Only a Matter of Time: Punctuality and attendance in multicultural workplaces

Rosie Ramirez

21 September 2018    |   

Multicultural workplaces are now the norm for many businesses. With more fluid borders, people are more likely to move to other cities, and even countries, for work. Some stay for short or medium-term contracts, while others relocate to capitalise on business and career opportunities. Either way, this movement has created culturally rich environments that is a new and exciting frontier for workforce management. But bringing together people from different backgrounds isn’t always easy. Cultural traits, often subconscious, surface in everyday interactions. In this series, we’ll look at multicultural workforces and what makes them tick. It’s no secret that we’re all different, and in many cases this diversity enriches the work environment. But when this diversity is not handled correctly, this creates tension and results in unproductivity. The most common source of tension in multicultural workplaces is time. We’ve all heard stories about Japanese firms becoming frustrated with their American associates if a report is delayed by 15 minutes. Or American managers adding in an hour to make room for their Italian counterparts who are usually late. Yes, different approaches to punctuality can send even the most seasoned managers on a tailspin. To understand this problem better, we need to look at time itself. Punctuality as a cultural trait Every country can be placed on a scheduling spectrum, according to Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map. A country’s place on the spectrum is affected by a number of historic factors, and indicates how time is perceived by people in that country. Yes, how we understand time itself is a product of our culture. And because this affects how punctual we are, it’s a common source of frustration in multicultural offices. The Germans and Japanese are renowned for their punctuality, often even arriving earlier than scheduled. Brazilians and Indians on the other hand are already expected to come in late. Technically, none of them are wrong: they are behaving exactly as their cultural norms dictate. To understand why this difference exists, we need to look at monochronic and polychronic cultures. Linear versus flexible time Monochronic cultures treat time as linear: everything is sequential, and one task must be completed before beginning the next. Lateness and interruptions are heavily frowned upon. Time is a resource, and it must be allocated logically and precisely. These cultures typically have a history of heavy industrialisation, where organisation and deadlines are key. The US, Canada, and Northern Europe are common examples. In contrast, polychronic cultures see time as flexible. Tasks can change as opportunities arise and interruptions are considered normal. Multi-tasking is the norm so things do not have to be done step by step. Many of these cultures have agricultural roots, where adaptability and flexibility are vital to success. Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa are often included in this grouping. Asia is more varied, with monochronic Japan and polychronic China, for instance. There can be other factors in play too. In India, keeping people waiting is a norm, because being late is a sign of importance. This is referred to, in jest, as Indian Standard Time. Another example is urban Southeast Asia, where public transportation systems are slow, if not completely stalled, so being late is a part of everyday life. One only has to recall the infamous Jakarta traffic jams, or Manila’s 6 million-dollars-per-day losses from traffic, to understand the seriousness of the problem. Bridging the time gap Clearly, cross-cultural differences in perception of time is a compelling and complicated topic. It is being researched by academics and business firms alike, towards the same goal: managing multicultural teams. While cultural differences need to be respected, workplaces still depend on schedules to deliver products and services. Thus, bridging the time gap in multicultural environments relies on solutions that address the issue without offending sensibilities. Differences in time perception may be deeply rooted, but employees can adapt given the correct guidance and tools to do so. Managers need to enhance their communication skills to be able to relate to staff from different cultures, and align them with the company’s values and goals. At the same time, they also need to look towards modern solutions such as time and attendance software to facilitate the desired new culture. Read more: The Digital Workforce Success Revolution: Why you need to shift to cloud-based HR today Time and attendance technology Time and attendance software like Tanda make it easy to coordinate a multicultural staff, because it sets the expectations that the company has regarding time. Because each week’s schedule displayed on the employee’s app, it establishes exactly when they need to come in. Plus, managers have a fool-proof way of communicating updates and changes via SMS, email, or in-app notifications. This minimises misunderstandings and aids work culture in general. Employee attendance is also accurately tracked and transferred to timesheets, so you always have a record of when staff are working. This comes in handy when a manager needs to talk to a staff member about their punctuality or attendance. Technology cuts ambiguity out of the process, and allows everyone to approach time objectively. In short, it sets the tone for a fair and consistent work environment. Read more: Show up for success! A step-by-step guide to rewarding employee attendance Many exciting changes are happening to workforce management. Trends point toward automation to facilitate many administrative processes. But technology doesn’t just solve administrative challenges, it also has implications on the overall work environment. And in an increasingly globalised and multicultural world, shifting to technology to address modern business challenges is only a matter of time.

