Mind the culture gap: What you need to know to make nearshoring work

For Western businesses with teams in Central Europe, an appreciation of cultural differences is key to making projects run better.
Written by Michiel van Blommestein, Contributor

As any project manager will tell you, the success of an IT project usually depends on more than just great technical skill. For multinational companies with large cohorts of developers in Central and Eastern Europe, embracing cultural differences can be key too.

When Dutchman Johan Helfenrath arrived in the Polish city of Krakow five years ago, it didn't take him long to find a job at one of the many service centres scattered around the city. Since then, he's worked in numerous companies, including several IT firms. Like many people from outside Poland, he was hired because he's a native speaker of a foreign language, despite his apparent lack of technical skills.

Among the differences between Dutch and Polish office culture that Helfenrath has noticed is that Polish IT firms can often be more procedure-led than their Netherlands counterparts. "The procedure is everything here... You could get an image, and it says what button you should push," he says. "It is not always clear why a certain procedure is the way it is."

He remembers the story of a friend who, during his work at an auditor, had found a mistake in a process. "No one was to blame there, something had just gone wrong in the system because of the procedure, not because someone was making a mistake," he says. "The client, however, took the person carrying out the process and scolded him in the presence of my friend. He had to interrupt and reiterate that the process was at fault, not the person in question."

Helfenrath adds that Polish businesses can be extremely loath to make mistakes, regardless of the severity of the error. "Mistakes are treated like the end of the world, even when it is business as normal the day after."

It's a common perception that the working culture in Poland can be more strictly hierarchical compared to in Western Europe, with greater reliance on rules and procedures, and a higher level of formality.

In many ways, however, Polish workplace culture resembles the culture usually observed in Anglo-Saxon companies, according to Kevin Brownsey, owner and partner of Warsaw-based Redpill Consulting, a consultancy specialising strategy and company culture.

Like the Anglo-Saxon company culture, the Polish working culture can be competitive rather than collaborative. "So you get that the language around the organisation is quite adversarial, with words that denote competition, like 'battle' and 'fight' and 'win'," he explains. "Also, both are quite individualistic, with people wanting to be in control of their own tasks. And both cultures are also more focused at the short term, so it's [focused on] results today."

However, the Polish culture deviates from the Anglo-Saxon working culture in two important areas, Brownsey notes.

"In the US or the UK, relationships with bosses will be quite informal," he says. "They will be on first name terms and give feedback to bosses saying if there's something wrong. In Poland that tends not to happen. People will not 'disrespect' their boss, won't challenge him or give feedback, often not even privately but certainly not publicly."

"The other big difference is in the area of uncertainty avoidance," he says. "The Anglo-Saxon world is reasonably comfortable with ambiguity. Because of that, [businesses] are quite creative and people can experiment. They trust each other quite freely, often with consequences. In Poland, it is the complete opposite." Polish companies prefer to put more of an emphasis on using set rules. "If you talk to somebody at a customer service centre in Poland, they will typically work through the process with you and it's inflexible. In Britain, there is a certain degree of flexibility: 'leave it with me, I'll call you back', something like that."

What goes for Poland's corporate culture also goes for most post-communist countries in Central Europe. "There are some small differences. Slovakia has, for example, a more competitive attitude with less extreme uncertainty avoidance as in Poland. The Czech Republic is slightly more balanced."

According to Brownsley, companies where both corporate cultures at work can sometimes feel friction.

"What's really interesting in our work is the international dimension with a split board, which may for example be half British and half Polish. Those sorts of culture clashes on that senior level can have massive consequences for the rest for the organisation."

The divide with other European countries is even wider according to Brownsey, particularly the Scandinavian working cultures which are less hierarchical and more collaborative.

"Let's say you have a Polish group and a Swedish group on a board of directors. The way that those groups would work with their individual functions would be extremely different. The Polish leaders would probably have much tighter control of their functions. They would delegate them cautiously, communicate in writing and give their people very clear instructions. The Swedish directors would empower. They would communicate more verbally, probably more warmly, less directionally and their people would have to work out the details themselves."

Brownsey describes a scenario of an English boss with a Polish staff. "He could say: 'guys, from now on I think it is really important to wear collar and tie to work.' The Polish workers will come to work with collar and tie," he says. "However, if the boss doesn't reinforce that, and if he doesn't put it in writing, it could be that the Polish workers assume that it's not important to him any more. Gradually, standards slip. When the manager reminds them of it, the workers will be surprised that this is still important to him." So, as a foreign manager working on a Polish project, it is wise to stay close to it and monitor it constantly, he says. Otherwise, "the project will just gradually disappear."

That laser focus is equally a strength among local IT workers. "They bring an attention to detail which you need in an IT project. You just don't need for it being the only and dominant voice." The focus on the technical side of projects is also a strength among local IT workers. "The Polish members of my team were possibly the most valuable members involved. They often won the arguments because their technical knowledge was so far ahead that they usually won the debate on technical insight."

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