The rise of remote work means we need better ‘intercultural skills’ – this is what that means

  • The pandemic has ushered in a new era of remote work and companies must create the best conditions for employees to accomplish their goals remotely.
  • The ability to work remotely has increased the possibilities for international collaboration between and within organisations.
  • In this new era, companies will benefit from training existing employees in intercultural communication skills, as well as hiring employees with this kind of expertise.

The outbreak of COVID-19 imposed social distancing requirements across the world, increasing virtual interactions, especially in a work context. The need to keep in contact during the pandemic has meant virtual meetings have become the new normal. Consequently, not only has international cooperation between governments and the scientific community increased as a result of the pandemic, but so has international and remote work. In this new reality, companies must create the best conditions possible for employees to accomplish their goals remotely.

A development that has perhaps not been fully considered by all companies, however, is the increase in intercultural interactions due to these remote encounters. From a company point of view, these interactions provide an opportunity to become even more global and therefore intercultural encounters should be eagerly encouraged.

From an employee’s perspective, since many jobs became remote during the pandemic, it suddenly became possible to seek new job opportunities abroad without the need to leave home. In many countries, people could apply for remote roles in which they could get paid better, often in other currencies such as dollars and euros. Remote international work has not only become a great opportunity to increase earnings, but also to find growth opportunities that were not possible on a national level.

As a result of this rise in remote working practices, employees are now exposed to working environments that are increasingly diverse. In response to this, however, not only do they need traditional skills such as an advanced level of English and digital expertise, but they also now need intercultural skills.

What are intercultural skills?

Cultural intelligence and intercultural communication skills include uncertainty management in complex and diverse contexts, and the elimination of unconscious bias, for example. They help employees to relate to colleagues of different and diverse backgrounds, guaranteeing a respectful and inclusive working environment. Moreover, these skills help employees to accomplish their goals successfully when interacting with culturally diverse interlocutors or audiences.

Leadership, management, communication and teamwork do not necessarily mean the same thing to people from different countries and cultures. For example, while communication can be clear and simple in some cultures and countries, in others it might be more sophisticated and layered. Similarly, people might give feedback directly or indirectly depending on the country or culture, or decision making could be consensual versus being concentrated in one person with power, depending on the country and culture.

Mutual understanding and cultural awareness will help employees to respect each other and to meet goals such as winning new clients, successfully negotiating a deal, giving impactful presentations and developing strategic partnerships.

The impact of intercultural skills

So, how do these skills help professionals to interact with people from other cultures? Remote work should boost cultural understanding and respect. It should help to reduce stereotypes, exclusion and discrimination. Simply working with people from other cultures does not automatically help to develop cultural awareness, however – companies need to invest in developing intercultural skills.

As such, companies should focus on training their teams and new candidates to develop in these areas. The global skills that were increasingly needed during the pandemic are likely to continue to be seen as valuable from now on. International collaboration and remote work is here to stay.

Adaptation and flexibility became key factors for businesses during the pandemic, according to PWC’s How Business Can Emerge Stronger CEO panel survey. The results show that CEOs prioritize flexible and digital business models as well as an employee-oriented workforce. In fact, 61% of CEOs polled said the shift towards remote work will persist.

Underlining the growing importance of intercultural skills even more, these CEOs ranked demonstrating respect for others, building trust and working effectively among diverse teams as the three most important required skills. They were chosen even over having the right qualifications and experience related to the job. Intercultural skills were also shown to be as highly valued as formal qualifications in earlier research from the British Council.

There is no doubt that the impact of cultural differences should be taken into consideration by all organisations. As a consequence, the development of cultural intelligence and intercultural communication skills are needed more than ever.

New skills for a new era

This is a major challenge that companies face, however. Problems with intercultural communication or other obstacles such as discrimination and exclusion could affect a company’s reputation, as well as impacting productivity and engagement, causing misunderstandings and leading to weak collaboration. All of this could impact an organisation’s growth and success.

Therefore, companies should not only to train employees in interpersonal and intercultural skills, but also recruit people with these abilities. A global mindset should be a top recruitment requirement in this new era of remote work.

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