When Different Work Cultures Come Together on a Team
by Jessamyn Burns WendellNovember 7th, 2003
Melding “Their” Work Style with “ours”
Why it matters:
- Successful designs are a team effort
- More and more teams are cross-functional, cross-company, and even across multiple companies—each of which may have its own culture
- When different cultures come together we need ways to actively prevent possible collisions and get the best of all world
I recently finished working on a design project with what we call a “hybrid” team — two InContext team members with two employees from our client company. We know that some of you are also working on teams that represent different work cultures or otherwise struggle to work closely with someone really different from you. You might even wonder if it’s possible to do so successfully. Not only is it possible, it’s actually a bit of fun. Melding two cultures into a team can take work at times, but the stellar results make any struggles worth it.
Two cultures means two different perspectives, which of course can only add to the depth and breadth of your design ideas and solutions. Although my story involves the coming together of two different companies, there can be cultural differences inside a company between different work groups. For example, the “developer culture” can be very different from the “marketing culture.” Or, in an environment with West Coast and East Coast offices, even though everyone works for the same company the work cultures within the two offices can be quite different.
The trick to avoiding problems and creating a strong, dynamic team environment is first figuring out you have the potential for conflict. In order to avoid conflict and mesh together as a team keep the following in mind as you build and develop your cross-culture team.
Get to know each other
At the beginning of the project get to know each other’s work cultures.
- Talk about how each group works, explore each other’s habits and styles
- Talk about work ethics, company expectations
- Find out what hours everyone prefers to work. Decide as a team if you are going to be 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. type employees
- Talk about your deadline and expectations for the project; try to get everyone on the same page
Realize that you can adjust the schedule
Be prepared to re-work your schedule while maintaining your commitment to your deadline.
- Make sure there is room in your day-to-day schedule to accommodate the inevitable changes, like when an interviewee cancels or someone gets sick.
- Be as flexible as possible when planning interviews and interpretation sessions.
- If you are the workaholic and you are planning the project schedule, know going into it that you may slide a morning, an afternoon, a day, and don’t get mad when your team pushes back against a driving pace.
- If you aren’t a workaholic and you’re in charge of scheduling the project, plan intermediate deadlines for yourself and the rest of your team. Use these intermediate points to drive your project to completion.
- Remember time zone differences and people’s different work schedules as well as after-hour commitments — they’re not going to change for you, nor you for them, so compromise is the way to effective teamwork and a strong sense of camaraderie.
Recognize that some people will get more work done than others
Meeting your project deadline can only happen if you and your team make the most of the resources your have available to you.
- Most deliverable schedules are tight. Divide your labor wisely.
- Discover who can put in extra hours and take advantage of their willingness to do so.
- Pair people together who are willing and able to push through together on a big piece of the project.
Understand that a gentle nudge is never a bad thing
During the middle days of a project, staying on task and on schedule can be a very difficult thing to do. We all need to be encouraged to re-focus and keep working.
- Remember not to push too hard. You want to motivate yourself and your teammates; you don’t want to incite a revolt.
- Recognize the early signs of project burnout — if you are able to, ease off the pace. Do six interviews in a week rather than eight if you only have four team members.
- Work with each other and remember there is always a way to get the work done in the allotted time.
The key to making it through a project without any major issues is to watch yourselves and how you are treating each other.
- If someone on the team is struggling, pick up the slack
- Watch out for culture shock. Talk to and learn from each other when you start to rub each other the wrong way or find yourself stuck in process conversation and not productive work.
- For those of you with a better work-life balance; be as flexible as you can, make an effort for those of us who have none. Don’t let yourself get resentful or feel like you aren’t doing enough.
We recently had a client who was worried we were working too hard — we unknowingly caused them a great amount of stress. What we didn’t do was to explain to them how we work and that we know when to ask for help or scale back our schedules. It wasn’t until the end of the project that we found out just how worried they had been; we should have been talking to each other more.
Use your process checks
By talking to each other you can identify issues and work to bring the team in balance. The process check meeting is a useful tool to uncover work and interpersonal issues within the team. Schedule the process check meeting for each week in order to catch problems before they escalate. Limit the meeting time to one hour so it stays a focused, constructive meeting. The process check has four parts:
Review the previous week’s work
As a team, talk about what the team did in the last week. Start with discussing and writing down what worked well this week. After you have finished listing your positive items, move on to listing what didn’t work throughout the past week (i.e., are interpretation sessions taking too long? Are there interpersonal issues to address? Have you been arguing with each other?).
Identify short-term issues and solutions
When you have finished listing all of your negative issues, move on to identifying the specific issues each is related to, and come up with design ideas to overcome the negatives:
- Identify specific parts of the process that failed to work as expected
- Discuss the people issues. Is everyone involved? Is there a good balance of work between work together and apart?
- Do an emotional process check and have the team members rate how they are doing on a scale of 1-10 with one being calm and ten being stressed to the max
Identify long-range issues and solutions
Identify any issues that need to be addressed as the project moves forward beyond the next week. Determine what if any outside help the team needs to resolve these issues.
Plan for the next week
Discuss as team the work that needs to be accomplished in the next week. Talk about the next phase of the project and make sure that everyone is aware of what they need to be doing in the immediate future.
Going into the project, both sides knew that we’d have to think about how to work together, especially since we were working as a distributed team across three states and two time zones. I’m happy to report that our project resulted in an amazingly successful deliverable. We came together as a team that was highly motivated to produce a fabulous design and to learn as much from each other as we possibly could, and we did.
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