Archive for July, 2008
I heard an interesting phrase recently which refers to NRIs as the coconut generation — brown from the outside and white inside!
Is there a lesson here for us to be prepared for interactions with this new category of customer?
As the world gets smaller and India booms, a new breed of bosses and managers is on the rise — the non-resident or returning Indian.
During the course of my journey at Global Adjustments, journalists have often asked me about the NRIs among my clients and their readjustment problems. I have also often heard in our industry of relocation, realty and expat services, the constant complaint: “NRIs are harder customers than total foreigners moving to our shores!”
A dialogue I had in the US last week made me wonder what that perception may be due to.
I called up an NRI, whose contact I had been given by a friend in India, to see if I could get some phone or live input on connections to be made in her area. The dialogue went like this:
Me: Hi! I am a friend of Ashok and Manju, they gave me your number as I am visiting New York. But I am not sure this is a good time to talk?
NRI: Actually it is not, I am on my way to a meeting, but what is this about?
Me: Well, it was just to get some information from you; I do have time till Saturday. Would you know about xyz department in your University, for me to speak with someone.
NRI: There is no department of that name. People are very busy here and you can’t meet them in two minutes or even two days. Anyway, why don’t you call me at 1 or 1.15?
Me: Hello again, it is 1.15 and I am calling back, but don’t know if it is busy for you please?
NRI: You can speak. So how do you know Ashok? What do you do? How come you have been invited to this meeting in Harvard? … There is no such department but maybe you can talk to Professor abc who can tell you more.
Me: Okay, I will meet up with him in the University.
NRI: As I said, we are very busy here in America — I know you are very busy in India too — we can’t just drop everything to see you…
The conversation ended with the NRI offering to meet me at a later date, but I never called back.
Being busy is fine. Saying you are busy is also okay.
But saying things like “we can’t just drop everything”, “you can’t expect to see someone in two minutes or two days” are not useful to anyone, are they?
I ran this whole conversation by an American woman with whom I had a dinner meet that night. I asked her if it was me as an Indian who was being sensitive and how she felt about the whole exchange. She clearly termed it an offensive exchange, and said there was no need to be so abrasive.
Being direct is a great thing to learn from the West — it is necessary for survival. But, isn’t being blunt bordering on hurtful? I wonder if we should thicken our skin or tighten our tongue. Both can’t hurt.
Anyway here are a few things that Indian managers and returning Indian managers would do well to remember:
Don’t take it personally
He or she is most probably reacting to a situation and isn’t doing it deliberately to hurt us — if they knew better they would have stopped short. Neither is the NRI deliberately being demanding (he has become used to more rushed, organised Western ways) nor is the Indian deliberately ripping you off (he is managing under circumstances where not everything is under his control)
Do realise there is background
There is a cause for each person’s behaviour. You may not understand it always but just be aware there is one.
The need to be direct or explicit against the need to preserve relationships are both important for the NRI’s survival; he could be wearing one or the other hat depending on the circumstance.
The Indian too could see him simply as wearing the ‘other’ hat.
Look out for body language or stony silences. It is possible to avert faux pas and hurt this way. All this is simply a case of tuning in and being more mindful.
|Netizens: Dispersed across geographical locations, virtual teams lack synergy.|
Today, more than ever before, the work environment is virtual. The globalisation of trade and industry is resulting in the growth of geographically dispersed teams that work across time zones, space and all possible boundaries.
India as the lead offshore destination is directly concerned with this phenomenon. Low labour costs and talent access have helped keep the country high on the BPO radar. But how prepared are we to continue to lead in this domain? Our global ambitions could be eroded if we do not address the ‘soft skills challenge’ for it takes but an ant to trouble an elephant.
So what are the real challenges that we face in a virtual work environment? We have identified three factors that exacerbate the efficiency of virtual teams. These are discussed below:
For most virtual teams, English is the second language (ESL); its comprehension can often be exhausting. Global Adjustments in its training interactions has found that for those for whom English is not the mother tongue, communicating through e-mail is often preferred to direct phone interactions. The possibility of confirming and of cross-checking with more experienced colleagues makes e-mail a vital tool in cross-cultural ESL communication. However, there is often friction between the direct and the indirect communication styles, with Indians preferring to first give context and then come to the point, whereas Western communication generally comes to the point, giving context if required. Consider this e-mail:
I need this document. Send this to me today please.
Many such e-mails seem offensive and blunt to us. ‘Dear Sheela’ is less abrasive and the ‘thanks and regards,’ with which we often end our e-mails, although a mere formality, seems respectful and less of an order.
Another classic direct communication statement which frequently raises our hackles is “Does this make sense” whereas we would tend towards the more polite and indirect “If you need any clarifications please do get back to me…”
Virtual teams are often bereft of important information contained in the non-verbal, and need to therefore over communicate rather than under communicate. The use of simple, clear structures; active verbs rather than the passive; and the repetition of key ideas and concepts can ensure accurate interpretation among members of a virtual team.
We have identified ‘cultural interference’ as the critical factor along with communication in the successful working of virtual teams. Team synergy often gets diluted when work spans global borders. Virtual teams are not the close-knit, family-like structures co-located teams are, especially in India. They are task-focused and relationships are incidental, especially since changes in tasks and roles is frequent and flexibility of utmost importance.
Consider this example: Europe is notorious for its personal and professional divide. In India, these overlap easily and weekends are not out of bounds for work. In Europe, generally, weekends are sacrosanct. “They disturb us when they need to, but we cannot disturb them during the weekend,” is a reproach we hear often enough.
The interpretation of organisational processes differs from location to location. The reporting structure is often very dispersed and you can have a team member in Bangalore reporting to someone in Geneva. This dispersed hierarchy can heighten the sense of isolation, not because one is unable to adapt to new technologies or understand a new assignment, but because the sense of trust and relationship is lacking. We Indians thrive on relationships and the task is inherent.
So what are the ‘soft’ strategies to work effectively in virtual teams? Some that we have found effective are:
The need to understand the culture and lifestyle of team members located across the globe. Sharing the inconvenience of conference calls at odd hours so that members feel valued and respected is one such example.
The need to pay attention to both the task and team dynamics.
The need to clarify roles, processes and reporting lines.
The need to inform all members of progress on a project so that they have a shared vision and purpose.
Build trust and nurture relationships.
Be aware of the challenges of using English as a second language.
The virtual work environment is here to stay. It’s how real we can make it that matters.