Earlier this week I posted about the need for effectiveness when working remotely, and outlined the first key: use virtual teams when there is a clear benefit to be gained. Let’s turn our attention to the second key.
Key 2—Mitigate the Problems Caused by Crossing Boundaries
Crossing boundaries of time zones, language, and organizational and national culture will cause problems if not addressed. Crossing time zones makes scheduling meetings more difficult—someone is going to get asked to participate in a meeting when it’s time for their family dinner and evening activities, or requested to attend a meeting at 2am their time. Crossing language boundaries means that while everyone may be speaking English, some members will be highly competent at the subtleties and nuances of business English, while others will have to translate the English words to their mother tongue and back again in order to hear, understand, and respond. They will also miss the subtleties entirely, or misconstrue the intent as ridicule. Crossing organizational and national culture boundaries often means different things are valued to different degrees, topics that are commonly discussed in one culture are considered taboo in another, and styles of giving and receiving feedback are fundamentally at odds.
What can you do to mitigate these?
Of the three boundaries, time zones are the easiest to deal with. The principle is to share the pain, or at least to be willing to do so. Don’t always ask one person to take the 2am teleconference call, particularly if they can’t function at 2am. Share it around so different team members share the small inconveniences. Of course, you may have someone on the team who loves the 2am time slot, and is always willing to be on a call then. It’s when they perform the best, because everything is quiet, and they can concentrate best on the communication demands and task-at-hand. In order to get there, you’ll need to ask what will work for people—and then track over time what actually does and doesn’t work.
For language boundaries, being mindful of the differences will go a long way to mitigating the problem. Be careful about humor and the things you joke about. The prospect of deeply offending a new team colleague should give sufficient pause to consider whether the joke is worth it or not. Speak at a slower pace than you would if you were talking to others who share your mother tongue. If you don’t understand something someone has said, ask them to repeat it. If you still don’t understand, ask them to instant message it to you. In a phone call or teleconference, having a clear line with high quality audio is important, but it’s not always possible. If you’re finding that language is proving to be a significant barrier to the effectiveness of your team, you’ll probably need to arrange a few days of face-to-face meetings for the whole team. This will help with future conversations, because you will learn their style. Once you are back in your own respective locations, and if language is still proving difficult, consider using video conferencing to add extra social cues, or adding a foreign language colleague to your local team to help with making the translations. Regardless of what you decide, complementing spoken interactions with a written summary will help everyone.
Finally, for organizational and national culture, there is much you can do to learn about the different cultures. For their organizational culture, ask them what works and what doesn’t in their organization. How does work really get done? What type of people get promoted? What are you not allowed to talk about? Clearly you will need a trusting relationship to go into this territory.
For national cultures, if your organization doesn’t offer any courses on working with people from other cultures (in which case you should take the course), educate yourself. Get a book out of the library (do you remember what a library is?). Buy a book from Amazon or your local bookseller. Find some friends who have visited or lived in the other country, and ask them around for dinner. You provide the dinner; they provide the slide show and briefing on what works and what doesn’t. Set up a Google News alert for the particular region your colleagues work in, and thread current happenings in their location into your conversations. Just remember that it’s not about being smart (as in arrogant) though—it’s about showing a real interest in the people you are working with, because doing so makes good business sense for all involved.