Could your company culture survive a foreign language?

The new wave of design and development companies are basically all about culture. Their whole identity, what they are and want to be, is based on shared values, norms and the way of viewing the world. Not only do these companies involve people in all of their decision-making, they also create and renew their vision through social interaction. The culture is construed and renewed in social encounters through language, Denken ist Sprechen. This also applies to micro cultures such as work communities.

But how do companies manage, when pressure comes to change the language?

Out of ‘local’ and into ‘international’

Leadin was still an infant company when we agreed our strategy to become an internationally significant UX agency. We were only about 10 people in the small town of Tampere, Finland, but many of us had our professional background in global companies. We saw that the business for high-end UX services in Finland was going to be limited, and we were not the only ones out there. So we would be better off looking at the bigger markets outside our national borders. The collaboration with our international clients had given us very positive indications that we have something unique to offer. We were hungry to get ourselves out of exclusively ‘local’ and into ‘international’.

First, we started a more active collaboration with the non-Finnish branches of the international client companies we already had. Then we got our first “real” foreign client through the traditional way (you know someone who introduces you to someone else who realises that you are offering something valuable, and off you go), then we got the second, then the third. It started to make sense to set up our first office outside of Finland, close to the client. Once our UK office was established we soon started to find ways to utilise our multisite presence as an asset that adds value to our clients in all locations. For example, as we now have offices in Finland, the UK and Germany, we can repeat a user study in three countries and three languages without hiring an external research agency to support us. All of a sudden we realised that we actually, REALLY had become an international company.

A common company language

Today Leadin operates in four countries. Our staff represent about ten nationalities from Brazil to China and from Denmark to the USA. We speak almost ten different languages, but English is the one that’s common to all.

At a certain point, companies have to ask themselves which one is more important: The culture built on communication in the local language or the opportunities provided by international clients and more diverse markets. Being inclusive to international employees, clients and partners requires you to be able to communicate with them fluently in a language they feel familiar with. You don’t set up a site abroad without an explicit or implicit take on how to deal with the language. But how would foreign employees and language affect the company culture? Turning all speech and writing into a non-native language challenges the very fundaments of the company and community.

Respect people and listen

So what would be the impact? Could we survive? That question can sound intimidating, but the answer is revealing: If everyone’s on board, changing the language actually does not weaken the culture, it strengthens it. You’re going to be well off simply by being faithful to the values you already have. Respect people, listen to them, give them the power to find their own way.

For Leadin this happened somewhat naturally. Getting the first non-Finnish employee on board was, and was not a big change. It was a big change because we had to wipe away the rust from our English small talk skills. It was not a big change because we had already practised our English skills with some of our clients and in other contexts. Everyone in Finland speaks ‘ok’ English, even those who think they don’t. What has become evident, however, is that the pros of adopting English as our company language have exceeded the cons by a million times!

It’s all positive!

Here are just some of the advantages: We are more alluring than other companies for non-native employees in our country, who may be for example university graduates with huge potential, but no access to the local job market because of the language handicap. We can offer international careers to our team. If someone doesn’t want to relocate, we can offer them natural situations to practice their language skills in their current location. This builds self-confidence for social situations. We can all learn from different cultures, and expand our understanding of the world around us. And business-wise: We are more capable of understanding clients and partners from different cultures, and we understand how to do business with them.

I am often asked the question about how foreign employees and language has affected our company culture. My answer: It’s all positive! Cultural diversity opens viewpoints and opportunities you wouldn’t even have thought about, without taking anything away from what you already had. The change is easier than you would think, but it won’t happen without a bit of effort from all involved.

This post was written by Topi who helps inspire #LeadinCrew to make people’s lives better through everything we do regardless of their culture or native language.

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