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  • Writer's pictureGrayson Belvin - VP/Director - EMEA Representative

Reducing Culture Shock For New Overseas Staff - A Checklist From "Small Stuff" to "Big Stuff"

For an individual, family, or work-team, the initial entry into a new culture can be disorienting (and exhausting). Maybe your employee(s) and their families may have the experience or maturity to handle the brunt of culture shock. Even so, the cumulative weight of what some have called “culture stress” can stack up and derail an, otherwise on-track, overseas operation.

Examples of Culture Shock and Culture Stress

To get this started, let’s define culture shock and culture stress through story. Then we can talk about how to reduce them for your staff while keeping your overseas profitability considerations at the forefront.

Culture Shock

In realistic terms, culture shock might sounds like,

“I liked the idea of gelato everyday in our new location, but ever since our 36 hour flight delay getting here 3 weeks ago 1) I’m still totally jet lagged 2) I’m scared of the stray dogs on the street 3) my local coworkers don’t like me (or my political views) and I WANT TO GO HOME!”

Culture shock can happen early… I call it the terrible 2’s. First, at 2 weeks, when the excitement wears off, and then, at 2 months, when “this just isn't’ fun anymore.” Like in physical shock, the employee in culture shock may go into survival. Survival and profitable are not words that usually go in the same sentence.

" local coworkers don’t like me (or my political views) and I WANT TO GO HOME!”

Culture Stress

Culture Stress may sound more like,

We made it to OUR NEW HOME, but we have been challenged by one thing after another. First, we couldn’t pay our bills, because we didn’t have our local bank accounts set up. We couldn’t set up the bank account until we had the new ID’s. By the way, the ID machine was broken. Then, I’ve discovered that, while running the branch, I haven’t had time to adequately learn the language. Our kids are starting to make friends, but we had to add an organized sport to the already busy schedule in order to do that. We found a church-community to be part of, but that requires a bus ride to another town. Finally, our new overseas operation is not as effective as I had hoped, and I’m not sure how the US headquarters is viewing this operation.”

In isolation, any one of these factors probably could be handled by your foreign staff. In combination...well, its culture stress, and its tough. As an organization or manager setting up a new overseas office, branch, or full-blown operation, your job is to prepare your overseas operation for what’s ahead.

Everything is not worse in a foreign operation. It's just harder.

In preparing your overseas operation and your overseas staff for deployment, you don’t just need to handle the logistics of branch registration, the paperwork of organizational start-up, and the research for overseas partner development. You also need to

1. Choose or hire staff that is not likely to go into full-blown culture shock.

2. Train your staff to be able to handle the levels of culture stress.

3. Scout the overseas location through a Small-to-Big approach for orientation of staff.

Small-to-Big Scouting and Set-Up Your Overseas Office Location for Foreign Staff

Your overseas staff needs, upon arrival, a structure in place to help them ward off culture shock and manage culture stress. Allow me to offer a “Small-to-Big” approach to foreign staff acclimation in a new culture. This gets specific, but you can probably adapt it to your business or organizational needs. Feel free to skim through and just grab the concepts, if you are in a hurry. Many of these issues can be resolved with an outside service.

"Small-Stuff Scouting:" Important Emotionally

These are “small” things that have a big emotional impact:

  • What’s my new phone number? Purchasing and activating local SIM cards in advance of foreign staff (and family) arrival can simplify things. Imagine 1) little Susie’s (daughter) delight when she can immediately Tweet her arrival to her friends back home and 2) your foreign Rep’s relief that they can turn on the phone in the airport and immediately get a message from the Overseas Office Set-Up Service waiting outside to pick up the family.

  • How do I dial a phone? - This may seem simple, but little things like adding a “0” in certain circumstances can make the difference.

  • What taxi drivers can I trust? - “Here’s a list for you. These three are very respectful, and they know to give you a receipt. Please tip them well. They work hard, and you should be comfortable sending your family with them.” It’s small, but its big.

  • What are the local shops around our new home? - Personal story: My wife and I (author) learned in our Foster Care training that one of the first steps to take when a child has come into your house is to orient the child to their neighborhood. Yes, it’s nice if warm cookies are waiting inside the new house. Its also important to know how to replenish the cookie stock. Therefore, a good on-site asset can introduce the foreign Rep to the local shops around their new home.

  • What are the driving norms? - Do I wait for pedestrians, or do they wait for me? What does the red arrow with the green light mean?

  • Which pizza delivery? - I have a friend who’s dad, when the family relocated to Texas from another country, took the family to Dairy Queen most nights. In retrospect, my friend recognized that his dad was probably buffering the impact of the life-change on the family through comfort foods.

  • How to I use the bus system? - This needs to be specific. You take the #72 from here. Then you get off and take either the #2 or the #3 to here. When you get on the bus, buy this amount of credit.

  • Should I bag my own groceries? - It can be awkward if the check-out person is staring at you while you are staring at them.

  • Where’s the best bakery? - This is just good to know.

