Multicultural teams are not an emerging phenomenon – they have grown over the long term from globalisation, migration and greater workforce diversity. But the COVID-19 pandemic has seen organisations radically change their ways of working, and diverse teams now collaborate across different regions like never before. Organisations can recruit from a much wider geographical spread given the prevalence of remote working, and as a result, multicultural teams are likely to become more common. The spotlight then will be on managers to help them adapt and thrive.

So, what do we really mean when we talk about multicultural or culturally diverse teams? What challenges do they face in the workplace and how can managers overcome cultural and potential language barriers to harness their skills and experience?

This blog summarises the findings of the CIPD Managing multicultural teams report, as well as insights from managers and expertise from Asif Sadiq, Head of Equity and Inclusion at Warner Media Internal, and Berry Lumpkins, VP – Leadership & Talent Development at DP World – both of whom were panellists in a CIPD webinar on the subject.

What are multicultural teams?

Research evidence and manager insights view multicultural teams as teams whose members have a variety of values and attitudes – not only on the basis of demographics but also of experiences.

Building on this idea, Sadiq and Lumpkins raised an interesting point about whether the dominant culture of an organisation’s region influences the way culturally diverse teams work within the organisation. For example, the UK is generally a multicultural society, but there are dominant cultures within that.

If an employer says that they value multiculturalism but encourages diverse staff to model their behaviour on others, it fails to be a true multicultural environment where everyone’s experiences are valued and used to benefit the wider organisation. Leaders instead need to demonstrate cultural intelligence – to show curiosity, assume nothing and genuinely listen to and take an interest in what staff have to say.

Sadiq and Lumpkins also highlighted the importance of intersectionality. Cultural diversity intersects with other forms of diversity. It is all too easy to put people into boxes, but intersectionality acknowledges that other elements of our identity – our gender, race, sexuality, etc – are intertwined with our culture. So ensuring we are sensitive to and appreciative of the cultural experiences and expertise of our people, rather than stereotyping or putting them in a box, is key. Thinking of the example of Ramadan, instead of global organisations sending out a company-wide email detailing ‘10 ways managers can support their staff’, employers should instead encourage exploring people’s needs and experiences by simply talking to them.

What are the challenges and opportunities of working across cultures?

Research on key influencers of the relationship between cultural diversity and positive outcomes – notably creativity and communication – has boomed in the last decade. Culturally diverse teams are more creative than homogenous teams, especially those with deep level-diversity – not simply different ethnicities or nationalities, but varied attitudes and values. This creativity can benefit teams in both a personal and professional sense. Multicultural teams are able to view themselves, their outputs and their customers from different perspectives, meaning they can produce uniquely crafted services for a variety of stakeholders. Moreover, by learning more about each other as people – for example, traditions, cuisine and sense of humour – staff can draw on their colleagues’ different viewpoints to innovate and approach problem-solving in a new way.

Sadiq supported these ideas through his belief that cultural diversity helps us gain new insights, which in turn allow organisations to gain new momentum and become more innovative. Recalling an example of a new store opening in Dubai, he said the American workers involved were cautious about appropriating the local culture in an insensitive or discriminatory way. They decided to work with local staff to better understand what to do authentically. This allowed them to capture and engage with local markets. But to enable this, global businesses must liberate their teams, give them a voice and let people challenge the current ways of thinking.

Language barriers can present a challenge to effective communication. They can reduce colleagues’ levels of trust and expectations of successful work, and sometimes lead to ‘code-switching’ – switching to one’s native language. But what’s important to understand, and what Sadiq and Lumpkins were keen to highlight, is that speaking English is not a test of intelligence, and recognising this is key to removing insider and outsider groups.

Sensitive managers who raise awareness of these barriers, highlight the achievements of staff beyond their language proficiency and listening attentively for cultural nuances of communication can help create an environment in which staff speak openly and without fear of judgement.

Looking ahead to creating inclusive environments

As remote working becomes more prevalent, multicultural teams will continue to proliferate and it becomes even more important that members of such teams are supported. Lumpkins argued that creating an inclusive environment begins with psychological safety where everyone can be their authentic self. As mentioned earlier, simply exploring inclusion and diversity and beginning to understand what this means to different people is key to creating this environment.

During the course of the pandemic, one key positive highlighted by both Sadiq and Lumpkins has been the extraordinary opportunity to build authenticity with people. In the new reality, we can learn things about people through remote working that were previously impossible. Before, there was an implicit expectation for people to bring their ‘work self’ to work and rarely show other sides of their identity. Now, whether deliberately or not, we are able to see a fuller picture of our co-workers as we get to know them as partners, parents, pet-owners and friends, rather than simply as colleagues.

While some industries will encourage employees to return to their usual work environment, it would be a shame to close off this opportunity to connect. Employers should work to create an environment of openness and exploration, where staff are encouraged to share their voice and bring their authentic self to work.

By Jake Young, Research Associate at the CIPD.