How does Multilingualism work at Picalike?

post inage multilingualism
Maik in front of the logo
For almost a year now, multilingualism has played a significant role at Picalike: a German-speaking team here in Germany, a Portuguese-speaking team in Brazil and, as common ground, the company language in the joint meetings is English. Three languages in one company – how does that work? I asked our project manager Maik Kade, the interface between the teams! Spoiler alert: He has worked in the intercultural field for years, as you can see immediately from his answers!

Dear Maik, you speak German as your native language and both English and Portuguese at a very high level. However, not everyone at Picalike does. Could you explain in more detail how the communication between the development teams works?

Communication currently occurs in three languages: German, English and Portuguese. However, different communication situations must be distinguished here:
  • Company-wide written documentation, for example, of tasks, technical details, problems and the like. In other words, everything that could be read now or in the future by any person and contains work-related information. This is all done in English.
  • Written communication in the chat channel, which in our case is Slack. As long as the course of the communication is only relevant to the people writing to each other, and as long as all the people present in the channel can also use this language at a high skill level (B2 or more), the people involved are allowed to decide on the language used. Otherwise it is English.
  • Meetings and real oral communication proceed in the same way as written chat communication. English is the default, unless everyone present speaks German or Portuguese at a high proficiency level.

What other moments are there when you have to choose a language? And how do you choose?

In addition to the communication examples already mentioned, there are also some special possibilities that I encourage the use of, if the situation allows it.
  • In certain situations (mostly oral communication), it is possible to work purely on the receptive competencies. Linguistically proven and I think easy to understand for every foreign language learner is that the comprehension competence (reading/listening) is always higher orally and in writing than when performant (writing/speaking). Therefore, there are sometimes situations where we allow people to perform in their strongest performing language, if the comprehension skills of the conversation partners are high enough to follow a “native speaker”. This can compensate for deficits in competencies. With the help of an example, it becomes clearer: Person A speaks German very well, understands English well and Portuguese well. Person B speaks Portuguese very well, understands German well and little English. The best possible communication would then be that A speaks German and B Portuguese. And not what is often found in reality: Both speak English with each other, but have enormous communication problems.
Multilingualism Picalike
  • Whenever it is particularly difficult to understand each other or a topic is very sensitive, we have several people in the company who have a high level of proficiency in all three languages and can be asked to act as mediators/translators at any time. I myself am one of them. This helps the team a lot.

Employees are proficient in English at a wide range of levels. How does that work?

In general, communicating with each other in a non-native language is a great challenge, which is too often underestimated, especially in the case of English. After all, everyone speaks English today… right? First of all, this is still a misconception, because especially in many non-European countries English does not automatically play an important role in education, or the quality of education can simply be insufficient. Brazil actually belongs to the latter case and “good” English is more the exception than the rule. And even in Europe, not everyone speaks English equally well. Now, if people speak a language at different levels of competence, then for me there are three stages in the ability to communicate.
  • The difference in language competence is so great that task- and problem-solving-oriented efficient communication is simply not possible.
  • The difference is small, so that tasks/problems can be worked on together. But it is still large enough that the more linguistically competent person can often argue better than the other person due to his/her linguistic competence and therefore has an advantage in asserting him/herself that is not based on expertise.
  • The difference is marginal and cases 1 and 2 do not occur. From now on, only pure personality and expertise count. And we all know that even that is not always easy.
In our company all 3 situations exist and we try to compensate for the competence discrepancies through the possibilities mentioned in the previous question. But it always means that communication takes more time and requires a more sensitive approach than when only situation 3 prevails. Unfortunately, I have to emphasize here again that especially situation 2 regarding global communication in English is far too often underestimated by companies in the world.

Language is also a part of a culture. Do you also notice this in the communication within the company? Does a bit of wit sometimes get lost?

If that means culture/language-specific humor, then that certainly happens sometimes, although everyone in our company really makes an effort to translate such things directly and try to convey the culturally specific nature of a situation, a pun or a joke to the others. I think that’s great, because it at least promotes some of the intercultural competence of our international team.
But it would indeed be bad if this mutual information exchange did not take place. This can very quickly lead to the formation of groups by language and, in the worst case, to the exclusion/discrimination of individuals or cultural groups. I think that every company, that relies on internationally mixed teams, must make sure that there are qualified employees who monitor and train the communication within the company.

What are the benefits for the company of having multilingualism within the team?

From the company’s point of view, the extra effort required for communication monitoring and training, as well as generally longer communication times in some cases, can act as a deterrent. But interculturality can also bring considerable advantages.
  • The first thing that always comes to mind is the concept of synergy. That is, the combination of individuals/teams that provides more than just additive value. This is made possible by people from different cultures working together. Because that always means: different ways of looking at tasks and problems, different working methods and, accordingly, a greater potential for solutions and progress in the company.
  • And then there is also the constant search for suitable specialists or for personnel in general. If I don’t have to limit myself to just one country, then I have more options, or in some cases even any options at all.
  • Last but not least, our employees feel at home in an international company precisely because they have the opportunity to work with people from other cultural backgrounds and also benefit personally from this exchange. This can bond a team and retain employees.

