I vividly remember the day before I started a new job at a local small business. I checked my email the night prior to discover that I had a several unread emails…all from my new colleagues. As I eagerly opened the emails, expecting a “welcome to the team” message, I was caught off guard at what the emails contained: a plethora of dancing cat videos, flashing welcome signs, and choreographed 80’s dance video clips (aka GIFs), all with messages stating that they were excited to have me on the team! Coming from a government contractor job to one where Jane Fonda videos in email were perfectly acceptable, I was caught off guard to say the least.
While I reflect on this memory fondly, it also highlights the importance of acknowledging the differences in office culture; even offices that operate within the same industry and region. And while it is important to ensure that employees are a direct cultural fit for an office environment, it is equally important to ensure that office cultural awareness is considered when interacting with clients. What may be a acceptable in your work space may be a no-go zone within a client’s work space, and a sturdy business relationship may be jeopardized from an accidental misstep. Having this awareness, and considering a few key elements that highlight differences in office culture, can help ensure that client relationships remains strong and steadfast, no matter what the difference in culture may be. Remember, it is not about changing your company culture, it’s finding a healthy medium in areas where differences between companies may arise.
There is no quicker way to accidentally cause offense than being cavalier with language. Be aware of how the client interacts on all forms of communication: whether that be email, phone etiquette, or in person. Is the occasional joke or small talk used, or are the conversations strictly business oriented? What type of language is used? In many workplaces, a curse word may be thrown in to express frustration or excitement, and a joke may be told to lighten the mood, while in others, this may be entirely inappropriate. At the beginning of the client relationship, it may be beneficial to ask a few cultural questions, right along with business strategy questions, in order to understand how the firm operates. Asking the client to describe their business culture will not only help you further understand how their company runs, but also give you a “heads up” on what to expect in business interactions.
Keep in mind that the client’s communication style is only half the battle; you must also be aware of how your own company tends to communicate. Do your sales reps tend to be blunt and to the point? Do you notice that perhaps, maybe, your marketing team can beat around the bush, sometimes? Understanding your team’s communication style can help navigate communications with clients who could be caught off guard at straightforward remarks, or may not fully understand the plan if communication styles are vague. Furthermore, it is a great learning opportunity for team members to enhance communication skills, no matter what the work environment may be.
Another significant component of office culture is the value of time and how this limited resource is utilized. Differences in time management can prove frustrating, and often exhausting if you are not prepared. No one wants to show up to an early morning meeting on time, only to discover that 8am would be better described as “8am- ish.” Most would agree that extensive small talk prior to the meeting and numerous tangents inevitably lead to long meetings. Furthermore, straightforward and business-only meetings have a tendency to feel cold and ingenuine. Finding this balance is a true art.
If you notice that your company holds time at a different value than the client, it is beneficial to set boundaries before the issues arises again. Once again, finding a middle ground is key. For example, one may say, “We are happy to start the meeting closer to 8:15 and love talking with your beforehand, but we have a hard cut off time at 9:00 am. We wanted to make you aware of this so we can be sure all agenda items are discussed.” Setting expectations up front mitigates the awkward eye roll when someone mentions their ski vacation halfway through the meeting, and will ensure that your team can work as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Formality may be the easiest difference to spot when observing an office culture from an outsider’s perspective. What employees wear and where meetings are conducted can be easily observed and compared to your own office culture. While it is often fun to interact with a culture slightly different than your own, issues can arise when different levels of formality impact business processes.
The best mode of action here is to confront the “cultural fit” situations before they arise. If your employees habitually wear jeans and T-shirts in the office, and the client tends to wear a suit and tie, notify your employees of the middle ground that is suitable for a meeting (i.e. NICE jeans.) In the same vein, if differences in formality are prevalent between you and a business partner, notifying the partner ahead of time of any potential discrepancies could be beneficial. For example, if your team plans to grab a beer after a meeting in order to celebrate a big win, let your partner know ahead of time so they can properly prep their team on “celebration beer” protocol.
No matter how casual or formal the office culture, it goes without saying that politics, religion, and race should be left off of the table for business discussions. Even when you are certain your counterpart shares similar views as you, staying tight lipped on these subjects increases your credibility, ups your professionalism, and mitigates the chance of an inflammatory comment. Your office culture may have the fun vibe and a ping pong table, but some traditions, such as leaving personal topics out of the office, should be held fast.
Interacting with clients and business partners with a different corporate culture can be fun, and informative (and may even give you some ideas about cultural aspects you would appreciate in your own company!) Taking the time to understand a client’s cultural processes and how they compare with your own business can help mitigate issues before they arise. And that’s something all types of corporate cultures can take pride in.