Time And International Business Relationships
Time clearly plays a big role in planning an International business trip, and the subsequent relationship can be a trying experience for anyone. It’s definitely the case that different cultures will clash more than others. Americans, for instance, have a very uniform and rigid expectation that much of the world conducts business more-or-less the same way. That is to say, holidays are fairly limited and known well in advance, and with few exceptions work will take precedence over personal time, and also that the work week is Monday through Friday (probably from about 8 or 9 in the morning, to about 5 in the evening). Throw into this an American sequential orientation (meaning, a schedule-driven mentality), and you have a recipe for disaster throughout much of the world.
Throughout India, for example, there are regional holidays that vary from one state to another. In fact, some specific regions will literally have holidays every week across several months — and while not everyone takes time off work for every holiday, this hardly makes it easier to manage: Knowing who will be at work on a given day can become a minor project of cultural awareness in and of itself. Just taking a quick look at my calendar, I can see significant holidays for New Years Day (January 1), January 24, January 26 (Republic Day), March 10, March 27-29 (both Holi and Good Friday), May 1 (Labor Day, an international observance), July 10, August 15, 20, and 28, September 9 and 16, October 2 (Mahatma Gandhi Jayanti), October 14 and 15, November 3 (Diwalli, which is generally followed by up to two weeks of celebration), November 14, December 25 (Christmas, also celebrated by many Indians). On top of these widely known and observed holidays will be quite a few local holidays that won’t show up on an International calendar.
Is the holiday on a Thursday, so most of the office just doesn’t show up on Friday? Or, like Venezuela, is it commonly accepted knowledge that you shouldn’t book appointments two or three days ahead of a holiday? If you’re visiting China near the New Year, plan some extra time to allow business to return to normal (you can’t count on anyone being back the week after the holiday, and for the next two weeks it’s almost impossible to schedule appointments because everyone is busy).
India is by no means unique. Turkey has more official and not-so-official vacations than any country in Europe. North and South Africa have very different holiday schedules, and many regions have quite a few local holidays that won’t show up on a typical International date book. Almost every country is going to have unique public holidays and different perceptions about local holidays and personal time off from work. Be sure you know if the person you want to visit is going to be working the week you arrive!
Personal allowances also vary greatly by country and business culture. Indian weddings often run for two weeks straight and it’s understood that anyone invited will be out of work for the entire time, if not longer as they visit friends and relatives in far away cities. From mid-July to early September much of Europe’s business activities come to a standstill as the regionally understood “vacation season” arrives. Unlike Americans, Europeans won’t be checking email while away from the office, either. Life, as a general rule, comes first before work — and a vacation means completely disconnecting from work. (But, keep in mind the reversal of seasons in the southern hemisphere, where Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina tend to shut down in January and February).
The Work Week
When planning your schedule around an International business relationship, be sure to take into account the hours and days of the work week, not just local vacation cycles. Throughout must of the West, the work week is Monday through Friday, but this preconception gets thrown out the window in many countries. Throughout the Middle East, the work week could be from Saturday through Wednesday, or Sunday through Thursday, or possibly Monday through Friday.
Likewise, there is no uniform way to know what a typical work day looks like. The work day could begin as early as 7:30 or as late as 10:00. In America lunch is probably an hour long or might just be taken at your desk, while in Latin America it may well be two hours long and followed by a siesta at home, before returning to the office around 3:00 in the afternoon (or, 1500, as some cultures will refer to “3:00 o’clock” using the 24-hour parlance). Work after lunch might resume promptly at 1:00 or, more likely throughout much of the world, sometime vaguely after lunch, and continue until 7:00 or 8:00 at night.
Working With An International Team
Once you return home, the logistics of staying in touch with your business partners may just be getting started. This is particularly true of tightly woven partnerships or outsourcing relationships.
Consider the implications of outsourcing technology to India, a culture that typically expects a high level of direction for its team members. This implies a great deal of communication. If you happen to be located in California, you’ll be adjusting to a time difference of either 11 and a half, or 12 and a half hours throughout the year. Even in the best of circumstances, you’ll be coordinating several conference calls every week at 9:00 p.m. or 6:00 a.m. between team members.
Throw into this the synchronous (or polychronic) Indian preconception about timeliness, and you could have some very frustrated Americans. Can you image a room full of groggy Americans, having driven to the office at 6:00 a.m., waiting on a conference call at 6:15 a.m. and starting to get very upset about the reliability of their partner (who has not yet dialed in)? I don’t have to imagine it, I’ve seen it too many times to recount.
Considering the implications of building an International team means taking local culture into account, including concepts about time and timeliness.