One Afternoon in Shanghai

by: Doug Michaelides

A common challenge for growing businesses is keeping their diverse locations working together effectively.  There are many barriers to collaboration between staff that are scattered all over the world:  culture, time zones and even language.  It’s particularly hard when a company grows through international acquisition and there isn’t even a shared corporate history to knit the organization together.

Often it falls to the regional offices to make the effort to stay connected to headquarters.  In my many years working for multi-national companies I have always had great respect for the herculean attempts made by staff in Asia to work effectively with the “mother ship” in North America.  Constant late-night conference calls after long days of work.  Calling in from vacations.  Suffering through long international flights to attend meetings.  All these on top of the challenge of working in the geographically enormous and culturally diverse business environment that is Asia.

That’s why I was so impressed by a recent initiative by one company’s Shanghai-based staff to help bridge the divide with their co-workers in Canada. In the words of the originator in Shanghai, “Communication barriers by different languages exist forever, however we never give up trying to understand others better!  As a global organization, how much we understand one another determines the efficiency of operations.  From our side, many people in Shanghai desire to know and understand the language and culture of foreign friends more and better, and we think one of the keys to improve this is to listen more.” His idea is brilliantly simple:  every time a colleague from North America arrives, the visitor is asked to deliver a short presentation to tell a story to local employees.

This voluntary program provides opportunities for Shanghai staff to learn the culture and language of their colleagues from North America.  Stories can be on any topic:  someone’s hometown, a festival or tradition, a favorite sport … whatever.  After spending 15 minutes talking, the presenter asks the audience three questions so they can work on their English speaking skills.

I give full credit to these employees for taking the initiative to improve their language skills and for developing a creative way to connect at a human level with their North American colleagues.  It says a lot about their enthusiasm, motivation and ambition.  I doubt a North American branch-office would do the same.

If your company has global offices, what are you doing to help bridge cultural, language and geographic gaps?  The first step might be as simple as telling a story.

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