What advice would you give to a company that is in the process of implementing multilingualism?

The first is to deal with the challenges of multilingualism beforehand and also to admit your own lack of expertise and not just think, “It’ll work out, everyone knows English.” Unfortunately, when it comes to language, everyone thinks they have a say pretty quickly, but de facto, trained staff and preparation for the challenge are the keys to success. Second: Realize that multilingual communication with each other means more time and it will certainly reduce team productivity in the beginning before the desired synergies kick in. Thirdly, to be familiar with the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) in the European area, at least in the field of levels, as well as with the common examinations such as B2 for the professional, C1 etc. The still often used terms “business fluent, fluent, native speaker” are too vague and poorly measurable.
The levels according to the CEFR are that and describe very precisely what someone can do. They apply to all languages spoken in the EU. This helps with applicants and assessing the language compatibility of existing teams. Fourth, help employees develop foreign language skills. There are so many options: Company courses, financial support for language courses, encouraging language exchange (tandem concept) in the company. And there is so much more!

Thank you very much for the elaborate answers!

If you have any further questions for him, don’t hesitate to write to us. Or have a look at our blog – for example under “Inside Picalike“.

1 year project manager at Picalike

Projektmanager

A little over a year ago, the picalike team decided that they would like to have a project manager. Since then, a lot has happened: internal restructuring, a spontaneous switch to 90 percent mobile working due to Corona, and a move to betahaus Hamburg. It’s exciting to hear what this challenging time was like for Maik Kade.

Projektmanager

Hey Maik, phew, how time flies! You've been a project manager with us for a year now. What was your best experience during this time?

A year goes by really fast. It’s hard for me to find a single, most beautiful experience. From a professional point of view, certainly that after only 3 months I was told by C.E.O.. Sebastian told me that he almost regretted not having brought me on board as project manager some time before. For me, as a career changer, this was very reassuring, as it gave me the confirmation that I had become well acquainted with my new area of responsibility and that it was something I could do. Overall, though, it’s more like I’m happy to be part of the picalike family every day.

A lot has changed since you started here. What change/new feature are you most excited about?

I am especially happy that together we have managed to build a very agile framework for our development team, which works hand in hand in collaboration with all other stakeholders. The agile idea has certainly always been a part of picalike, but in the last year we have managed to bring this hidden diamond in the rough out of our soil and give it the right polish.

You mainly coordinate the development teams. What are the biggest challenges? And how do you master them?

For me, the biggest hurdle was that I am a linguist and former lecturer, and the technical side, the know-how of a development team, was and sometimes still is something I know little about. How do you master the task of assisting a team with project management when you yourself have no say at all on the technical level? By taking a deep breath and realizing that such in-depth knowledge is not at all necessary for my job, even if I personally don’t like it from time to time because I would like to understand everything. But that is not what my job as a project manager is about.

I see myself as the symbolic grease in the gears. When everything is going well, I’m hardly noticed at all. But in order to keep everything running smoothly, it’s important that everyone knows what the others are doing, what they can do, and where help may be needed. So it’s all about communication.

I enable and encourage communication. I always have an open ear for everyone, even for private matters. Employees are people, not machines. I am present in almost all planning meetings: often as a moderator, sometimes as a mediator, and again and again I like to be the person in the company who, for example, is allowed to ask the “stupid” questions in commit meetings. Just the questions that a specialist sometimes doesn’t ask, but which can nevertheless reveal problems and solutions. My lack of knowledge occasionally forces the team to change their perspective.

Furthermore, knowledge exchange and documentation are two areas of communication that are elementary for a development team. In our company, knowledge and documentation are not hoarded individually, but as a collective treasure that has to be gathered together. But this has to be organized, it should not be boring and, above all, it should not be time-consuming. As a didact, I am challenged to find the best way to do this.

After your first few months, the Corona pandemic hit Germany, a very challenging time for project managers... How was the transition to a home office handled?

Surprisingly, this was less challenging in our case than we had all assumed. Before the pandemic started, we had a very soft version of remote working. There were some who worked remotely one day a week or every two weeks. But otherwise, we were always in the office. However, since we had been looking for a new location since the beginning of the year, there were always slight thoughts of working more remotely.

When the pandemic broke out, Sebastian, our CEO, asked us openly how we wanted to deal with the situation. Everyone was in favor of mobile working, at least for now. The basic requirements were there: every employee already had a laptop and accessories. It was just clarified whether anyone needed anything special still for the home office, such as office chairs. We are a small, very dynamic team that, by the very nature of our products, is used to constantly adapting to changing situations.

I think we can count ourselves among the lucky few whose workday may have actually gotten better as a result of the pandemic, and who probably won’t want to and won’t go back to their old workday even after it’s over. That is quite a privilege for which I am more than grateful.

Thank you very much for the interview and your always open ear. I hope you continue to enjoy your work here at Picalike!