Multicultural workplaces are now the norm for many businesses. With more fluid borders, people are more likely to move to other cities, and even countries, for work. Some stay for short or medium-term contracts, while others relocate to capitalise on business and career opportunities. Either way, this movement has created culturally rich environments that is a new and exciting frontier for workforce management.

But bringing together people from different backgrounds isn’t always easy. Cultural traits, often subconscious, surface in everyday interactions. In this series, we’ll look at multicultural workforces and what makes them tick. It’s no secret that we’re all different, and in many cases this diversity enriches the work environment. But when this diversity is not handled correctly, this creates tension and results in unproductivity.

The most common source of tension in multicultural workplaces is time. We’ve all heard stories about Japanese firms becoming frustrated with their American associates if a report is delayed by 15 minutes. Or American managers adding in an hour to make room for their Italian counterparts who are usually late. Yes, different approaches to punctuality can send even the most seasoned managers on a tailspin. To understand this problem better, we need to look at time itself.

Punctuality as a cultural trait

Every country can be placed on a scheduling spectrum, according to Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map. A country’s place on the spectrum is affected by a number of historic factors, and indicates how time is perceived by people in that country. Yes, how we understand time itself is a product of our culture. And because this affects how punctual we are, it’s a common source of frustration in multicultural offices.

The Germans and Japanese are renowned for their punctuality, often even arriving earlier than scheduled. Brazilians and Indians on the other hand are already expected to come in late. Technically, none of them are wrong: they are behaving exactly as their cultural norms dictate. To understand why this difference exists, we need to look at monochronic and polychronic cultures.

Linear versus flexible time

Monochronic cultures treat time as linear: everything is sequential, and one task must be completed before beginning the next. Lateness and interruptions are heavily frowned upon. Time is a resource, and it must be allocated logically and precisely. These cultures typically have a history of heavy industrialisation, where organisation and deadlines are key. The US, Canada, and Northern Europe are common examples.

In contrast, polychronic cultures see time as flexible. Tasks can change as opportunities arise and interruptions are considered normal. Multi-tasking is the norm so things do not have to be done step by step. Many of these cultures have agricultural roots, where adaptability and flexibility are vital to success. Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa are often included in this grouping. Asia is more varied, with monochronic Japan and polychronic China, for instance.

There can be other factors in play too. In India, keeping people waiting is a norm, because being late is a sign of importance. This is referred to, in jest, as Indian Standard Time. Another example is urban Southeast Asia, where public transportation systems are slow, if not completely stalled, so being late is a part of everyday life. One only has to recall the infamous Jakarta traffic jams, or Manila’s 6 million-dollars-per-day losses from traffic, to understand the seriousness of the problem.

Bridging the time gap

Clearly, cross-cultural differences in perception of time is a compelling and complicated topic. It is being researched by academics and business firms alike, towards the same goal: managing multicultural teams. While cultural differences need to be respected, workplaces still depend on schedules to deliver products and services. Thus, bridging the time gap in multicultural environments relies on solutions that address the issue without offending sensibilities.

Differences in time perception may be deeply rooted, but employees can adapt given the correct guidance and tools to do so. Managers need to enhance their communication skills to be able to relate to staff from different cultures, and align them with the company’s values and goals. At the same time, they also need to look towards modern solutions such as time and attendance software to facilitate the desired new culture.

Read more: The Digital Workforce Success Revolution: Why you need to shift to cloud-based HR today

Time and attendance technology

Time and attendance software like Tanda make it easy to coordinate a multicultural staff, because it sets the expectations that the company has regarding time. Because each week’s schedule displayed on the employee’s app, it establishes exactly when they need to come in. Plus, managers have a fool-proof way of communicating updates and changes via SMS, email, or in-app notifications. This minimises misunderstandings and aids work culture in general.

Employee attendance is also accurately tracked and transferred to timesheets, so you always have a record of when staff are working. This comes in handy when a manager needs to talk to a staff member about their punctuality or attendance. Technology cuts ambiguity out of the process, and allows everyone to approach time objectively. In short, it sets the tone for a fair and consistent work environment.

Read more: Show up for success! A step-by-step guide to rewarding employee attendance

Many exciting changes are happening to workforce management. Trends point toward automation to facilitate many administrative processes. But technology doesn’t just solve administrative challenges, it also has implications on the overall work environment. And in an increasingly globalised and multicultural world, shifting to technology to address modern business challenges is only a matter of time.

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Rosie Ramirez

Our team's goal is to provide practical advice for business owners and managers across industries.

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