Language barriers in the workplace are a massive headache for businesses. Organisations are becoming more globalised whether that be multiple bases/offices or even a mix of nationalities and cultures that exist in the workforce. Misunderstandings caused by language differences can cause friction, disrupt productivity and even cause safety breaches.
University of Oxford researchers found that 18% of the employed population in the UK are from outside of the country. That is almost a fifth of your workforce on average, not to mention remote workers or in other locations across the globe.
As big a hurdle as they can be, linguistic issues can be avoided, helping to remedy the aforementioned and promote inclusivity.
In this blog, we’ll look at:
- Causes of language barriers at work
- Why are workplace language barriers an issue
- Practices for overcoming language barriers
- How Oak’s Auto Translations can help
Causes of language barriers at work
On the face of it, language barriers in the workplace are easy to explain. They are caused as a result of language differences or difficulties in understanding dialects. While this is true at its core, there are several things that exacerbate the problem for both organisations and employees.
- Disparate communication channels and information sources
- No line of communication to deskless workers
- Remote workplaces with a lack of digital workplaces
- Time differences between office locations
- Complex language from internal communication
Communicating and engaging with an international workforce is one of the most difficult things a communicator can do. There are however practices, particularly with modern technology, that can help tackle the root causes. Equally, there are stark consequences for those that do not address them.
Why are workplace language barriers an issue?
Higher incident rates
If your safety procedures are written in or signposted in English, then non-native speakers may struggle to access or understand them. Research by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that 25% of workplace accidents are caused by language barriers. In the US the yearly cost of workplace injuries is $161 billion and in the UK £18.8 million.
The costs of safety incidents financially, physically and mentally are irreparable. Eradicating issues related to language or miscommunication is worth its weight in gold when it comes to safety procedures.
What to look out for: Accidents in the workplace, health and safety violations, unsafe and unregulated shortcuts.
Additional workload for HR
Incident rates will put a strain on the entire organisation’s time and resources, not least HR. For health and safety policies to be adhered to, HR will need to ensure that all employees understand in order to avoid safety incidents.
When you don’t have the tools that ease content access and readability, HR will spend much of their working day fighting proverbial fires and picking up the pieces. HR may also face an influx of administrative tasks related to incident reporting and documentation. When safety incidents occur, HR is responsible for properly documenting and reporting these incidents, conducting investigations if necessary, and ensuring compliance with legal and regulatory requirements. Without efficient tools to streamline these administrative processes, HR's time and resources can be further strained, impeding their ability to address other critical HR functions effectively.
What to look out for: Lack of training diversity, infrequent multi-lingual comms company wide
Recommended Reading 📖: Employee Engagement Guide for HR Experts
Ineffective internal communication
You can create a compelling narrative that inspires action, but if it can’t be communicated to all employees then you’re minimising the impact by default. Imagine reading regular communications that aren’t written in your native language. Ineffective internal communication breeds disengagement among employees. When important messages fail to reach everyone or are not communicated in a language they understand, it creates a sense of detachment and apathy. Imagine regularly receiving communications that are not in your native language – it's not only draining but also leaves you feeling disconnected and uninspired. To prevent disengagement, HR must prioritise clear, inclusive communication methods that resonate with all employees. By doing so, they can foster a more engaged workforce and ensure that crucial messages regarding safety and company initiatives are effectively carried out.
What to look out for: Monopoly of content written in one language, poor engagement rates, lack of uptake in employee response
Recommended Reading 📖: How to Skyrocket Internal Engagement
Employees who do not receive comms they understand are also a lot less likely to understand the vision, values and culture your organisation stands for. They won’t know where they can leave feedback and how to find content or groups relevant to them. When one group of employees don’t buy into the culture of the organisation then it can spread, or at the very least cause divisions within the workforce.
Digital workplaces should be a vehicle to promote inclusivity, which is why Oak’s with auto translations, everyone can access content that has been translated into their preferred language, with over 100 languages supported.
Change Management Expert, Hilary Scarlett, wrote in Oak’s Change Report: “Human beings are deeply social creatures. This is an area many organisations underestimate – our need for social connection. Feeling that we have someone who will listen to us at work makes a big difference to our resilience, our staying power and ability to think.”
What to look out for: ‘Tribes’ or established communities within the workplace that spread negativity, rise in negative feedback, disengaged employees
Recommended Reading 📖: CEO Pain Points and How to Overcome Them
Misalignment across offices
When wires are crossed in communication they have a domino effect. If one person doesn’t understand a process, policy or critical update, it will impact the entire organisation. If part of the workforce has different information from another, processes won’t be adhered to, different information will be relayed to customers and projects derailed.
When workplace communication is not universally understood, it will impact the operations of the entire organisation and cause avoidable chaos.
What to look out for: Disconnect, inconsistent procedures, lack of cohesion
Overcoming language barriers with Oak Engage
Employee engagement apps are particularly helpful for communicating with non-native speakers or deskless workers across different locations. Warehouse, retail and hospitality staff often lack access to company email or devices so making content digestible and engaging through mobile is essential to keeping them connected.
Boohoo utilised mobile comms to communicate updates with their multi-national warehouse staff. Having previously relied on notice boards, Oak’s engagement app allowed boohoo to target communication specifically tailored to non-native speakers. They now have all the information they need in a way that is easy for them to understand.
Make content accessible to everyone
Issues in communication will only be exasperated when employees don’t have access to the information they need. Foreign workers may not understand verbal instructions, particularly where regional dialects can overwhelm them. Giving them easy access to relevant content will allow them to digest information in a more manageable and concise way.
Oak’s content management allows employees to access documents and information from their desktop or mobile device so they are able to view it whenever they need clarity on information or policies.
Translation as a Communication Tool
Copying and pasting content into a translator for every nationality in the workforce would be an extremely time-consuming and tedious exercise. With Oak translation technology Auto-Translate, translation can be utilised as a communication tool to be used to enhance internal communication and employee experience.
Oak’s Auto Translate takes the effort out of translating content. Our AI-powered engine will translate content automatically based on the preferred language set by the user. More time to concentrate on your internal communication strategy and focus on what really resonates with your audience: the message..
How Oak’s Auto Translations can help
Having a workforce where there are several native languages can be a struggle for communicators. Oak’s auto translation supports more than 100 languages!
Auto Translate ensures that every employee can consume content in their preferred language, without the need for any legwork from your internal communications team. Oak provides translations based on the employee’s first language, as defined in their profile. From German to Japanese, every user’s native language is catered for.
Not only do workers receive consistent information in a way that is digestible to them, the efficiency of the system means that HR and internal comms don’t need to worry about messages being seen and understood by specific groups.
Director of Product Management at Oak, Dave Ferguson, says: " Intranet translation tools serve as the key to unlocking the full potential of your global team, allowing for seamless communication and collaboration."
Alongside translations, AI-curated content surfaces content for the individual based on permissions, their preferences and whether they need to see it. All employees are sent content that’s relevant to them, in a way they can understand it to create a truly individualised and immersive experience.