Why there should be such thing as a free lunch: lessons from 6 countries on workplace communication
Mark Ashworth, COO and CFO at Virti shares his international experiences on workplace communication, workplace perks and communications technology
Over the past 20 years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled all over the world for work: from Toronto to Tokyo, Berlin to Beijing and nearly everywhere in between. But along with a frequent flier card and an impressive collection of foreign loose change, my continental criss-crossing has given me the opportunity to pick up some valuable professional lessons.
Spending time with international colleagues in their places of work is the best way to gain an insight into each country’s unique office culture. Importantly, it’s also a great chance to learn what works (and what doesn’t) to facilitate effective communication and a strong culture within the company.
However, with recent travel restrictions set to have a lasting impact on the popularity of professional travel, it’s looking less and less likely that my younger colleagues will benefit from the same opportunities for cultural exchange that I did. And although I remain convinced that certain types of business travel will soon return, I’ll try my best to fill the hiatus by sharing my top takeaway lessons about workplace communication, each informed by my first-hand observations in different countries.
Why there should be such thing as a free lunch
Offering a free or subsidised lunch to employees is a commonly-followed German tradition intended to improve productivity and morale. But not only does it give busy workers one less thing to think about, this midday treat also does wonders for improving relationships and communication between colleagues.
By providing this food at a set time in a set place (e.g the office canteen from 12-1), the communal lunch is a time for team members to interact in an informal environment without hierarchy or expectations. When I attended these communal lunches in a German company, I was surprised to see people who’d been wrapped up in their own work all morning launch into a lively debate over the best sauces to compliment a hamburger. Lunch time creates the perfect space for colleagues to forge deeper connections with one another – whether this is over a mutual preference for pineapple on pizza or the chance discovery of a mutual friend – that will later enable more effective communication and collaboration on work-related projects.
If you are looking for low-investment high-return strategies to improve morale and relationships in your place of work, you should certainly try organising a once-a-week inclusive team lunch (you’ll most likely win some popularity points too).
When levelling the field, actions speak louder than words
Professional hierarchies are the enemy of effective communication. By putting emphasis on stratifications within the company – whether that be through clothing, privileges or office space allocation – invisible walls are put up that inevitably prevent the free flowing of conversation and ideas.
Whilst working in Sweden and Denmark, it very quickly came to my attention that egalitarianism was not just an empty buzzword in the workplace. The vast majority of Scandanavian firms are notable for their extremely loose hierarchies and the efforts put in by senior staff to integrate with their teams. By spending the majority of their time working directly alongside their more junior colleagues, and by proactively engaging with them on several levels, managers in Scandinavia are able to enjoy a productive and communicative relationship with their teams.
To encourage a sense of egalitarianism in your workplace, be the manager who isn’t too self-important to chat to the interns, who doesn’t hide in their private office and who shows up to the leaving drinks. By setting this example, the rest of the team should follow suit in rejecting unhelpful hierarchical restraints.
Challenge ideas, not people
When you ask someone why they are nervous about contributing ideas or suggesting initiatives in the workplace, it’s likely that they’ll confess to feeling nervous about receiving a negative reaction from bosses or colleagues. And with good reason – everyone’s felt the stomach-twisting shame that comes from being criticised.
However, it struck me that in Russia (and in most of the Baltic states), workers have no qualms about offering up their ideas to senior colleagues. On asking a member of the Russian team why this was, they explained that junior staff members receive respect for volunteering their suggestions, rather than judgement for speaking outside of their remit. Ideas are evaluated in isolation, wholly detached from the person who contributes them, meaning that any criticism of the idea is not taken as a personal affront that risks damaging relationships or breaking down channels of communication between colleagues.
Invest in technology to break down barriers
Having spent long stretches of time working in the US, it’s clear that the enthusiastic adoption of tech-enabled communication tools is an important factor behind the global success of many American companies. Although in the past it was not unusual for interactions between colleagues to be blocked by protocols or PAs, instant messaging and video calling tools have forged new, direct channels through which communication can flow.
From Zoom to Slack and Microsoft Teams, it’s the norm for even the smallest companies to leverage these home-grown tools to their full advantage. On account of the scale of the country, Americans are well used to successfully navigating dispersed workforces and remote working; those nations who are newer to the challenges ought to take heed of the American example.
The takeaway lesson here is that investment in communication technology – whether that be digital messaging tools, virtual reality conferencing platforms or project collaboration software – ought to be a non-negotiable for businesses. To drive success in a workplace and business landscape that is increasingly dispersed and online, team members must be equipped with the latest tech tools to work in a streamlined and effective way with others – especially when working remotely.
Nobody’s perfect: but we can all learn from one another
I’ll end this piece with a caveat: there’s no such thing as the ‘perfect’ strategy that will guarantee gold-standard communication in the workplace. No one country has hit the nail on the head, and the peculiarities of cultural variation mean that certain techniques are better or worse suited to certain communities of people. However, by watching, listening to and learning from our international friends, we should all find something, however small, that we can try to replicate in our own teams and workplaces. Your company’s strength lies in its people, and when these people can share and work together then this strength evolves into more than the sum of its parts.