The Rise of Cross Cultural Virtual Teams – and Their Challenges

China Unbound will be hosting a talk on 26 November with intercultural specialist RW-3 Cultural Wizard on ‘How to Succeed in a Cross Culture Workplace’. In this post, their Director of Learning, Sean Dubberke, shares with us his experience on intercultural challenges working with virtual teams and some tips human resources managers and team leaders can use to get the most out of them:


In March, we conducted our biennial global virtual team survey, drawing on 1,620 executives in major organisations from 90 countries around the world. No less than 88% of respondents agreed virtual teams are critical to daily productivity.


But working in multicultural cross-cultural virtual teams can be painful. Language and time-zone differences are the most obvious hurdles. But some of the most common frustrations voiced by our survey respondents are things like “lack of participation,” “lack of engagement,” “low-context communication,” and “lack of ownership” issues – all of which are open to extreme interpretation based on your personal cultural context.


In spite of these differences, professionals recognise the potential of global virtual teams: 72% of respondents believe diversity has a positive effect on their team’s performance. But how do they ensure they’re making the most of their cross-cultural virtual teams?


1. Provide Cross Cultural Training

No one is born with the skill to understand people from foreign cultures; it must be learned. For cross-cultural virtual teams to achieve their potential, workers must demonstrate mission-critical intercultural communication skills. Fortunately, there’s an easy fix: cross-cultural training. People can learn how to resist the trap we all fall into when we evaluate situations only from our own perspective. By seeing business from the perspective of others, professionals are able to develop strategies to flex their work style and develop deeper intercultural insights – and stronger cross-cultural relationships.


2. Appoint a Clearly Designated Leader or Manager

An effective leader or manager must be able to clearly articulate the team’s goals, scope, decision-making processes, and more. They must be available to engage with team members – and not only through large-scale virtual meetings. I always recommend cross-cultural virtual team leaders advertise “virtual office hours.” These casual chats help foster close relationships that give leaders a better grasp of the different work styles present in their virtual teams.

To get the most out of meetings, leaders should prepare and distribute an agenda in advance, and share brief minutes after the meeting. Most of all, encourage group participation, as professionals from many cultures are often less comfortable at openly expressing their views, particularly disagreement or bad news.


3. Create a Team Charter

A high-performing team needs solid guidelines. Create a team charter that serves to clarify performance expectations. Be sure to provide a literal, explicit framework for success to ensure your whole virtual team is engaged and on the same page regardless of where they are in the world. Be sure to focus not only on the “what’s” but the “how’s.” In the same vein, always promote clear, open, and consistent communication. Honesty and openness can help foster traits like respect, familiarity, comfort, and trust, which help to prevent unnecessary challenges and conflict.


4. Promote an Open Environment

By creating an open environment that leaves rank and egos at the door, everyone can have an equal voice. It’s important for all opinions and questions to be valid – no question is “stupid.” Assumptions lead to misunderstandings, openly sharing information is key. The structure of global virtual teams makes it easy to hide behind a screen, but an effective leader pays attention to those who are quiet, recognizing their work styles and soliciting opinions during calls, meetings or during private conversations.


5. Provide an Internal Communication Site

A well-defined virtual space for teamwork – a shared collaboration platform, for example – can help ensure all team members are always in the loop. Interpersonal relationships are more likely to flourish if you include visual and written profiles of all team members, their roles, responsibilities, and contact info. A shared collaboration page should be a carefully managed asset. By including project details along with the ability to instantly share data and insights across borders and time zones, cross-cultural virtual teams increase their potential contribution to the business.


The strategies described above demand education and training – only a handful of us are born with them, or spend their formative years growing up in more than one country. So, remember, no matter how well our technology develops, people need developing, too!


Want to get the best out of your multicultural team? Don’t miss our 26 November 2018 event on How to succeed in a Cross Cultural workplaceRSVP here to secure your space.