When your business is growing, opening a new studio abroad feels like a huge accomplishment in and of itself — you’ve made it! Certainly, expansion is exciting and rewarding. But, unless you approach the local culture with a certain level of empathy,your business may not reach its full potential.
Our company, Ustwo, started as a small digital studio in London and, over 13 years, we’ve expanded to three global locations — Malmö (in Sweden), New York and Sydney, with smaller footholds in Tokyo and Los Angeles. Along the way, we’ve had to overcome different and unfamiliar cultures and find the proverbial red thread that links these offices together as Ustwo.
Along the way, we’ve learned some lessons that may be useful to other expanding companies. So, while you’re pursuing new business (also critical!), you need to keep the following in mind:
Assume nothing. Investigate everything.
Before you begin hiring, get the lay of the land. Ask locals to share what workers in that market expect from their employer and (critically) what will make your own employees’ experience better.
After establishing Ustwo London and opening our second studio in Malmö, we set about implementing our “British way” of doing things. We prioritized things that we thought were important, and assumed (dirty word!) that our hard-won company culture would scale anywhere.
Things didn’t work out that way: We learned that something as simple as vacation time may not scale across offices. For example, our U.K. employees come from all over the world; and, generally, they use their vacation time to go home for short visits, which are frequent. In Sweden, however, the norm is a single block, three-to-four-week vacation — a distinct challenge for a leadership group reconciling a senior role disappearing for an entire month.
In addition, our British team quickly realized that people in Sweden had different work-life expectations than they did in the UK, at least at that time. So, we made an effort to build a more democratic studio culture, with a leadership style that was inclusive and distributed. We also moved to a fully flexible working day, where people are trusted to manage their own time.
Along the way, cultural faux pas created brilliant moments of clarity. And that prompted us to return to our core ethos: We’re a culture built on friendships and relationships; we trust our co-workers. The principles we adopted in Sweden fed back into our British ways of working with great success. Today, distributed leadership, self-organizing teams and trust are pillars of every studio.
The lesson learned? What is better than average in one work culture may be only the bare minimum of what’s expected in another work culture.
Put your best on the ground first. Share your ethos.
While your office culture should be localized and stay true to its respective local demographic, companies still need cohesion and a shared identity to succeed.
As you scale, for instance, it becomes important to codify your values. At our company, we still have lots of work to do on that measure, but we started by transferring a core team to each new studio. If you’re doing the same, these should be people who eat, sleep and breathe your organization’s methodology and approach to life and work.
That way, each office will have its own distinctive working culture and live up to the overall company’s overarching values and creative standards.
As an example, I’m proud of one particular red thread that knits our studios together: a belief in the value of equal parental leave policies. However, each studio still has a different approach to investing in working parents, based on the respective country, culture and government rules. Sweden is a world leader in parental-leave policies, with a government that incentivizes working parents.
Our New York studio, meanwhile, pioneered Pledge Parental Leave, an initiative which brought together a coalition of creative shops dedicated to improving parental leave. In addition, both the New York and London studios recently took a big step forward and introduced equal parental leave for both parents. On this, we’re proud to be among other progressive companies, like Spotify and Netflix, that have done this.
People everywhere are just that: people. If I blindly listened to some of the assumptions I’ve heard about New Yorkers (“They don’t even want to take vacation”; “All they care about is their career”), I’d be leading a very different studio. New York is an immense melting pot of radically different people, cultures and personalities.
At the end of the day, if you’re a nurturing company, the people you want to hire will likely share similar values and priorities in life.
Grow up, but never stop learning.
Engage with your competitors, see what they’re doing for their employees, and how they attract them. Don’t dismiss certain environments just because they don’t relate directly to your business. You might not have the same business model and size as companies like Spotify or AirBnb, but the reality is that everyone competes for the same talent.
Despite knowing that we’d need to create an individualized, local culture in New York, we worked to figure out how that culture should look — what would New Yorkers value most in a workplace? What inspires them? What do they think a “balanced life” looks like?
New Yorkers are shocked and pleasantly surprised when we offer them full flexibility and autonomy for managing their time. It doesn’t matter when our team members come in, or where they work from — as long as that scenario works for their teammates; and everyone’s responsibilities are taken care of.
In the United States, or at least in New York, we’ve also found that friendly competition is welcome. For Ustwo and our clients, harnessing this competitive energy while still staying true to our company values has proven very useful in terms of the productivity, happiness and overall output of our New York studio.
If you take one thing away here, let it be this: Just because something is good enough in one market doesn’t mean you can’t make things better and learn from your experience in other markets. Ultimately, your leadership style, policies and benefits need to be aligned with your values and what matters to you.
It’s up to you to lay proper foundations from the outset, to allow people to be happy, fulfilled and understood in their work.