Even in today’s globalised business environment, a lot of assumptions still get made when you set up an office in a different country.
In the case of FoodByUs, we are a technology-led business and now Australia’s leading online wholesale food ordering platform. We launched in 2016 and made a choice early on to set up an office in the Philippines as a way to extend our operational capability and plug gaps in our skillset that we couldn’t fill locally.
Our first attempt to set up outside our home country was pre-pandemic. Unsurprisingly the period that followed presented several challenges, with border closures making it impossible for us to successfully navigate. And yet, the silver lining was being able to recognise what wouldn’t work in this scenario. Our learnings influenced an alternate strategy that we were confident could be implemented successfully once borders re-opened.
Having just spent a week based out of our international office, alongside our Head of People & Culture, John Petty, I can unequivocally say it has turned out to be one of the most empowering and positive initiatives we’ve undertaken.
We’ve been consistently surprised and delighted by the cultural enrichment that our Manila-based team has brought to our Australian operation and the learnings that have come from it.
Set yourself up to succeed
We went to significant lengths to set up the Manila office in the way we wanted to run it. That meant establishing a company and taxable entity with the Philippines government, renting our own office space, and directly hiring our employees.
It was a long and complex process, but we now have total control over the operation, which was crucial to achieving a working environment that reflects and reinforces our own ethos and company values.
The sales admin, operations and web development specialists working in our Manila office are fully integrated into everything our company does. We start from the premise that we value them equally to everyone else in the team, and implemented exceptional multi-channel communications, to help negate any sense of physical or social distance.
Importantly, we installed a manager in the Manila office who has been with us pretty much since the beginning of FoodByUs. Danica has been integral to helping achieve the cultural alignment we wanted. She began working for us as a freelancer and is now a signatory on all our arrangements in the Philippines. She has been to Australia to see our operation, and I’ve flown over there many times to spend time with her and the wider team. Having someone on the ground in whom you can have implicit trust and who understands the big picture has been key for us.
Two teams, one set of goals
Another important goal was to blend the two teams so that they work in an interconnected way, rather than giving the remote team their own set of tasks to complete. The instruction or guidance might come from Australia, but the outcomes and outputs are shared. A top priority is also to communicate in a way so that everyone understands not just the instructions and the goal, but the context behind it. It’s also about communicating the mission, and how every person helped us achieve that, as a way of reinforcing their intrinsic value to the business.
What we didn’t expect was the cultural enrichment we’ve achieved. Our Filipino co-workers work hard, but they’re fun to work with and love celebrating achievements and milestones in a joyous way that a lot of Australian workplaces could learn from. While we already pride ourselves on having built a strong culture at FoodByUs. We are always open to improvement and it’s sometimes embracing the smaller, less formal things that can make a big impact.
Find the cultural sweet spot
There are cultural differences, of course, and it has been good for us to see and acknowledge those – for example, not everyone is quite as direct as we Aussies can be. Different cultures get things done in subtly different ways and it’s good for all of us to grow our understanding and tolerance for people and practices that are different from what we’re used to.
And far from costing jobs, the integration into our team of an office in another country has presented us with an opportunity to push some of our local staff into more senior roles working alongside and managing the Manila team.
Overall, we’ve become a more well-rounded and responsive business, which has more than offset the time and cost it took to set up the Manila office.
Just as importantly, through hard work and attentiveness to the arrangement, we’ve developed a cultural alignment that’s been great for FoodByUs, but is also fostering personal growth for all of us. It has been a win-win for everyone.