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Australians abroad: Managing a transnational life

By Melissa Butcher - posted Monday, 16 May 2005


The global economy is increasingly being driven by the movement of people: not just the migration of low income workers to rich countries, but also thousands of business people travelling each day. Rather than settling for a period of years, as the traditional “expat” has done, more and more of these transnational professionals are moving between cities and cultures for just a few months, a few weeks or a few days.

Working transnationally involves psychological processes of adaptation. Add to this the physical toll of travel, time zone changes, “living out of a suitcase” and disruption to social and family networks, and it’s clear that living a transnational life requires more than just the technical ability to do a job.

There is a need to respond to the demands of a highly mobile, highly technology-driven workplace; and there is a need to navigate cultural differences. Australian companies and transnational professionals insert themselves into a wider global context, bringing with them their own organisational cultures, influenced by nationality, establishing multicultural offices, with locals and expatriates working together. Their local employees bring with them their own values, reflected in different attitudes, behaviours and workplace practices.

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This diversity needs to be understood to be competitive globally. Yet while culture marks the activities of every transnational company and global professional, there has been a tendency to minimise its impact. Perhaps culture is still perceived as a vague concept, not as tangible as a profit and loss statement. Perhaps this minimisation stems from policies of managing cultural diversity in Australia as a whole: that emphasise “harmony” without noting the complexity and potential challenges in cross-cultural interactions. Whatever the reason, neglecting culture is not good business. Australian companies in international ventures are still spending time and money resolving conflicts which have their roots in cultural difference.

Adjustment has to take place to ensure business outcomes are achieved, and the onus of managing this process of change falls on transnational professionals, who find themselves at the intersection of three cultures: their own, the company’s and the host culture. Corporations can enhance their off-shore operations by better understanding this dynamic interaction. The ability for transnational professionals to adjust determines their capacity to be effective, and to adjust they require skills that enable them to manage the challenges of the new global workplace, and the realities of living in or moving through cultures.

First, the global workplace is driven by technology and mobility. Offices can now look like airport lounges, somewhat impersonal spaces where consultants come in after being on the road (or in the air), plug in their laptops and work from a hot desk. They might carry a standard bag of technology (laptop, various plugs and cables, mobile phone with global roaming, rechargers and so on) that enhances their ability to be contactable anywhere in the world, 24-7. In global teams, relationships are technology-mediated via email, real time messaging and telephone. People are working together with others they have never met.

In terms of mobility, a transnational professional could be travelling five weeks out of six; or spending no more than six months in any one place in a seven year period; or on Monday not knowing where they will be on Friday, making it impossible to plan a social life. In some cases, employees are asked to travel with little notice. In other scenarios, an employee could be travelling from the USA, to China, back to Australia and then India in the space of a few months, with each country requiring different knowledge and adjustment patterns.

This mobility and the technological speed of work is encapsulating the idea of space-time compression, and engendering simultaneously a sense of dislocation and separation. These conditions add to stress and cultural conflict (with less time to build relationships, to understand what’s going on in another context and to adjust personally). Separated from family and friends, at times bored and isolated, working longer hours and socialising with work colleagues become the norm. A consultant I spoke with for a recent study into the impact of culture and mobility on transnational professionals, the Transnational Corporate Cultures (TCC) project, eventually left his company after realising that his list of friends had shrunk. People had stopped asking him out as he was always away, and he feared he would eventually only have his work colleagues left.

For some, the initial love of travel, a strong motivating factor, eventually declined. Travel became exhausting and destabilising, contributing to staff turnover and poor performance. Others became used to the frenetic lifestyle, it became “normal”, as did practices that were not customary in Australia (such as dealing with corruption). Changes in personal values added to the difficulties of readjustment when transnational professionals returned home. However, “getting used to it”, along with other attributes such as a willingness to learn and engage with difference, became a coping strategy to deal with the realities of this new workplace.

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Repeat visits to business sites allowed the establishment of relationships that created a sense of embeddedness, well-being and stability in a place. This includes relationships with host country nationals that assist not only grounding Australians, but their business operations as well. Mobility inhibits the development of these relationships, as the fleeting “expat” can be met with caution, but culture also plays a part. We naturally seek out those with whom we share similar frames of reference, beliefs and humour. It takes more effort to develop a relationship with someone from a different cultural background.

A lack of understanding of cultural preferences and different work place practices also adds to the chances of project failure in global ventures. Cultural misunderstandings create discomfort and frustration in both work and personal life. Asia, for example, was considered “ten times more difficult to live and work and get things done”, by one Human Resources Manager who had lived in Bangkok and Singapore for four years. It was “great if you rise to a challenge [but] terrible if you’re running at overwhelm already”.

The consequences of coming face to face with culturally different practices include a loss of confidence, particularly when workplace formulas used in Australia can’t be replicated. Transnational professionals can begin to question not only their own practices, but their assessments about what’s right and wrong. There can be at times a profound shift in thinking in the face of difference, again with implications for the return home. Cross-cultural interaction is therefore debilitating if not managed appropriately. When not coping well, pejorative judgments are made, defensive positions taken, and conflict and stress ensue. At times dealing with difference pushes people towards ethnocentrism.

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About the Author

Dr Melissa Butcher is an ARC Research Fellow at the Research Institute for Asia and the Pacific, University of Sydney.

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