The latest government figures tell us that nearly 6 million people from ethnic minority groups are currently employed in the UK. London alone is home to more than 270 nationalities and 300 languages, and a third of Londoners are now foreign-born. Many organisations also maximise digital technology to work across borders, with multinational teams hurdling time zones and cultural differences to collaborate on vital projects.
In simple terms, the world is smaller than it has ever been. But let’s be frank: managing a team can be hard enough when everybody is local and in a single office space. Working across language, cultural and national boundaries further complicates the task, and miscommunication can lead to a lack of coordination. So what do we gain from diversity, what are the key challenges when managing a global team, and how can we address them?
A workplace where I can be myself
Diversity is always front-of-mind in my role overseeing graduate recruitment for Amazon in Europe, the Middle East and Africa – not least because of my own background.
I was born in Swaziland, a country of one million people with the world’s highest estimated prevalence of HIV-infected adults (26% of people aged 15-49) and where the King, the world’s last absolute monarch, has 17 wives. My dad is white British; in his 20s, he drove all the way from Dorset to South Africa where he met my mum, a well-known singer from Soweto, who he charmed by speaking Zulu. Later on, my family lived on a farm with no electricity where we sold jam and bred trout. You might say that I had a privileged background in an underprivileged country, but when my parents got divorced and we moved to the UK with my mum, I began to realise how tough financially it was for her.
It wasn’t until I studied psychology at Warwick that I started to realise what diversity meant, and I started thinking about how I could create positive change for others. I loved Warwick, but I looked different and there was nowhere to get my hair done!
When I joined Amazon, it felt like an open place where I could voice my opinions and be a leader – a workplace where I could be myself. I travel for work to a lot to places like South Africa, Poland, Ireland, Berlin and the US, attracting and retaining the best graduates. I’m focused on recruiting students who meet our standards no matter their background. I’m also responsible for managing a diverse team of recruiters, co-ordinators and recruitment managers who inspire me every day with their ability to deliver results and provide an exceptional candidate experience. We encourage an open team culture where we listen to our whole team, regardless of role, and use feedback to improve processes. Some of our best ideas have come from the newest team members. I feel a team that is able to express themselves has a far better chance of success!
The business case for diversity
It’s important to define what we mean by ‘diversity’ and why it is desirable for a business. Diversity isn’t just what you see, and it does not refer exclusively to our familiar ideas around age, race or gender. It can be categorised in three ways: as inherent (traits you are born with), acquired (traits you gain from experience) and cognitive (differences in perspective).
The business case for diversity is now well established at boardroom level: in purely business terms, a diverse workforce provides a competitive advantage, and companies are more successful when they commit themselves to diverse leadership.
For a company like Amazon, diversity is also about encouraging people to think differently in order to keep the business vigilant to change. Innovation is crucial to our success and that process is more robust when a diverse range of voices can be heard around the table. At Amazon we have over 27,500 permanent employees in the UK and over half a million worldwide, so the biggest challenge is ensuring we have a workforce that shares core values.
Managing global teams effectively
It’s crucial that we foster an environment where we all learn from one another, respect other cultures, and build connections that improve collaboration. This is particularly true at Amazon, where we are obsessed with creating the best possible product for a global audience. A variety of perspectives helps us to overcome strategic and organisational challenges in order to compete in a globalised business environment – so we need those voices to be confident and comfortable when speaking up.
We apply our Leadership Principles across the organisation to help identify and manage employees who are best-placed to live and breathe our culture. We want staff (among other things) to Learn and Be Curious, Take Ownership, to Be Right A Lot, Earn Trust, have Bias for Action, Have Backbone to Disagree and Commit, and to Think Big. When managing a global team, an employee’s ability to Take Ownership, Learn and Be Curious are particularly relevant. Ownership is important when teams are co-ordinating projects globally, and natural curiosity is vital if we are to learn what has worked in other countries, while a bias for action enables us to replicate successful initiatives in local markets or globally.
One example of an initiative that was launched abroad and successfully replicated in the UK has been our company-wide Transgender Guidelines. The guidelines, covering topics such as the correct use of names and pronouns and restroom accessibility, were created in collaboration with employees from across our business with the aim of supporting transgender staff and their allies.
The guidelines were developed with the invaluable support of our LGBT+ employee affinity group, glamazon. Employee affinity groups are an excellent way to build bridges across an organisation. Groups like glamazon, the Black Employee Network and Women in Engineering help to support employees, while also tackling inequality by supporting and celebrating positive role models from minority groups.
On a day-to-day basis, an organisation’s ways of working can also dictate how effectively global teams perform. Sometimes organisations slip into bad habits that make this process harder. Social proximity, for example, is at the heart of any functioning team. Allowing unstructured time for teams to bond and chat can ensure everybody independently arrives at a common understanding. Mitigating social distance is a key challenge – and the solution often comes down to a clearly defined culture.
Similarly, making time to disagree and discuss constructively should be encouraged. Managers can take the heat out of these discussions by pre-empting interpersonal issues, setting up the meeting as an open discussion and modelling questions to be open-ended. Once these behaviours become habitual, they will help the team to make better decisions.
International teams may also struggle to translate cultural nuances. Managers can take the lead on this by slowing down their talking speed, using fewer idioms and slang terms, and pre-empting whether cultural references are appropriate. Actively seeking confirmation of understanding on all sides is also essential.
There are huge benefits of employing a globally diverse workforce and, in my opinion, the challenges of managing a global team can be overcome with clear ways of working, an intuitive and empathetic approach to management, and with time taken to mitigate social distance. Once an organisation gets this right, the creative and decision-making process will be better for everybody.
By Katie George, Head of EMEA Student Programs, Amazon