number of different reasons and cultural diversity is definitely one of them. Aside from our headquarters in London, where it is as diverse as it gets, we have teams in a number of other countries and cities, many of which are not capitals.

Add to that the fact that we are a hugely different bunch in terms of life experiences as well where many have lived abroad or travelled extensively but many have not. This means we differ vastly when it comes to our attitudes to interacting with different cultures but also to our exposure to it.

Why have diversity goals in place?

Our goal as a company is to encourage diversity in different shapes and forms. We started by asking ourselves the question of how to make sure we had this in our DNA.

Goals – measurable or not – only make sense if they are attached to values and based on such. And one of our 5 main values here is people. This is the starting point when defining measurable company objectives and it also extends to diversity, equality and inclusion.

We work with data, so we know how to measure impact. Having key performance indicators (KPIs) attached to DEI goals is key to making sure we are always on top of the progress we are making as a company. But we found that making goals personal works even better, so we attached these KPIs to executives’ objective key results (OKRs).

This means that in order to achieve company goals, it is executives that need to break them down into objectives for their teams. This helps everyone stay focused and engage as they are clear on their own part but also clearly shows that executives take DEI as seriously as any other company business.

A living, breathing, distributed organism

I keep mentioning these fundamentally distributed teams but it is worth giving you the full picture.

In our company, there are at least four groups of people an employee belongs to simultaneously. Each of them serves a different purpose in the organisation. As an engineer:

  1. You belong to a team composed of a few other engineers with the same specialisation, led by an Engineering Lead. For example, an analytics engineer belongs to one of many analytics engineering teams;
  2. Your team belongs to a chapter, which is the centre of excellence for a specific area. For example, all analytics engineering teams form an analytics engineering chapter;
  3. Your team also belongs to a unit, a vast and diverse group of people with different specialisations. A Unit is the largest section in the company and contains several different chapters;
  4. You belong to a project team, which is formed when a new project comes along. Project teams are usually a mix of different chapters and are part of the same unit but not necessarily part of the same team.

The most important part to consider is that none of these groups are based on physical location. So, every single employee works, learns and communicates with people from 7 different countries that form their unit, chapter, team and project.

We try to have people interact with as many colleagues as possible and we look for ways to break silos that might naturally arise from a background, location and seniority perspective.

Getting people together does not solve problems on its own.

Of course, we have offices in most of our locations but this simply adds another dimension. Our main goal is to gather together people who share the same values and encourage them to interact with each other’s interpretation of these values as enriched by their cultural background.

Infinite Lambda was set up right before the pandemic. All of our processes, policies and ways of working have been set up from the beginning with a remote-first approach. We never had to quickly adapt to a fully remote working environment as many companies had to do and we thrived during the pandemic.

Of course, proximity helps a lot, especially when we face hard times with colleagues or stakeholders (let’s be honest, this happens from time to time). A friendly face-to-face coffee break with colleagues sometimes works better than any other medium. This is why we have offices in most of the cities where we have employees.

However, getting people together does not solve problems on its own. In the structure I shared with you, project teams and engineering teams cannot ever be coordinated by location and thus will never be geographically close to each other. This structure has been pivotal for our business strategy and we are keeping it in place.

We could have been looking at diversity as an issue in distributed teams that we needed to ameliorate, being constantly on the lookout for potential fragility. Instead, we decided to embrace it and use it to encourage interaction for naturally resilient teams glued together by infinite opportunities to explore new perspectives and learn about the wider world.

Challenges of managing culturally diverse teams

Of course, there are certain challenges even for an inherently distributed company. The first step to staying on top of these is to actually admit them and stay aware of them.

Language proficiency

English is the language we speak at work, although for many of us it is not a native tongue. Some of us have been living in English-speaking countries, some have learnt it at school. Many of the technical terms we use daily do not even exist in our native language but we use them confidently anyway.

Having the technical vocabulary, however, is not enough to ensure efficient communication, which on its part is a conditio sine qua non. The lack of English proficiency might easily create friction in communication and a limiting factor, especially if paired with personal attitudes.

Opening up

I have never liked generalising because of the risk of coming up with common denominators that many times do not exist. Within cultures, there are some common aspects that are quite visible, others a little less. And that is the beauty of it.

Some cultures have a higher propensity to share more than others or seek help, for example. Therefore, it takes effort to maintain awareness of whether the person you are talking to is comfortable, courage to admit that they are not and honest dedication to understand what would change that.

We know how different cultures perceive the working environment and the relationship with colleagues. Based on that, we all should be able to create a welcoming and caring environment for everyone we work with, right? If only.

Senior management needs to make sure people are assigned to the right reporting line. This could prove very challenging as many times the initial perception might be contradicted by what actually happens on a daily basis. And this could not have been anticipated precisely because generalising fails and opening up is a challenge.

Notions of seniority and growth

Pragmatic topics such as progression, remuneration and dedication to work are sometimes perceived differently by different cultures as well. This is a little trickier than the openness broached before as it directly relates to the vision that a person has about their own future.

