ASEAN is a region of great socio-cultural diversity marked by various languages, races, historic art and culture and a heritage that spans centuries & civilizations. Though steeped in eastern philosophy, the region is quite modern and sophisticated in lifestyle. To the unacquainted, this can either come off as a wonderful experience or one that’s a bit confusing, where numerous cultural proprieties surround everyday practices.

In the wake of globalization, an increasing number of MNCs have found their way to the resource-rich landscapes of South East Asia where labour is cheap and consumption, plentiful. Companies have also benefitted from its internet-dependent populations who are startup savvy and have an open mind to innovation and technological disruption. Its increasing population has also witnessed a higher number of millennials at the workplace who are redefining concepts of hierarchy, inclusion and diversity at the workplace.

Nevertheless, the ASEAN has always been about its way of life, which transpires into the way business is done every day and how cultural nuances are reflected in conversations, gestures and gifting practices. A typical office represents a multi-general workforce that is not only diverse in race and religion, but also in languages and food habits, creating several challenges while building culture-friendly work environments.

Language, Documentation & the Art of Getting Your Phrases Right
Terms and agreement dossiers issued by the government for foreign investments in the country are mostly in the native tongue, which is one good reason why MNCs should get a dependable local partner to help them read the fine print. Even business proposals to new alliances should be made through proper reference letters (printed in one or two native languages) and formal introductions. Scouting for new business and new business partners will throw up the need to be more appreciative - demonstrating thanks and saying hello appropriately, using the right phrases while knowing that there will be deflections in meaning if not used correctly.

Business Exchanges & Top Level Networking
In the East, unlike the West, a business dinner or lunch would not always find itself the traditional five-star hotel as the background setting. It could be a grand one against the backdrop of the auspicious Chinese New Year celebrations or a Hari Raya Open House party organized by corporate giants. Festivity, cultural appreciation and gifting are common and serious practices which follow a silent protocol. Over gifting can also amount to being looked upon as bribery, and according to laws in some of the ASEAN countries, can put matters in hot water. Courtesy, also a hallmark of the region, requires one to make exchanges with both hands whether it’s a business card or formal greeting.

Timeliness, Sensitivity & Inclusion
While there’s a lot of talk on how differently people keep time in Asian nations, it’s always better to be prepared than hurry at the last moment. Considering the nature of everyday life, it’s common to expect delays, but not bank on them. Corporations coming in to ASEAN and hiring locals should have a clear understanding of their ways of life, prayer times, food habits (halal or non-halal/Buddhist or non-Buddhist/vegan) and cultural dress codes for men and women. Cafeterias that serve food should try to ensure that all kinds of food tastes are kept in mind. Even fine dining at business events should ensure the right meal is ordered or served to the right person without causing any hurt or offence.

Building Western Products for Eastern Consumption
There’s always a big question surrounding how well MNCs can build western products for the Eastern consumer. Tailoring the product to match local appetite is very important, paving the way for deep R&D in all sectors from F&B, banking and even FMCG. Global banks offer Islamic banking options to customers in Islamic countries while others such as insurance and retail brands customize clothing, cookware and other personal products to fit local customs and tastes. The advantages of having a local partner regulates business and enables the local partner to act as a shareholder if board members are new to the business or lack competency in ASEAN regulations.

Expat Presence & Team Diversification
Companies who bring in expats from Western nations can make things easier if the personnel is well trained to deal with how operations are run in the ASEAN. Factors such as who can be spoken to for a particular issue, whether that person will have decision-making authority, how hierarchies work in the East, work hours, timings, public holidays etc. can act like a beginner’s handbook for newcomers. Meetings with colleagues or heads of companies should be carried out gracefully without putting the person on the other end in a spot. Respect and courtesy are always admired and greatly rewarding in the future as it helps in faster networking.

Even though adaptation to ASEAN culture and working styles pave the way forward, companies should draw the line when it comes to compromising performance and productivity. As MNCs often try to strike a balance in this area, there are bound to be team members who are unhappy as expatriates come and go and take time to adapt. With a whole lot of cross-country labour migration, giant tech hubs manned by tech scientists, ASEAN is at the heart of transformation through its open markets, expanding talent base and innovative products. A work life spent amidst numerous cultures, cuisines, business philosophies and ethnic communities makes every moment worth exploring in Asia’s third largest trading bloc.

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