It’s now common for multinationals to have operational hubs in Asia – in Hong Kong, India or elsewhere – but many struggle coming to grips with a workforce whose demands and expectations are perhaps surprisingly diverse. It turns out that what motivates employees in Malaysia might not work in Japan, and what concerns people in China may leave Indian employees indifferent.

In September, Rakuten AIP, a leader in online research in Asia, released the results of a survey that might offer some pointers. Exploring employee motivation in workplaces in nine major Asian economies – China, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Malaysia and Singapore – the survey affirms the importance of nuanced cultural awareness in successfully managing employees across the region.

First of all, let’s look at the major points of agreement. The survey revealed that in all nine of the economies surveyed, the greatest point of dissatisfaction at work was money. A total of 40.1% of respondents identified “salary amount” as their top concern. Financial concerns were also behind the second most common answer, “bonus,” which took 27.1% of the total.

Likewise, there was some agreement on the most satisfying things about a workplace. “Ease of commute” was the most popular answer in all markets except Vietnam, where “nice workplace environment,” “matching with my skill” and “ability to take plenty of paid leave” all ranked higher.

Other patterns emerged along national lines. When asked what motivates them at work, people in China, India and Malaysia tended to mention “opportunity for personal skill / career development” (alongside “salary”), while in Taiwan, “nice workplace environment” was a more common answer.

Japan was a significant outlier in at least two of the measures. In response to the question about points of dissatisfaction at work, 48 of 222 respondents in this country answered “I’m generally happy with my job” – far more than in the next highest countries, China (27/223) and Thailand (25/221). Meanwhile, when Japanese were asked the opposite, about what satisfies them at work, 38 answered “nothing” – far ahead of the next highest countries to answer that way (Hong Kong at 16/226 and Taiwan at 14/226).

Two other interesting outliers were Thailand and Singapore, especially with regard to points of satisfaction at work. In those two countries “salary amount is good” was the third most popular answer (chosen by  69 and 52 respondents respectively). That same answer ranked just 5th in India and Malaysia, the next highest countries, and as low as 10th in Japan.

Employee motivation in Asia

When analyzed by gender, the results were also striking. Males prioritize a “skill / personality matching” job (2nd), while females prefer a good “team relationship / atmosphere / culture” (2nd by a wide margin). Women also care a lot more about “commute” than men, perhaps showing the drive for greater work-life balance.

For Asian millennials (18-34 year olds), the 3rd most important factor at work is having a “good office / team relationship / atmosphere / culture,” showing their desire for a highly engaging office culture, while workers 35 or older seemed less motivated by salary, scoring lower per respondent than their younger counterparts on average. Instead, workers over 35 (likely, more conscious of their strengths and weaknesses than millennials) selected “job role is matching my skill / personality” as their second most important factor.

For global companies looking to hire and keep top talent in Asia, it’s critical to identify and make adjustments for the cultural differences of employees. As globalization creates an ever shrinking world, cultural sensitivity isn’t less important in business, but more. Through greater understanding of local workforces, international firms can truly flourish.