New Delhi: If you’re going to Frankfurt for work, you might want to master numbers 1 to 10 in German, so you can tell cab drivers where to take you. In China, skip learning numbers, just carry plenty of business cards everywhere. In Buenos Aires, the metro and buses are your best bet to get around.
Forget understanding American football or perfecting that Australian accent. Working Indians are learning how to adapt to the new destinations of their business trips, places such as Romania and Nigeria, to develop information technology (IT) systems, consult on offshoring projects and set up new offices from scratch. In many cases, they are applying the lessons of India to their workplaces in the developing world.
Sudeep Sriram, an operations manager for the call centre 24/7 Customer Pvt. Ltd, found the latest version of his home base in the unlikely setting of Guatemala.
“This place right now is booming with more call centres coming into the market and a lot of competition,” he says, referring to his efforts in setting up a new 24/7 Customer centre in the capital, Guatemala City. “It is the same going back to how it was in Bangalore seven years ago.”
Excitement aside, these world travellers usually point to language issues as the biggest problem they face in both getting around and successfully getting the job done. Ganesh Shankar, an internal audit manager currently based in the Netherlands for Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV, for example, expressed frustration at working with translators in eastern Europe, and the general lack of English proficiency in the region. “Even if they can speak the language, they don’t really think in English,” he says.
“You need to have full discussions in German to get the gist of what’s going on,” says Siddhartha Thyagarajan, a management consultant with Opera Solutions Inc. who worked on a project in Frankfurt. “It’s better to have a German-speaking person there.” He advises that travelling with bilingual staffers is usually your best bet.
Language also presents a problem in trying to bond with local employees. “If you know Spanish, it is a plus,” says Sriram in Guatemala. “When people are outside and on breaks, a majority of people (use) their language.”
Language isn’t the only change that employees abroad have to adjust to. Foreign workplaces also function a bit different from their Indian counterparts. In Europe, consultants warn, wear a watch and stick to it.
Arun Kumar, another associate with Opera Solutions, recalls one meeting he had on a stint in Frankfurt, scheduled in a conference room between 1:30 and 2:30 in the afternoon. “At 2:31 there is a knock at the door,” he says. “Someone said, ‘I have the room now, please leave’.”
Sticking to a schedule, though, also has its benefits. Unless you are working in China, expect the office to clear out around 5 or 6pm. You have to arrange meetings in advance and make sure ahead of time whoever you want to meet is not on a holiday, says Philips’ Shankar. “Time is the most important thing,” he says, “and they want to enjoy their free time.”
Setting up operations in a new country has its own learning curve. When Prashasta Seth, a former head of equity research at Irevna Research Services Pvt. Ltd, helped create the company’s new centre in Argentina, that country’s bureaucracy proved to be as thick as sludge.
“It’s more or less like India,” Seth says. “The private sector is professional, but getting into government interface becomes really messy.”
Planning ahead also became key for Sriram, as he recruited agents for 24/7’s new centre in Latin America.
After some of the company’s first-round hires left within a few months to go back to school, Sriram sat down with the human resources team and mapped out ideal agent profiles. “We looked into what were the universities around here, what are the courses, when do they have off,” he says.
Outside of the workplace, Indians abroad dole out similar advice on food regardless of the location.
Being vegetarian is tough. In Germany, says Kumar, learn to say kein fleisch, or “no meat” in German. In Guatemala, says Sriram, you’re better off bringing spices from home and cooking for yourself. And be forewarned, even if there is an Indian restaurant in town, it’s probably not very good.
And in the end, most agree, it is a great experience to work abroad, but not much beats what’s going on at home. “It’s a good experience to have, but I would not really recommend people moving out of India at this point of time,” says Shankar. “India is where all the growth is.”
Global survival tips and corporate etiquette
•Learn a few phrases in the local language and hire a translator. Emails and workplace conversations are often in German, says consultant Arun Kumar who spent time in Frankfurt. “There would be five Germans in the room and me, and they would speak in English for my sake.”
•Adapt your social style depending on where you are headed. “If you come to Holland, no one is even going to offer you a coffee, but you go to Israel, people are so hospitable,” says Ganesh Shankar of Philips, who spent time on the job in both countries.
•Stay away from controversial topics. “Indians get really comfortable with people and tend to ask a lot of personal questions,” says Sudeep Sriram of 24/7 Customer in Guatemala, “but (that’s) not quite okay in this geography.”
•Respect time. “Even a couple minutes late (warrants) profuse apologies,” says Siddhartha Thygarajan of Opera Solutions, who spent time in Germany and Singapore, “unlike India, where time is stretchable.”
•Learn something about the local culture. In India, it’s cricket, but in the Netherlands, says Shankar of Philips, it is better to chat about skiing and football.
•Enjoy the scenery. Most sites in Europe are a train ride or short flight away from the rest of the continent. Many sites in Latin America are a few hours from the beach.