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Understanding Sociocultural Differences When Outsourcing to an Offshore Team

April 24, 2017 Claire Ponsaran
Understanding Sociocultural Differences When Outsourcing to Offshore Staff

Working with someone who’s thousands of miles away, however, presents several challenges that you’ll need to overcome if you wanted to take advantage of outsourcing and global collaboration. One of those challenges is understanding the sociocultural differences between you and your remote staff.

If you have employees in your domestic office working with your offshore staff, then there’s greater urgency to overcome sociocultural barriers as soon as possible. Misunderstandings may arise and there will be trust issues. These will affect the team’s performance and the quality of their work.

One’s Age and Authority May Influence How Others Communicate with You

Americans and Europeans do not use honorifics when talking to older people and those of a different gender. But, Asians do. When you’re outsourcing to the Philippines, the honorifics for an employer-employee relationship are usually restricted to your staff calling you sir or ma’am as a sign of respect and in deference to you as a figure of authority. Those who are new to outsourcing will find this strange, funny or awkward. After all, the only ‘sirs’ you know are British men who have been knighted by the monarchy.

It’s also common for team members who are younger to defer to their older co-workers on a personal level. They address them as ‘kuya’ or ‘ate’ in Tagalog, and ‘manong’ or ‘manang’ in Hiligaynon. These honorifics signify a difference in age, but it’s not about authority.

A young executive may have a higher position than the elderly custodian in the office, but the former will always address the latter in a respectful way as either ‘kuya’, ‘tiyo’ or ‘tatay’ depending on the age difference. These terms are usually reserved for family members, but they’re also used in reference to people whom we consider a part of our extended circle.

Gender Issues Exist But They Can Be Avoided

With regards to gender, there is little difference between Americans and Filipinos in the way they interact with their female coworkers. Men generally show respect and kindness towards women, and they can be very protective of women close to them. However, sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the Philippines are just as prevalent as in the United States and in other countries. Nobody can say this happens frequently in this country more than in others.

When you’re outsourcing to the Philippines, don’t let this kind of behavior ruin an otherwise good business. Implement policies that protect women in the workplace. And, be proactive in nurturing a corporate culture that promotes gender sensitivity and equality in the workplace.

Some Things are Lost in Translation

Most Filipinos grew up listening to music, watching movies, and reading books in English. Yet, only a small portion of the population can clearly and fluently speak English. Even then, fluency is not a guarantee that ESL speakers will have the creative insight to detect the subtleties of the English language. Some Filipinos are frequently stumped by uncommon idioms, obscure pop culture references, the use of euphemisms, and sarcasm.

When you’re delivering your instructions or you’re simply goofing off and socializing with your Filipino staff, speak plainly and clearly. Be patient whenever your staff would ask you questions after you’ve just told them in simple English what they needed to know. Use idioms sparingly, and if you have to, stick to common phrases that everyone can understand.

A Filipino’s Concept of Time is Circular

Punctuality is a problem in the Philippines. It’s a bad habit that’s been ingrained in the Filipino psyche. Our temporal orientation follows a circular pattern. We’re always thinking we can move the event a half hour later or we can postpone it tomorrow. But, there’s a weakness to this concept. It does not take into account the consequences of moving an event or task to another time or date.

In this way, Filipinos don’t care much about the past or the future. Our decision-making process is influenced by two concepts in economic theory:

Temporal discounting (or time preference) refers to “our tendency to want things now rather than later.” We prefer “immediate but modest rewards” instead of “future but sizeable rewards.” Remember the Marshmallow Test? We would be absolute failures. Like we wanted the Change marshmallow — and, boy oh boy, did we get it.

Temporal myopia is “the inability to consider the long-term outcomes of an action when making a choice.” This myopia is most evident in our voting choices at election time. With rare exceptions, the Executive, Cabinet, and Congress would make a complete rogues’ gallery.

To make this work for you in outsourcing, establish a fixed schedule for all your meetings and allow your staff to adjust their work schedule around that day and time. Only do surprise meetings when they’re necessary and urgent. Other people may think that impromptu meetings will ensure the attendance of everyone, but this will not establish a habit among your staff. The idea is to establish a pattern and teach your staff to respect that pattern. Schedules are sacred and must remain so until there’s an emergency or one of your staff calls in sick.

Be Gentle with Your Criticisms

Most Filipinos try to avoid getting into a conflict with a coworker and most definitely not with their boss. And, they don’t really deal well with criticisms. It’s a direct blow to their ego. Their sense of self is intertwined with how they think other people see them. Like other Asians, keeping their honor or maintaining a facade is important to them.

When delivering feedback regarding job performance, keep everything confidential just between you and your staff. Schedule a video call or send a recorded video or audio where you deliver the news with a calm and friendly tone. When you simply send an email, the entire context and tone may be misconstrued and become lost in translation. This is also where your account manager or team leader can help you in delivering the evaluation and in rephrasing your words in a way that your staff won’t misinterpret.

There’s Room for Growth

In outsourcing, clashes between different cultures are inevitable. A cross-cultural work environment pushes you and your staff to learn how to get along despite your differences.

Technology has made it easier for employers to find the most qualified people for remote work. By the same token, it has expanded our knowledge of the world. A few clicks and we find information about each other’s culture. Using technology, we can find ways to communicate openly and without hesitation, thereby stripping barriers to working comfortably with one another in a collaborative workspace.

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