After years of being shaped by Western expectations of the workplace, working in an East African office can seem jarring by comparison. That isn’t to say there aren’t exceptions but it’s likely you’ll face these differences in other aspects of your daily life in East Africa.
With that said, the focus of this article isn’t about ‘coping’ with or changing the way things are. Rather, it’s important to gain an understanding of context, to challenge our own views, and to learn from the experience.
|Adapting to a new workplace in East Africa means taking a step back from your own internalised conventions and understanding the context of different workplace cultures!|
For the sake of argument, let’s take a look at one example to illustrate the importance of understanding, challenging our views against, and learning from one of the most prevailing workplace frustrations people from the West have in Uganda: time.
Things can be a lot slower than what you’re used to. Discussions might seem unhurried and long-winded. Meetings often start late and seemingly lack focus. Lunch breaks can last hours on occasion. It’s easy to joke about or be frustrated by “East African time”, but let’s try to unravel our concept of time and how it affects our views.
So, the next time you’re frustrated due to differences in workplace culture, ask yourself the following questions and work towards embracing the unfamiliar:
What is the gap between my expectations and what is happening? Why does this gap exist?
|It’s important to understand context. In reference to the issue of time, for example, there are fundamental differences in how time is viewed across cultures.|
Many of us come from societies that are monochronic. This means we view time as linear, by which any time passed is time lost, and, due to goal-oriented views on success, that time is spent focusing on the task at hand. This results in rigid views on timeliness and efficiency, in which interruptions are unwelcome.
Conversely, time in Uganda is polychronic. That is, time is viewed as free-flowing and is spent focusing on whatever is required at that moment, ultimately changing with the situation. This also derives from a greater importance on relationships (rather than completing tasks), by which time spent with colleagues is more important than handing in the proposal you’re working on. Neither view is more “right” than the other, simply different.
|Embrace slowing things down, take in the long silences, and realize your time isn’t any more valuable than anyone else’s!|
What’s the point of my being here, rather than somewhere else?
Sure, you might be learning some of the ins and outs of your field, but if your only concern is gaining professional experience directly related to, for example, your area of study, you’ll be missing out on the unique value and lessons that can be gained by working in this new environment. At that point, why not just do the same job in your home country or somewhere more ‘familiar’? Not to mention that the resulting growth and demonstrated adaptability of embracing a new workplace culture are great professional and personal traits to have.
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Which approach to the situation is best for my learning and success in the workplace?
If you’re in an environment that values relationships above deadlines, you’re probably better off going with the flow and being cooperative rather than harsh or rigid. If that means spending lunch hours chatting with your co-workers rather than working at your desk, so be it!
|Embracing the workplace culture also means making lasting connections with your colleagues that go farther than just a professional relationship!|
By embracing your new workplace culture in Uganda, you’ll earn the trust of your colleagues, foster a better working environment for yourself, and learn a lot by challenging your pre-conceived notions. So, take the time to reflect and you just might find that it’s a workplace that works for you.