Polychronic Cultures: Time Is a Flexible Concept in Different Countries

This article is in partnership with Day Translations and DayVIP.

In most industrialised countries time is neatly broken down into units of measure such as days, hours, minutes and so on. Time as a concept is also linear: we consider the past as something that is behind us, while the future is ahead of us. We even use a time/space combination to calculate extremely long distances such as those between planets (light years).

Time is linear and follows a clear path with no room for discussion or deviation.

We share a monochronic culture if we have been raised using these concepts. The main advantage of sharing the same knowledge about time is that you can quite easily arrange meetings and schedule travel leaving almost no margin of error. There is an implied acknowledgement that all parties in a meeting agree to attend at the same time and that all passengers in a flight, for example, will travel from their departure gate to their destination together at the same time. The implication is also that scheduled times are fixed and are not subject to flexibility, unless some intervening force majeure cause disrupts them.

Monochronic vs Polychronic Cultures: Possibilities for Friction

Compare the attitudes towards time in places such as Brazil and Mexico with places such as the United States and Germany.

In countries below the Equator, attitudes towards time can be more relaxed and allow for more flexibility. The priority is to build relationships rather than sticking blindly to deadlines. In polychronic cultures it is common to run meetings featuring more than one conversation happening at the same time, something that resembles more the working group sessions that happen in conferences or Zoom calls when you join a breakout room.

Ultimately, this way of working and thinking about time gives more importance to the goals you achieve rather than the process you use to achieve them and to come to specific conclusions.

Do Multinational Companies Adapt for Polychronic Cultures?

You may not see it spelled out in corporate press releases that a particular company follows a polychronic approach to work, but there are several instances of companies that want to ensure they accommodate diversity of cultural backgrounds.

Multinational companies may have various offices and members of staff in different locations. Management in such companies knows that adaptability is a key skill and that individuals from other cultural backgrounds may have their own working style.

A 2009 paper by the Project Management Institute looked at how global teams can work together across regions using a “highly matrixed environment”. The case study in question was IBM and its global workforce across the US, Europe and Asia speaking different native languages (German, French, English, Korean and Chinese), located in different time zones.

However, after reading the case study, while it was acknowledged that teams were distributed in multiple locations and timezones, the key conclusion was that using strict project management processes enabled the successful completion of a project. In other words, a standardised and centralised process was rolled out to the international offices and teams, which had to follow the planned schedule and achieve the allocated deliverables. To quote from the study:

“Within the organization, projects were driven by project managers.”

Indeed looked at the differences between monochronic and polychronic cultures, and how that affects time management across global teams.

Polychronic approaches have different events happening simultaneously and are not only more difficult to manage but also to predict. Polychronic cultures thrive on multitasking and on making adjustments for other people. Work is done in groups with different projects merging together.

In a workplace setting, a flexible work arrangement can cater for the needs of staff members who may have caring commitments, for example.

Monochromic work schedules are more linear and events are carefully planned, but also they interlink so delivering one project ensure that following projects run smoothly. Punctuality and focusing on one task at a time are key components of this approach. Goals, strict timelines and individuals are valued above the team as a group.

Polychronic Approaches Beyond Work

If you are from a country in northern Europe and have friends from southern Europe, you will know that meeting up socially can be a bit of a project in itself. Of course, there are exceptions, but for the sake of the argument, we can say that you are likely to see a more flexible approach to time in places like Spain, where it is not generally frowned upon to be late for a meet up with friends.

A meeting time can be an invitation to consider turning up within 30 minutes or one hour from that time. What’s really important is turning up and then go together somewhere to create a shared experience.

Ultimately, we shouldn’t judge either monochronic or polychronic cultures, or deem one “worthier” or better than the other. What we can do collectively is to learn about local habits and adapt our mentality to accommodate the needs of others. This is particularly true for localisation, for example, when translated content has to be adapted and put into the right context to suit a specific audience.