HR Leads Business

Mar 22, 2021 | Amine Issa Jr., PHR, GPHR, HRCI Senior Director Business and Customer Operations

Preparing to Manage a Global Workforce

Appealing to a global market has never been more vital to a company’s success. And to thrive in a global market, you need a global workforce.

The business case for diversity is compelling. A McKinsey study found that in 2019, companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity outperformed companies in the fourth quartile by 36% in profitability. The 2020 Global Employee Survey from Globalization Partners reveals that the state of the global workforce is promising, but there’s still a lot of progress to make: 90% of global employees rate their companies as diverse, but 30% say they don’t have a sense of inclusion or belonging.

More than ever, organizations need global HR leaders who can foster healthy multicultural workplaces and manage workers across the globe. Here’s how to manage your global workforce.

Prioritize Intercultural Competence

Cultural competence is vital to creating a functional global workforce. It fosters healthy dialogue and self-awareness among team members. “Improving cultural competency in the workplace can improve your productivity and performance and will create harmony between teams,” says Ismail Afify, SPHRi, senior HR and talent management consultant at the Dar Al Riyadh Group. “Gaining cultural competency is a lifelong process which will increase self-awareness and develop social skills and behaviors around diversity.” Even domestically based companies should adopt cultural competency, he says, since they’re likely to deal with international companies.

Foster cultural intelligence among employees. They should appreciate that their worldview isn’t the only one, and approach their peers from other cultures with an open mind. “We have to recognize that it goes beyond the superficial,” says Ruchi Jalla, GPHR, vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer at BAE Systems. She notes that pre-pandemic, in meetings we may have focused on exchanging proper greetings within a culture, for example. “It's deeper than that,” she continues. “It's, how do you make decisions? What's your communication style?” Equip your managers operating in different cultures with the knowledge they need to navigate cultural nuances.

Without a comprehensive understanding of different cultures, you run the risk of increased bias within policies, processes and employee interactions. International mobility can help bring up each office’s cultural proficiencies to a base level. Once employees are used to being exposed to and working alongside people who are different, they will become more self-aware.

All employee processes, like new-hire assessments, must be designed with a global workforce in mind. Be aware of different cultural significance and language that may not translate effectively. Global certification, like the Global Professional in Human Resources® (GPHR®), can help prepare you for various work styles and cultural differences in workplaces across the globe.

Balance Standardization with Customization

Global workforces present a challenge when developing a standardized employee culture and experience while also allowing individual locations to express their own unique culture. “Build a unique culture which is geography-neutral within an organization and onboard employees into that culture,” suggests Venkatesh Palakkad, SPHR, GPHR, aPHRi, principal consultant and business head for the Middle East at RAB HR. Start with a shared mission, vision and values. Define these concepts, but invite feedback from individual locations regarding their applicability or relevance.

Remember that the needs of each location will differ, too. “A multidimensional perspective is really key,” says Vladimir Dziak, GPHR, SPHRi, head of global mobility at Liberty Mutual. “You can bring that expertise from a different culture, and that can actually help the workforce to understand some of the policies, creating balance between standardization and a local perspective.”

A very dispersed global company could be operating in vastly different markets across the world. Because of this variance, different locations need to prioritize different initiatives. Employee engagement is always vital, for instance, but an office in a market with several competitors for your top talent must make engagement a top priority, Afify points out. Establish a baseline culture from your shared mission, vision and values, but allow for regional differences and preferences.

Define a Shared Set of Concepts

The most effective way to establish a baseline workplace culture in a global workforce is to define some core concepts. These should dictate decisions across all of your branches. For example, what does employee engagement look like in each level or location? “Is it based on how well we are collaborating? How happy we are? Whether we’re meeting our production goals?” asks Bhushan Sethi, partner and joint global leader of people and organization at PwC. “How we define engagement differs by function and department, even within organizations.”

Dziak suggests looking to the nine HR competencies, especially the core drivers, as a model for HR’s conceptual framework. “HR professionals need to really educate themselves and broaden their horizons,” Dziak says. Start by tapping into your community of colleagues, and have conversations with other HR professionals in your company. “That's critical because ultimately the folks in a different region might have a deeper insight into what's going on that we do not see at the corporate level, and vice versa,” he continues. One competency is paradox navigator, which doesn’t always result in a solution but does require a broad understanding of the elements that go into making a decision.

If you haven’t already, start by defining your philosophy and processes around data protection. Some countries have not yet passed legislation covering data usage. Europe is governed by the General Data Protection Regulation, which can provide a starting point for your data protection philosophy.

Certification is valuable in helping you define concepts. You don’t have to know every country’s labor laws to pass the three international certifications offered by HRCI. The exams assess your understanding of basic employment law concepts and that you can navigate those concepts confidently

“HRCI and professional certification are very important,” Afify says. “It will promote awareness, increase the learning of the HR professional to manage cultural differences and training requirements, and to understand the different payment structures for different countries.”

Prepare for Remote Work Without Borders

The pandemic-driven shift to remote work has opened up more expansive talent pools for companies already embedded in countries worldwide. “We've seen tons of companies announce that they're not coming back to an office environment,” Jalla says. This might result in a sense of isolation for employees working remotely apart from their colleagues, which could be amplified in a global workforce. Build engagement activities into your routine.

“Engaging high-performing employees, especially if they are working remote, is increasingly becoming an art which needs to be mastered and honed on a continuous basis,” Palakkad says. “Using virtual interaction, engagement-building tools and regularly maintaining contact with employees through virtual means is something which needs to be properly strategized and planned.” Make time for employees to get to know each other, and don’t lose sight of the person behind the screen, says Sumayya Essack, owner and coach at Curate the Future LLC.

Make sure remote employees have all the tools they need to feel connected to the larger organization. This might extend to providing technology or covering the cost of a coworking space for employees who live in a remote location with low internet access. In India, for example, multi-family homes are common, and if multiple people are sharing the same home internet connection, available bandwidth can become an issue.

Be sure that you arrange meetings within timeframes when everyone can attend, and if the time difference is significant, rotate who meets outside of their regular work hours.

Any company can hire international talent, of course, but navigating legal, tax and benefit requirements can make compliance challenging for a small company. The cost of establishing a full-time remote employee in another location could outweigh the benefits that an employee brings to the table. Consider common HR metrics and key external factors, such as political, economic and sociological realities, as you determine your remote work strategies.

Lead Your Global Workforce With Empathy

Don’t lose sight of the individuals in your workforce. Put processes in place for managers to probe employee needs, whether it’s a better internet connection or a more forgiving schedule. “Let others be honest about what they need,” Jalla says. “You can't think about things in a one-size-fits-all mindset in the same country, let alone globally.” Create channels for employees to actively participate in developing solutions to problems facing the company. This might look like group meetings at the local level, with innovations cascaded up to corporate.

“There’s no substitute for good leadership and empathy,” Sethi says. Don’t tolerate non-inclusive behaviors: Ensure fair, consistent treatment. Examine how your processes and policies affect workers of color and other minorities. Make this a priority in the boardroom, and cascade the initiative down to daily interactions.

“This is something that HR can take the lead on, but it can’t be improved solely by HR,” Essack says. “It takes leaders at all levels getting involved, and each individual contributor also has their role to play.” Listen to what your workforce is saying now and begin to design policies around how to optimize engagement across your global workforce.