Different ways of doing things in different countries can cause challenges and delays when working on a project, but they can also lead to its more successful conclusion, says Alinea’s Iain Parker 


The UK, and London in particular, is still a strong place for overseas clients to invest in development, and cultural differences often exist between the way these international clients do business “at home” and how things are typically done here.

These differences can manifest themselves in a series of challenges, but embracing rather than fighting them is much more likely to yield a better result for the project – and a happier client.

Cultural differences can affect all aspects of a development, from briefing through design, procurement and construction. Ways of communication, attitudes, behaviours, values and decision-making processes can all vary, and these topics all culminate in the ultimate acid test of trust.

We often forget that when the client and project team are located in the same city or country, communication and the passing of messages implicitly is frequently the norm. The closer the space we share (consider a co-located project office environment) and the more similar our cultural backgrounds, the stronger our reliance on unspoken cues.

Even in a world of video conferencing, there is no replacement for physically being in a room together

In these settings we seem to have an ability to communicate in shorthand, sometimes without realising it – picking up on tone of voice and subtext. But when the client is based overseas, this represents more of a communication challenge. Even in a world of video conferencing, there is no replacement for physically being in a room together.

This challenge is often tackled through the appointment of a local company representative or a development manager, or perhaps both. This can work if the local person or development manager is properly empowered to make decisions and keep things moving.

But this is often not the case as real control generally stays in the country of the head office. For construction projects, which rely upon effective and efficient decision making, this can become a real issue and quickly lead to project delays.

Differing cultural attitudes can make a difference to a building’s design. Overseas clients often want to see certain aspects of the building looking the same as they would back home. This can lead to quite interesting conversations with letting agents who want to find an occupier for a product that is tried and tested in the location where it is being built, rather than the origin country of the client.

This alternative way of thinking extends to procurement and how the building should be bought, and this can be a real challenge on which to reach agreement. At the heart of procurement is price and contractual arrangement and there are often very fixed views as to how this is best done and what represents value. These views can be polarised from one continent to the next.

This can require lengthy conversations along with the first real test of trust. The topic becomes an education piece for the overseas client on the art of the possible within the UK construction supply chain and the nuances of contractual arrangements and hybrid approaches, and this is where language and communication skills become essential in order to be clear and manage expectations.

The key to overcoming international cultural difference is to make time and effort at the very start to embrace the way in which the overseas client likes and expects to work. Behavioural traits vary from country to country so it is important to do some research.

In some cultures, it is rude to make eye contact for instance, while in others, business partners stand very close to one another and only shake hands in a limited number of contexts. It might be inappropriate to ask personal questions about someone’s relations in the US but elsewhere it is expected that you will inquire about a client’s family.

Embracing cultural differences rather than fighting them will go a long way to avoiding bumps in the road

So what are the expectations? How will decisions be made? How are communication protocols best managed?

Embracing cultural differences rather than fighting them will go a long way to avoiding bumps in the road and will also act as a vehicle for innovation and doing things differently, and perhaps doing them better. It is narrow-minded to think that every alternative idea or custom from overseas does not offer a means to improve.

While the UK property and construction market is pretty good on the global stage, it does still have the opportunity to learn from overseas influence. So embrace, don’t fight.

Iain Parker is a partner at cost consultant Alinea