What are the highs and lows of working in an international team? Christa, the Team Lead People Experience at InterNations, talks about intercultural misunderstandings and innovating forces in the diverse melting pot that is InterNations.
1. At InterNations, 100 employees with 40 different nationalities work remotely from 11 countries. What are the benefits of such an international team?
Diversity makes us more open minded and more likely to consider other perspectives. We’re all aware that there’s more than one way of looking at things. This encourages teamwork and creates a positive atmosphere.
Having an international team also fosters innovation. Some companies might have an attitude that I’d like to describe as: “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it, so why should we change it?”
But at InterNations, everyone has a different way of doing things. We then discuss and try to find common ground to get the best results. Everybody gets a say, whether they’re one of our interns or one of our CEOs. They’re all an integral part of our company and contribute to our success. This keeps us open to change.
2. Are there also any risks to working in this kind of team setup?
Of course, the fact that team members come from many different cultural backgrounds means there can be friction. We all want to make progress and get the best results, but there are obviously many ways of reaching the same goal. That’s why finding common ground can be challenging sometimes.
For example, I’m pretty straightforward, in a stereotypically German way. If there’s an issue I would like to address, I will try to settle the matter as quickly as possible. Other people prefer a more subtle communication style where you need to read a bit more between the lines. To them, my communication style might come across as impolite, despite my best intentions.
On top of that, most of us work from home. In a remote setting, you need to make more of a conscious effort to reach out and establish a connection. And technology can create more opportunities for misunderstanding. The way you write an email or start a conversation in the company chat might cause trouble because the degree of politeness or directness is not what was expected.
3. Many of our team members have lived abroad, and so have you. As a young German woman, you studied in Paris. Has your international experience turned you into a better employee?
Absolutely! I believe it has even made me a better person. When I arrived in Paris, I didn’t know the city or anyone living there. It was challenging at times, but it was also an amazing experience.
I was very curious about French culture. Learning the language helped me meet and make friends with people from France, from several African countries, and from all around the world.
I began to appreciate the various backgrounds and traditions of the people I met. And I found out firsthand how overwhelming it can feel to be alone in a foreign country. Above all, I learned the importance of showing empathy for people from different cultures. These skills are useful now that I’m working in the field of HR.
All this was also what attracted me to the job at InterNations in the first place. Our company mission is to make expat life a great experience. Living in France made me realize how important this is. I would’ve loved to have a community like InterNations when I was feeling homesick in Paris all those years ago.
4. Some people claim that taking the non-traditional path of working abroad could harm your career. What would you reply to them?
I would definitely disagree. I find it hard to believe that anyone thinks you need to stay in a single place to advance your career. In fact, I would recommend working abroad to everyone, at least for a while. You should experience living abroad once in your life. It will broaden your horizons and open up new perspectives.
And we’re now living in such a globalized world! Thanks to modern technology, we can stay in touch or work remotely from another country. The COVID-19 pandemic closed down borders for a time. But it has also sped up these kind of virtual connections. These days, physical distances mean next to nothing.
5. Does InterNations as an expat community specifically benefit from the team’s diversity?
Our team’s diversity is in line with our mission. InterNations wants to make expat life a great experience. We’re all about bringing people together and connecting global minds. This is what’s at the core of our business. As our team is so international, we can all personally identify with this.
When we host job interviews, candidates often tell us: “Yes, we’ve already heard of InterNations. We love it, it’s such a nice way to get connected.” You don’t have to convince anyone of the company’s value first.
I get the impression that the number of these candidates has even increased lately. Since we started hiring for remote positions, we’ve met more candidates who already know InterNations and have attended some of our events.
Our diversity also makes us more valuable and authentic to our members. They feel understood by our team members, who have all had experience as expats themselves. Our employees know firsthand about the benefits and the challenges of living abroad.
6. What advice would you give to other companies who want to recruit internationally?
When you’re looking to recruit a new team member, be open minded and focus on soft skills. Especially on emotional intelligence and people skills. They’re at least as important as academic qualifications and professional expertise. That way, you’re more likely to find someone who will fit in well.
I’d say you might want to emphasize team compatibility as much as career background. During the interview process, we also screen for cultural fit. We want to gain a better understanding of an applicant’s personality and their core values.
And you should give your team members enough opportunities to get to know each other better. That’s why we added a short introduction to intercultural communication to the welcome sessions for our newcomers. There, we briefly explain some of the most important differences between communication styles. For example, direct vs. indirect communication. We also encourage our new colleagues to share their personal stories with us. This session is usually well received because it’s very interactive.
I think there’s still plenty of room here for us to grow as a company. But we’re definitely off to a good start.
Image Credit: Canva/InterNations