Connecting through cross-cultural awareness

Photo credit: Anthony Armiger Jr.

How a game designed for inclusion and cross-cultural awareness became an excellent team-building opportunity after the pandemic

I have a question for you: what are some of the great things that can happen when you bring 20 people together in one big room after not having been together in person throughout the entire pandemic?

One answer is simple: a boost of intercultural competence, mixed with a sense of connection and personal growth. That’s what the visionary leader of Engel & Volker’s Service Desk Department, Tomas Dacke, chose to offer his team at the first on-site get-together at their Hamburg headquarters. Three months ago, the city of Hamburg loosened its rules with regards to the coronavirus pandemic, and now people are allowed to come together without any legal restrictions – this allowed Tomas and EnglishBusiness to imagine a simulation experience that perfectly fitted his team’s needs to have fun and connect while also learning something meaningful and valuable for their work.

For the past two and a half years, companies have been holding their trainings and workshops in virtual settings. Online learning is powerful but employees are missing the magic that comes from personal interaction among colleagues. I had the privilege of being on the team of energised and insanely motivated trainers for this very first physical, unrestricted face-to-face simulation since the pandemic began. And guess what? It was a HUGE success!

The Engel & Völkers Service Desk team, which includes employees from all around the world, contacted EnglishBusiness to lead an interactive cross-cultural simulation, a playful way to experience how it feels to be culturally misunderstood and then feel the relief of understanding each other. Here, “culture” is not meant as “nationality” but just “the way we do things around here”. “Here” can be your town, your company, your rowing club.

In the beginning, it felt unusual and somehow wrong that everyone was together in close quarters after two years of not being able to do so. But after the first five minutes, everything changed, and everyone was able to relax, have fun and experience something new, all while learning something that is so very important for communication at all levels, whether in the office or on vacation.

What did we do, you ask?

We separated everyone into two groups and literally created two different, totally imaginary cultures, each with its own language, gestures, mimics and rules. You heard me right: ten people learned and adopted one culture, while the other ten separately learned and adopted another culture, all within one hour!

After that, we allowed them to interact with each other but only in short bursts. The reactions from the participants? Curiosity, intrigue, hesitation, frustration, laughter; you name it, they experienced it. After these interactions, we brought everyone back together and discussed what happened, while watching their “intercultural” interactions on videos that I and Lisa Wilden, our lead trainer, took while running the simulation. The participants from the one culture were able to explain more about their “ways of life” to the participants from the other culture and vice versa.

The end result?

A so-called “aha effect”. Everyone wanted to know more about the other culture, and they wanted to understand why the other people interacted the way they did while in the simulation. All three of the trainers, Lisa, Shaun and I, then discussed the feelings that everyone experienced while trying to interact with the other culture. The participants quickly became more aware of how cultural differences and intercultural interactions can lead to various levels of feeling and emotion. They also learned how they can take advantage of the cultural differences among themselves and apply it to their work. That, all in a period of just four hours.

How did the participants feel about this?

“This exercise was a great fit for us since we have discovered 11 different cultural backgrounds in my department alone, and in turn we are supporting an organization spread over 35 countries. Not only did this open our eyes in regards to how we handle our customers but it also served as a perfect event to quickly improve our collaboration after 2 years of pandemic related home office!”

Tomas Dacke

Why is this important?

This game is a powerful metaphor for the power of curiosity and interest to create tolerance and understanding whenever there is potential for discrimination, bias and othering. This can happen between departments in a company, not just across cultures in different countries. If people can become more aware of how their differences can be turned into something beautiful and productive, then multinational companies like Engel & Völkers will be able to utilise such differences to identify the best approach towards finding solutions to whatever challenges they face.

And the cherry on top?

We were all able to experience it together in person in one big room and forget about the pandemic of the past two years. Thank you for your courage to bring us all together again, Tomas. For my part, I’m ready to do this again soon. Bring on the games!

Want to learn more about cross-cultural simulations and other team-building formats? Give us a call or send us an email – we would be delighted to talk about options with you.

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