The concept of seniority itself might be perceived in vastly different ways. This means that relationships with managers or senior leadership are difficult to streamline.

When it comes to notions of progression, things get the trickiest. On the one hand, leadership needs to ensure that everybody feels rewarded for their effort which might mean something completely different to different people. On the other hand, it is also paramount for leaders to ensure an unbiased, common ground for employees to measure growth which inherently means that everyone’s life at the company should be comparable from a progression standpoint regardless of cultural perceptions.

 

How to manage culturally diverse teams successfully?

There certainly are certain challenges but there is also one prerequisite to enabling mixed teams to work well together and that is efficient communication in all its shapes and forms.

So far, I have been fleshing out the challenges we face. I would also like to share what my experience has taught me about addressing them.

Assemble the right teams

The right attitudes to diversity go all the way back to getting the right people on the team. We often hear that we could keep either the relentless cultural expectations or the relentless technical requirements. Yet, practice shows we have never had to compromise and this pays in both the short and long run.

Cultural fit is one of the most important steps in our interviewing process. Being brilliant, clever and resourceful is essential but it is far from being enough. We also make sure people have the right attitude to clients, colleagues and partners and they can communicate that attitude to convey the company values efficiently.

Enable team members

We put a great deal of focus on initial attitude but we are also ready to help maintain it. Communication skills as any others can always be improved on in terms of language proficiency, approach and understanding of cultural nuances is crucial in international teams.

Language courses, communication training, coaching and DEI sessions are available to everyone in the company. Moreover, these are given equal priority to technical trainings because it is the mixture of culture and expertise that makes us who we are.

Be honest

If an organisation keeps the listen-monitor-act circle alive, there will always be challenges to address and oftentimes solutions might not be straightforward. Staying honest in the cultural discussion is always recommended but it is in these cases that one can tell if leaders really are.

When a leader cannot find an answer in well-shaped policies, they are left with no other choice but to use their judgement. Similarly, when an employee hesitates because of cultural differences, they need to seek clarity and are likely to follow the example of leaders.

The culture of honesty starts at the very top and affects literally everyone in a company of diverse teams. Incidentally, it is also the only way to make sure everyone is on the same page and that values are protected.

Cultural diversity is already ambiguous enough to have to deal with suppressed attitudes. Honesty is the only way to battle this ambiguity and offer leaders a realistic picture of how people actually feel.

Do not turn a blind eye

We all need to rely on each other in order to spot and address potential issues related to cultural diversity. Here, prevention requires leaders to move from a reactive to a proactive approach.

Learning from past experiences, creating a sharing-is-caring culture and maintaining awareness are all critical elements in anticipating issues.

It is equally important to consider the attitudes that people express. You cannot always prevent issues but you should definitely address them. Cultural diversity and awareness are only as wholesome as they are inclusive. So, when feedback is offered, leaders should embrace it and employees should be encouraged to do the same.

Stay curious

Listen-monitor-act is a cycle, a mindset and a never-ending exercise. If you want a sustainable approach to culturally diverse teams, stay curious about them.

Protecting cultural diversity is founded in a genuine interest in one another and respect for each other. Encourage teammates to learn about each other, gamify exchanges and make sure to express your appreciation when one is making an effort.

Managing expectations

Setting the right expectations is vital in literally all interactions, both internally with colleagues and externally with leads, partners, clients and the wider community.

This is not just so that the other party will know what we want them to do for us. When we know what is expected from us, we are able to anticipate and proactively take action. Cultural diversity makes no exception.

Being aware of other culture’s expectations towards us is also crucial because it actually helps us break away from the conventions that our own culture bestows on us. It fosters a wholesome, less biassed view of our own situation that makes intercultural communication even more enjoyable.

Conclusion

Saying that what we do is sufficient to overcome all issues related to cultural diversity would reek of hubris. Even just in terms of scale, teams keep growing, locations keep being added and there is always more we can do as an organisation.

Managing diverse teams is not easy; this should be quite clear by now. But the value you get in return when you look at how content people are is worth all the effort.

Regardless of structure, an organisation is a great place to work when one plus one equals more than two. But when they come from different cultures, it makes even more.

In my career, I learned that cultural diversity is not just a trendy notion to explore in the workplace. It really changes the way the brain works.

I would not have been the same person had I not been exposed to all of the cultures that crossed my path. And as a leader, I want to enable my team to take the full advantage of this exposure.

There is a marvellous world out there and being a part of it allows us to see a bigger picture. But we all need some help making sense of it and finding our way through it. We are all in this together; let’s keep talking, let’s keep exploring and let’s stay curious, so we can all enjoy this ride.

 

Visit the Infinite Lambda blog for more stories on team and culture and follow us on LinkedIn to keep up.

If you would like to be a part of a global team where you can be your true self, check out the career opportunities with us.

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