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Cubicle du monde

Cubicle du monde
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First Published: Fri, Nov 11 2011. 10 29 PM IST

Updated: Fri, Nov 11 2011. 10 29 PM IST
If you’re wondering why the title of this week’s column sounds romantic, sophisticated, prone to public displays of affection and dressed in an overly tight suit, well there is a very good reason for that. It is French. Or, as S.M. Krishna likes to call it, Italian.
What it really means is: Cubicle Of The World.
And that is the topic of today’s collective rumination on the cubicle life: the international workplace.
Now as many of you may have noticed, due to the relative success of the Indian economy, Indian workplaces are increasingly becoming cosmopolitan. Today, it is entirely normal to walk into the office of even medium-sized companies in Mumbai, and find people from places such as Bhayander.
But that is not all. Ever since the world economy began to slump in 2008, the Western nations are a state of turmoil. Industries such as media, publishing, finance and Greece stand on the brink of annihilation. Therefore, many young people in those countries are forced to seek opportunities in emerging markets.
This poses unique challenges for people like you and me, who are used to the generally homogenous nature of the Indian workplace. Yes, I know that people from various parts of India can be quite different. But still we are held together by certain nationwide cultural singularities, such as unexpected joy at realizing that tomorrow is “Mahavir Jayanti” holiday, sudden onset of pharmaceutical expenditure towards financial year-end, and intranet websites designed by sociopaths.
However, when people from other countries join our offices, they are unable to bond over such cultural similarities. Such things are alien to them. These expatriates go back home each evening, thumb through their Hindi-English-Expat dictionary, and wonder why as soon as the CEO left the room, the assistant sales manager whispered “brother-in-law, you will hit the death of dog!”
Equally, locals are also often befuddled by foreign colleagues. Let me explain with an example.
Many years ago, I participated in an orientation-cum-training exercise along with a few recruits from Australia. Things went well till we were divided into groups and asked to work on collaborative team projects. My team included two highly enthusiastic Australians. As soon as our team objective was given to us, the Indian team captain immediately split the task into pieces and allocated one to each member.
The Australians were flabbergasted. “This is not how a team operates,” said one Aussie, his face radiating the naïvetè that comes with growing up in a functioning democracy. “Shouldn’t we first sit together, brainstorm and throw around ideas before preparing a solution?”
He had a valid point. A truly collaborative process means working together, and not individually. But he was unable to see the local Indian perspective: the faster we finish this nonsense, the better chance we have of leaving before the Marine Drive gets jammed.
After several awkward moments, we arrived at a compromise: the Indians carried on with work, while the Australians were told to go brainstorm as much as they wanted without getting in the way.
Yes, the team got the job done. But at what cost? In the pursuit of efficiency, the team made two visitors from Australia feel terrible. It was very satisfying.
So how does one make expats feel welcome?
You could start by patiently getting their names and naming norms right. This can avoid the following misunderstanding:
Japanese expat: “Have you seen Hattori-san?”
Sidin: “Many times. It was the basis for Sholay, no? One of Kurosawa’s best...”
The next important thing is inclusive communication. This means, as much as possible, communicating in a language they understand, and involving them in all formal and informal meetings. Avoid lapsing into your mother tongue when an expat is around, and if you do, translate immediately (however, in the beginning, there is no harm in teaching amusing wrong translations. This helps to lift office morale: “Boss! Chaar roti and do ullu ke patthe parcel please...” )
Next you can help these expats settle into their new homes and neighbourhoods. If they agree, visit them on the weekends and help smooth the transition. Expats often need help buying furniture, electronics and other white goods. During this process persuade them to buy well-known brands. Two or three years later, when the expats get fed up of India and decide to move, you can buy these off at throwaway prices.
The next step is of great all-round benefit: subject the expat to several Indian movies. These movies may be of any genre, language and period, as long as they fulfil one criterion: the movie is NOT Slumdog Millionaire.
If I had a dollar for every time a foreigner brought up that infernal film, I’d have enough money to buy two or even, gasp, three litres of petrol.
Over time, the idea is to make the expat feel just like any other member of the office. This will require compromises and outreach in the beginning. But over time, you will be able to create a truly international workplace of the 21st century.
Weekend homework: Find a local shop that stocks Slumdog Millionaire DVDs. Burn it down.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at cubiclenama@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Nov 11 2011. 10 29 PM IST