Working Together—How to Manage Virtual Teams Across Borders (an #Economist webinar)

The following is a summary of a webinar put on by the Economist Education Unit on how to manage virtual teams in an international business context.  It consisted of a conversation between Paul Lewis, the Editorial Director of the Economist Education unit, and David Bolchover, international best-selling management author of such books as Pay Check: Are top earners really worth it? and The 90-Minute Manager: Lessons from the Sharp End of Management .

1. Virtual teams—the virtue of necessity wedded with communication technology

Paul Lewis first asked David Bolchover about why this topic is so timely.

David explained that virtual teams have come about by a combination of technology, necessity and the constraints of time and budget. Technology has allowed teleconferencing with greater sophistication, and many businesses are international and straddle several time zones and need for employees in different countries to work together in teams. Companies are replacing face-to-face business meetings with teleconferencing or virtual meetings due to budget cuts and the necessity for ever more rapid decisions.

However, the convenience for a company of using virtual teams comes with a warning that this webinar addresses: there is a risk that they can create problems for the company that utilizes them.

2. Virtual teams—what are problems that can be created

Here are the problems that David Bolchover explained that can be created by virtual teams, and some of the potential solutions he outlined in his conversation with Paul Lewis. These problems range from the practical ones of time zones (red), organizational behavior (blue), language and cultural differences (green), and psychological (purple).

Problem Explanation Possible solution
1. Time zones Some virtual team meetings are put on by the main branch in normal office hours, whereas the other branches need to participate outside of office hours. Recognition of sacrifices made by those participating outside of office hours, allowing teleconferencing from home for greater convenience.
2. Group think In many cultures, there is a pressure to conform to the group or to the manager’s opinion; differing opinions are not expressed. Have the younger or more junior people speak first or have separate meetings of the junior people who represent their findings to the senior staff.
3. Anarchy The opposite extreme from group think is when any member of a meeting is allowed to go off on a tangent. Have an agenda prepared and a timetable and stick to it; table discussions that are off topic or that go on too long.
4. Language fluency People make assumptions about language fluency, and don’t understand there are different levels of fluency, so they speak at normal speed with no regard to how well their message is heard. Include as much information before the meeting in writing; have those in target language deliberately slow down and use shorter sentences.
5. Humor In the early stages of team formation, humor can backfire if it is not understood or worse, misunderstood. Avoid making jokes and alleviate tension in a way that is less risky, particularly at meetings.
6. Lack of trust Teams meet only at virtual meetings, so trust is slow to develop. Have at least one face-to-face meeting at the beginning of team project; find some way of having team members access biographical information on other members so they are seen as human beings beyond the professional role they play.

3. Importance of communications management plan

All of these solutions can be put together in a communication management plan which sets the ground rules for meetings such as:

  • Establish levels of urgency for e-mails and assign max response time for each level
  • Establish who will take meeting minutes, what format they will be in, and who gets distributed a copy for informational purposes above and beyond participants
  • Establish at least ONE face-to-face meeting between members at the outset of project, and as often as time and budget permit it throughout project.
  • In virtual teams, problems tend to fester so conflicts can be more severe when they arise: have strategies on how to confront conflict.

4. Further research

For those interested in cultural dimensions of international communication, David Bolchover recommended Dutch communication theorist Geert Hofstede, whose most notable work has been in developing cultural dimensions theory.
The five dimensions are; Power Distance, Individualism, Uncertainty avoidance, Masculinity, and Long Term Orientation.
Cultures that occupy a different place on each of these dimensions may have difficulty in communications and these have to be recognized beforehand to recommend ground rules for communication.

One other dimension of cultural communication that David said you need to consider is that of low-context vs. high-context cultures explored by Edward T. Hall, an American anthropologist. Low-contest cultures are more direct, and high-context cultures are more indirect in the way they express matters, especially those with an emotional content. American managers have no trouble saying “NO!”, but in all the years of working for Japanese managers, I never heard them say that word once. They often said, “sore wa chotto muzukashii”, which means “that’s a little difficult” literally, but which actually means “NO!” You just have to know how to interpret what they said.

5. Q&A

Here are some questions put forward by the audience in the webinar.

Does a company’s global culture effect cultural assumptions on virtual teams?

A goal is for people’s identity with company culture to bind people together to negate cultural differences. However, you have to realize that the senior managers have a vision of the company culture which may not shared by workers at lower levels.

Do generational differences effect cultural assumptions on virtual teams?

There is a lot of literature on generation Y’s views on work/life balance, etc., but the literature of baby boomers’ attitudes in the 1960s and 1970s management literature shows that their attitudes showed many similarities. They had the same aspirations, but generation Y are simply more assertive of those aspirations. The most disengaged people in the work force are the middle managers between 35 and 50. Since the greatest effect on engagement is their relationship to immediate supervisor, you have to monitor their attitudes even more closely than those of the younger workers.

What can the company do to promote virtual teams?

  • Actual formal training in the technology is important to prevent “on-air” glitches.
  • Get at least one face-to-face meeting arranged of team at the beginning of a project.
  • Cultural sensitivity and willingness to learn foreign languages are very important for managers in a virtual international environment. Willingness for managers to learn about language and culture is more important than their ability to do so.
  • Breakdown the virtual team into smaller subteams.
  • Give written materials to those with only basic skills in the target language before meetings so they can prepare ahead of time.

6. Audience Survey

The audience was asked, “what is the most difficult problem you find in managing virtual international temas?”

Problem Percent
A. Inadequate technology, or inability to use it properly 27%
B. Cultural insensitivity or poor language skills of team members 19%
C. Poor discipline, vague goals or infrequent communication leading to lack of trust 33%
D. Difficulties in working across multiple time zones. 21%

As you can see, it was the lack of structure with regards to the communication that more people saw as a problem that cultural and/or language issues. This is why David Holchover recommends a communications management plan.

7. Conclusion

After having participated in many virtual teams, mainly between Japanese and Americans, I can attest to many of the problems that David Holchover discussed in discussion with Paul Davis from the Economist Education unit. But like any aspect of a project, communications can be managed and a good management plan will be structured according to the needs of the company and the particular project involved.

Today’s discussions gives people valuable background into the cultural dimensions of these communication problems, thereby giving them more insight into how to prevent them in such a plan. I thank the Economist Education unit and Paul Davis for putting on such an informative webinar, and of course I thank David Holchover for making such a positive case for a communications management plan to manage virtual international teams.


2 Responses

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  2. […] ” Leadership Development Blog: 3 Companies with High-Performing Virtual Teams” 4Square Reviews, ” Working Together – How to Manage Virtual Teams Across Borders” Forbes, “How to Grow and Manage International Teams” Harvard Business Review, ” […]

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