Communication, compliance, and compassion during the pandemic

Translation and localization are important aspects of modern business. In fact, they’re arguably the foundation of global industry, and yet even the largest, most culturally-diverse company can easily overlook the necessity of localization, unwittingly impacting important projects and even damaging employee morale.

The key is to remember that translation and localization, while closely intertwined, can mean very different things. Translation ensures that the meaning of information in one language can be accurately understood in another, but localization involves a more holistic effort: everything from adapting graphics to reflect cultural norms to appropriately addressing local laws and regulations. Localization also applies to things like currency units, paper sizes, date formats and expansion or contraction of text when going to or from English.

Localization Requires Cultural Fluency

Successful localization efforts require people who are fluent in the language, but also familiar with the regional and cultural nuances, dialects and speech patterns. Even among language variants such as American, Australian, and British English, there are subtleties: use of z versus s, putting the period inside the quotes or outside, and a host of slang expressions and colloquialisms. To create materials that are truly localized, companies must fully understand and accommodate such subtleties.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has made proper localization an even more pressing issue for global companies in all industries, in ways that many of us never anticipated. Now that so many professionals are working remotely, it’s imperative that organizations’ policy and procedure documents accurately convey new standards for compliance and accountability.

Comprehension is More Critical than Ever

Companies have an ethical obligation to ensure that employees fully understand how they’re expected to work together and interact during the pandemic. Remote work implies a broad range of new behaviors, and employees will likely require additional training and support to adapt. Using video conferencing for meetings is the most obvious example, but submitting reports, filling out time cards, and collaborating with team members must all be done differently when the employee is not on site. Clear and timely communication that has been properly localized is crucial for their success. Additionally, firms must be mindful of how they communicate about the pandemic itself. For example, in some cultures, standards for professional behavior have long required people to come to work even when they’re sick. Given the insidious nature of this virus, it’s especially important for companies to fight those norms with explicit and correctly localized instructions, especially for essential employees who cannot work from home.

Further, organizations should take steps to help all team members be aware of cultural differences and the nuances of dialect. For example, the Mandarin phrase for “social distancing” means “send far away” in the Wuhan dialect. And in India, where people speak more than one hundred different languages, the term is frequently used, translated, and understood in different ways. Clearly, HR and leadership should understand these differences when developing corporate communications, but ideally, awareness should extend to individual employees so that day-to-day conversations are as smooth and effective as possible.

Leverage Localization to Support Employee Wellness

Finally, most companies are doing their best to provide encouragement and support to employees who are juggling work and family life as well as a range of emotional challenges, from anxiety to boredom to plain old “cabin fever.” Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs, should involve localization efforts to support effective communication and ensure that employees genuinely benefit from them. Further, HR and leadership should craft messaging to take cultural nuances into account. An expression that’s meant to be uplifting and inspiring may not have the same impact or meaning in every language, and there may be traditional, culturally-influenced ways of communicating solidarity and compassion that the company would do well to leverage. For example, the German version of a memo about the employee wellness program might mention Kummerspeck, a uniquely Germanic word that literally means “grief bacon” but actually refers to gaining weight due to stress and emotional overeating.

Effective communication is critical to the success of a business, and even under the best circumstances, global organizations face significant challenges when communicating with a geographically and culturally diverse workforce. During these trying times, it’s more important than ever to understand and execute on the subtleties of localization, and do our best to support understanding as well as comprehension – for the good of our teams as well as that of our companies.