Cross-cultural virtual teams are on the rise. With an ever increasing globalization and the advancement of digital connectivity, working in a multicultural, cross continental virtual team has become the new norm. However, not only is teamwork gradually going online, but the constituent members of teams are also becoming more culturally diverse. The current global crisis that has emerged due to the Covid19 pandemic has further increased virtual collaboration across borders.
There are a lot of benefits resulting from cross-cultural virtual teams. For instance, companies take advantage from the incorporation of talented individuals from around the globe. The ability to source the best talents will give companies a competitive advantage by ensuring that they get ahead in the so-called “war for talent”. At the same time, communicating virtually represents a more cost-effective way to exchange information, since it reduces the time and costs associated with traveling and arranging face-to-face meetings. Most important of all, the cultural diversity and widespread distribution of individuals help to form heterogeneous teams with varying perspectives. When managed appropriately, these different perspectives enable highly creative and innovative teamwork and increase the potential of the team to perform well, especially when working on complex problems.
However, the diversity of cross-cultural virtual teams also poses a lot of challenges. Cultural differences can create additional barriers to successful communication. For example, cultural values influence the way how people interpret information and how they make decisions. (Lonner, Berry and Hofstede 1980) This can increase the potential for misunderstandings, particularly when primarily using digital means to exchange information, where a lot of information that are important for successful communication (e.g. non-verbal and para-verbal communication) is invisible. (More explanation and examples on nonverbal cues, see Bucy. 2017. “Nonverbal Cues.“)
To overcome these challenges and unleash the greatest potential from your next cross-cultural team meeting, here are 5 simple steps that help to improve your virtual team communication:
1. Establish and maintain trust.
It is crucial for virtual team members to trust each other. In office environments, people build relationships through casual social interactions. However, this is not the case for virtual teams. Because of the lack of physical interactions and the potentially high cultural distance among team members, it is important for virtual teams to deliberately establish and maintain a good level of trust. In virtual teams, trust is built through reliability, consistency, and mutuality. Team members should be consistent with their words and action, treat each other with respect, and act in the best interest of the team. Team leaders should make sure that online meetings start and deliver as promised, ensure that everyone is involved equally when working from distributed locations, and communicate tasks and responsibilities clearly. (Recommendations from Kirkman, et al. 2002.)
2. Harness the best communication tool and style.
Cross-cultural virtual team leaders should match the communication tool with their style of communication and allow enough time for everyone to become familiar with it. Communication in a virtual environment is often less frequent, less rich, and thus more challenging. This is because contextual cues such as body language, gestures, and tone, which play an important role in face-to-face communication, are difficult to transmit. Studies (Klitmøller, Anders, and Jakob Lauring. 2013.) show that teams in which members have low language commonality (e.g. everybody is able to speak English, but some team members have strong accents, which makes it more difficult to understand their verbal communication) should choose a lean medium such as e-mail to increase the effectiveness of their communication. In contrast, teams with a high degree of cultural difference (e.g. differing manifestations of cultural values such as power distance or gender egalitarianism) should choose a rich medium such as videoconference when sharing complex messages in order to ensure that everybody understands these complex information in the same way. In addition, research (DeSanctis, Wright and Jiang 2001.) also found out that higher performing teams preferred fewer, deeper conversations to more frequent, shallow conversations. This shows that choosing the appropriate communication infrastructure for the given context is an important enabler for cross-cultural virtual team communication and performance.
3. Understand and leverage team diversity.
Since the cultural diversity in cross-cultural virtual teams is its greatest asset as well as liability, it is imperative that the existing diversity is well understood and managed. Cultural diversity can have a positive, neutral, or negative effect on cross-cultural teams depending on the situation. For example, in one study (Lowry, et al. 2010.), Chinese participants were found to be more trusting in culturally homogenous groups and less trusting in heterogenous groups than their U.S. counterparts. One way to recognize each individual’s diversity is to set up an expertise directory and skills matrix. This also becomes a foundation for trust building based on competence and thus relates to our first point. Asynchronous collaboration such as discussion threads or document annotation represent other ways to harness diversity in teams. (Methods suggested by Malhotra, Majchrzak and Rosen 2007.) This would allow individuals with diverse working patterns or different language capabilities to digest and contribute ideas based on their own preferences. By embracing its diversity, cross-cultural virtual teams can become more effective at decision making and idea-generation.
4. Create virtual work-cycle and meetings.
Effective team meetings are quintessential for cross-cultural virtual teams. However, they should not solely focus on reporting and coordination, but are also valuable opportunities to drive innovation, focus, and enthusiasm. To structure an effective meeting, team leaders should clearly communicate the meeting’s agenda and goals beforehand. At the start of meetings, there is a chance for members to reconnect and build social relationships. During meetings, team leaders should ensure that everyone is engaged and heard from. At the end of meetings, action items and results of discussions should be posted immediately. (Methods suggested by Malhotra, Majchrzak and Rosen 2007.) Through carefully coordinated virtual meetings, cross-cultural teams can reduce loneliness and isolation, reinforce commitment, and leverage the collective expertise of individuals.
5. Ensure external assessment and recognition of the team.
Assessing and recognizing team members that are physically out of sight is difficult. This is even more true, when a team is also culturally diverse. (Conclusion of Scott and Wildman 2015.) To do so, team leaders can use balanced scorecards that measure performance indicators of individuals. (Methods suggested by Malhotra, Majchrzak and Rosen 2007.) The balanced scorecard should also include the assessment of virtual team leaders, local managers, and senior executives. The goal is to monitor closely and represent the virtual work progress of team members so that they receive the recognition they deserve. Team members can spontaneously recognize each other’s great work through virtual reward system such as giving stars or positive comments to your colleagues or using emojis that might be an integral part of the meeting software.
The trend towards a mobile, collaborative, and intercultural work environment is speeding up, as said above, also due to the social distancing in the context of the Covid19 pandemic – so next time when you find yourself in a cross-cultural virtual team, you can try focusing on these five principles and incorporate them into your work routines in order to improve collaboration and performance.
Bell, M., and N. Frey. 2002. Virtual Teaming: 10 Principles for Success. Gartner.
Bucy, Erik. 2017. “Nonverbal Cues.”
DeSanctis, Gerardine, Matthew Wright, and Lu Jiang. 2001. “Building a Global Learning Community.” Communications of the ACM.
Kayworth, Timothy R., and Dorothy E. Leidner. 2002. “Leadership Effectiveness in Global Virtual Teams.” Journal of Management Information Systems.
Kirkman, Bradley L., Benson Rosen, Cristina B. Gibson, Paul E. Tesluk, and Simon O. McPherson. 2002. “Five challenges to virtual team success: Lessons from Sabre, Inc.” Academy of Management Executive.
Klitmøller, Anders, and Jakob Lauring. 2013. “When global virtual teams share knowledge: Media richness, cultural difference and language commonality.” Journal of World Business398-406.
Lonner, Walter J., John W. Berry, and Geert H. Hofstede. 1980. “Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values.”
Lowry, Paul B., Dongsong Zhang, Lina Zhou, and Xiaolan Fu. 2010. “Effects of culture, social presence, and Group composition, on trust in technology-support decision-making groups.”
Malhotra, Arvind, Ann Majchrzak, and Benson Rosen. 2007. “Leading Virtual Teams.” Academy of Management Perspectives, February.
Scott, Charlie, and Jessica Wildman. 2015. “Culture, Communication, and Conflict: A Review of the Global Virtual Team Literature.”