As any business expands — either domestically or internationally — it can be a challenge to maintain a consistent company culture. Communication might suddenly need to bridge time zones, and messages will need to stay consistent despite language or cultural barriers. An expansion can affect organizational design and the centralization of resources, potentially making employees feel detached.
International expansions are particularly tricky. With offices dotting the globe, executives lose the ability to have a personal relationship with each team member. This disconnect makes it challenging for leaders to develop credibility and ensure employees understand the reasoning behind corporate decisions and strategic initiatives. Open-door policies are tough to maintain, particularly because you can’t just drop by someone’s desk or office to check in. When employees are out of sight, they’re often out of mind.
Regardless of the reason for the expansion — whether through organic growth, the acquisition of an existing business in a new region, or building out a new team or office to serve a new market — it’s difficult to preserve a strong, consistent company culture. Effective communication is essential to overcoming any hurdles as your company grows.
The Consequences of Poor Communication
A communication breakdown can have detrimental effects on company culture, including disunity and distrust of leadership. These issues are problematic for any organization, but they can be particularly troublesome during an expansion.
Even the best intentions can quickly turn into messages of impending failure. I worked with one CEO whose communication flub ended up costing him dearly. He wanted to communicate a change in the company’s financial strategy to the team, but he decided to share that information via email. As soon as he hit “send,” the rumor mill began to churn.
The company was shifting resources to increase cash flow and become less reliant on credit, with the ultimate goal of ensuring the company’s financial stability and putting it in a better position for merging or acquiring other businesses. The short-term strategy required, however, that the company freeze budgets and hiring activity and embrace more conservative performance bonuses.
Naturally, the rumors were a lot juicier than reality. People questioned the company’s financial stability, speculating it was preparing for a hostile takeover. Others felt so anxious about the situation that they left the company. The entire organization was clouded in doubt, and the culture spiraled out of control — all because of one email.
The CEO tried to remedy the situation by traveling across the country to deliver his message in person — showing body language, emotion, compassion, and passion — at town hall meetings and through one-on-one conversations with staff in the field. Unfortunately, a lot of damage was already done, and insecurity was planted in the back of people’s minds. This was before the company had even expanded, but it was in the early stages of preparing for incredible growth.
The message could have been disseminated much more quickly and cheaply with quite a bit less heartache. Email might be a great tool for reaching people, but the one-way nature of the medium isn’t the most engaging format. To avoid spreading panic across the company, he could have used email coupled with other types of technology to speak directly with each employee about his strategy.
Tools to Preserve and Enhance Your Culture
With employees spread across multiple cities, countries, or continents, it can be a challenge to keep everyone on the same page. Beyond a unified company handbook, it’s critical to ingrain the company’s values, goals, and culture in every employee through regular communication and modeling: onboarding, newsletters, video updates, internal blog posts, team-building programs, and training.
Much of company culture is relational and based on good communication. It’s tricky to maintain any sense of solidarity among employees who rarely or never interact in person. It’s even more of a challenge if team members hail from different parts of the globe, as you have to account for different regional cultures and communication norms. Thankfully, modern technology can safeguard the way your team works together as you expand.
Some messages are better delivered in person (like my example above). When face-to-face can’t happen, the next best thing is videoconferencing. It allows people to put a face and personality to a name, pick up on nonverbal cues, and create personal connections. My company uses Zoom, but you could also try GoToMeeting, Skype, or Google Hangouts, among others. If one employee works remotely, everyone should call into a meeting virtually. Culture is about creating shared experiences.
2. Social Networking
Instead of only providing top-down communication, encourage employees to start a dialogue. Social networking and chat tools provide a great way for employees to interact with one another despite geographical differences. They allow workers to celebrate successes, create shared memories, and unify.
My company uses a tool called WeVue to post weekly updates, publicize birthdays across the company, and celebrate big wins for our teams. WeVue promotes culture through sharing pictures and videos of employees’ cultural experiences inside and outside of the office. You might also try Slack or creating internal Facebook pages for your organization.
3. Collaborative Tools
Workplace culture is partially a result of how work gets done. If you can find a way to work together — ideally in real time — you’ll inspire a culture of collaboration, patience, partnership, and coaching.
One tool we use is Google Docs, a service that stores and synchronizes files, allowing team members to collaboratively edit documents, forms, presentations, and more. We also use MindMeister, an online tool that allows multiple users to simultaneously capture, develop, and share ideas visually, enabling colleagues to brainstorm and plan projects regardless of location.
There’s one caveat: None of these tools is a panacea. You’ve probably already used some of these tools or at least heard of a couple. To be truly effective, they require leaders to encourage and reinforce their use — and to use the tools themselves.
So turn on your camera, drop your frequently used files into the cloud, and celebrate one another on social networks. Don’t rely on dated mediums such as email or the phone when another format would be more effective. The best tools in the world are useless if you avoid them. By successfully integrating collaborative technologies into your organization, your company culture can flourish — even across the world.
Interested in fostering a company culture rooted in employee engagement? Learn how engagement issues are a symptom rather than a problem, and discover why annual engagement surveys fall short. Download a free copy of the leader’s guide to employee engagement.
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