  • How to get oriented on the city map? - This is an expansion of the concept of learning your neighborhood. When a foreign Rep and their family can get around town, then they don’t feel trapped. An on-site service can take them (often walking is best) around to get oriented.

"In retrospect, my friend recognized that his dad was probably buffering the impact of the life-change on the family..."

"Medium Stuff Scouting:" Important Pragmatically

  • Does it help to register with the Embassy? - It can make a lot of sense to register with the nearest embassy. This can be a security measure, and your organization may view it as a form of due diligence.

  • Where do I pay bills? - Paying bills may seem small, but it can be logistically complicated for a new Rep or family when 1) the bills are in a foreign language 2) how to pay the bills is not customary in the Reps’ country-of-origin and 3) banking has not been fully set up yet. An on-site guide can help.

  • What is the visa lady’s name at the police station? - Yep. In a culture where relational circles are vital, a kind introduction to the Visa Lady at the police station can go a long way. How about exchanging mobile numbers with her? Why not? It might help? (Bring the kids with you. Kids can be like a stamp on a passport..they can just get you through).

  • How do I get our banking set up here? - This is practically important. It can also be complicated. As developing economies work to ward off money laundering and terrorism financing, they may be really picking about transactions. The incoming Rep should likely arrive with a significant amount of cash (for exchange) to pay for things while banking is established. (Don’t forget to notify your country-of-origin bank about the change of location for ATM / transaction usage.)

  • Where is the hospital, and can we just walk in? - Like most of these, this needs to be established in advance of the arrival of your foreign Rep. Imagine the ease-of-mind if an on-site service simply walks the expat family into the clinic or ER, and says “This is where you can go if something goes wrong. Just show up here with your ID.”

  • What about the kids' doctor? - As in developed countries, this can often be an issue of finding a Doc who has a good local reputation. By providing your foreign Representative with a couple of recommendations, you are covering a lot of leg work for them in advance.

"Imagine the ease-of-mind if an on-site service simply walks the expat family into the clinic or ER, and says 'This is where you can go if something goes wrong.'"

"Big Stuff Scouting:" Important for Sustainability

  • How do we enroll our staff-kids into local or international schools? - Having good relationships with school officials is important. A face-to-face between the parents, the children, and the local headmaster can go a long way.

  • Can I do a business transaction if I lose the stamp? - Yes, the stamp is important. Who has the stamp? Does the start-up lawyer still have it? When do I use it? Why are there two stamps? These are simple questions, but your Rep may be entering into a complex business environment.

  • When is payroll due? - An on-site set-up service can establish many of these criteria through scout work in advance.

  • How do labor laws affect work-habits? - As your foreign Rep’s look to implement tactics to align with your organization's strategy, they may need to know how to legally mobilize staff. Nuances can affect planning.

"These are simple questions, but your Rep may be entering into a complex business environment."
  • How does the accounting system here report income? - This can affect how transactions are registered. I’m not talking about cooking the books. I’m talking about financial planning within an foreign office.

  • Who, in the business-world here, should I meet and learn from? - The local “sages” may have a lot to offer a new operation. By implementing the “I have one mouth and two ears” concept, your Rep can learn the lay of the land, how to operate respectfully, and who he or she should meet. It is helpful to have someone who can make that introduction for your Rep.

  • Why certain business arenas are notoriously black or gray here? - There’s usually a story, and it helps to know it.

  • Who is a good local accountant? - This person needs to be viewed as the “financial interpreter” between your operation and the governing institutions. He or she should know how to 1) communicate requirements to you and 2) communicate financial complexities to the governing bodies. How do you identify such a person in advance? Probably not through the internet. It’s probably word-of-mouth scout work.

  • How to schedule an appointment with the Minister of the Interior? - Why not? In many developing economies, government officials are not completely inaccessible. So, your local lawyer know the clerk at the Ministry. The clerk knows the Minister. Who can help you ask for a “getting-to-know-you” sit down over coffee. It can go a long way, and it can be form of respect for the local government (which, by the way, let your operation start there in the first place).

  • How many days in advance of expiration do we need to reapply for visas and whats required? - Logistics are related to sustainability. Information helps align logistics.

  • How do I grow my business here while warding off business interests with political power here? - An on-site scouting service can present a threat assessment and a market assessment which can include the sociopolitical corners of the overseas operation.

  • What is our long-term plan for growth in this culture if this thing takes off and starts making the revenues we expect? - Tax systems can treat differing revenue strata differently.

  • Do we really have to take our shoes off and put on those slippers while at work?

  • Why do the Grandmother’s keep telling us that our kids are cold?

I’ll leave the last two questions unaddressed.

"An on-site scouting service can present a threat assessment and a market assessment which can include the sociopolitical corners of the overseas operation."

Preparation can be a financial investment in success.

When your organization invests in an overseas operation, it needs to be strategically wise. Operations don’t operate without people. Consider the wisdom of investing in the success of your foreign staff by investing in the initial start-up considerations.

Lewis-Gray Solutions Group 1) has internally managed many of the dynamics listed above and 2) offers these turnkey services to business and organizations establishing overseas offices and operations.

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