Aside from the potential challenges of leading global teams, expanding your business to operate globally can seem like a foolproof strategy for success. The promise of new markets, a wider talent pool to seek the best functional experience from around the world, and a business that fosters innovation and productivity from its international team are tempting for every business leader.
There are countless other benefits too. New ways of working with international colleagues stimulate flexibility and increase availability. From a logistical standpoint, you can divide the work among people into different time zones, and your team can finish projects making the most of more hours available to them in a day. Effective virtual teams also cut costs, significantly reducing the need to travel. Bringing together diverse cultures can also be motivating and enriching as it bridges cultural gaps. It leverages countless opportunities to share knowledge, best practices and expertise.
But the challenges of leading global teams can create more problems than it solves. And, in today’s modern workplace, it’s not just global teams that are feeling the impact of geographically diverse workforces. With new ways of working, managing virtual teams poses challenges – within countries and across them.
When it goes right, global teams can drive huge value, but in reality, the journey to the end goal can be much harder to execute than it appears.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the common challenges of virtual teams and leading a global team, and some ways of working that will help mitigate them.
- Understanding Team Structure
- Establishing Identity and Culture
- Recreating Water Cooler Moments
- Effectively Managing Team Interactions
- Understanding The Value – and Limitations – of Tech
Creating successful teams is hard enough when everyone is in the same place. Groups come from different cultural backgrounds and age demographics, and can have clashing values as a result. But, when people work in the same office, it’s easier to know each other on a personal level. This way, employees can build trust and see past superficial differences. They can also create a shared understanding of appropriate behaviour and interactions, which helps teams bond and work more effectively as a team.
These things make it easier to build the basic foundations of team culture: values, attitudes and objectives.
Psychological distance refers to the lack of connection between teams and measures the degree of emotional connection between them. It is sometimes referred to as a social distance.
Social differences can make it difficult for people to coordinate work, connect and align. At its highest levels, social distance means it can be difficult to develop any kind of successful interaction among teams.
It is the responsibility of leaders to mitigate the impact of social distance between international teams.
Managing a global team isn’t easy. Effective communication is more complex as teams can’t rely on non-verbal cues. This increases the likelihood of miscommunication and potential conflict.
Team spirit, understanding, friendships and connections are harder to develop, increasing the chance of individuals feeling disconnected and disengaged. According to a 2018 report by Gallup, having a ‘best friend’ at work can make people seven times more engaged in their jobs.
It’s essential to recognise that the challenges of virtual teams don’t always stem from an international team being spread out geographically. Time, language, diversity, culture, size and technology can all contribute too. There are other subtler causes as well, such as differing levels of participation and commitment from members of the same team.
Many global leaders also manage teams whose members do not report directly to them. These leaders have to contend with the added challenge of learning to exercise ‘influence without authority’.
Let’s explore five challenges of leading international teams in more detail, as well as how evolving ways of working can prevent potential roadblocks.
1) Understanding Team Structure
Structure is an important consideration when managing virtual teams. This refers to both the hierarchy within the group and the physical configuration. The important questions to ask are: Who is where? Where are the leaders based?
Power structure is fundamental here. When more team members are in a particular area, the perception can be that the bigger group holds power. The imbalance can create a negative dynamic whereby groups can resent each other.
This phenomenon can be exacerbated when the team leader is based with the larger group and gives less attention to the smaller groups’ contributions and needs. This has been nicknamed ‘time-zone resentment,’ when meetings are held consistently in the larger team’s zone. This can create animosity for those having to dial in during the early morning or late evening.
The key to addressing this issue is solidifying a team’s identity and purpose. Define who you are and refine your common goals and objectives. You need to confirm that the team is a single entity, despite its differences. Hone the team’s focus and direction by highlighting how individuals and teams contribute towards company goals. This can be achieved with a weekly meeting designed to review performance against business objectives.
Lastly, to effectively manage a global team, leaders need to support everyone in it. When team members are distanced from the leader, they need more frequent contact and reassurance. Ensure good work is always congratulated and make regular check-ins part of the agenda. Leaders must also encourage cultural sensitivity and open discussion around cultural identity to do this. This allows everyone to feel heard within the team.
2) Recreating Water Cooler Moments
‘Water cooler moments’ have come to describe the informal chats that happen spontaneously in the workplace. They have been shown to teach people more about their organisation than employee handbooks or onboarding. But these moments are non-existent when teams are dispersed worldwide or working in remote settings.
These important social interactions play a massive role in helping employees de-stress, get to know each other, be themselves at work and collaborate more effectively. In short, they are an essential part of building a team dynamic. Without them, leaders of international teams need to play a more active role in helping their teams achieve these results without these physical moments.
When managing virtual teams, leaders should arrange team building activities to strengthen relationships. This can create deliberate moments to bond and build empathy within the group, like check-ins to review the current collaboration dynamic and question what works and doesn’t. By actively seeking the reflective knowledge that allows the team to improve how they work together, it will become easier to improve and evolve.
Leaders can also formally encourage disagreement about tasks and the approach to projects. These interactions should be framed as brainstorming, allowing the whole team to evaluate projects and contribute to discussion constructively. With careful moderation, sessions will remain positive and ensure any heat stays out of the debate.
Other tactics include building unstructured time into meetings to ‘virtually’ recreate the minutes before a face-to-face meeting. It’s during this time people talk about their weekends, the kids, their dog… you get the jist. Small talk can in fact promote trust and build relationships.
3) Establishing Identity and Culture
Teams work best when everyone understands each other’s viewpoints. As individuals, people build an identity on a wide range of factors, like their age, gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion, occupation and political ties, amongst many others. We all need to be able to translate these things to understand different behaviours – which can often mean different things.
For example, looking at someone squarely in the eye in the United States may project confidence and honesty, but in other parts of the world, direct eye contact might be perceived as rude or threatening. These differences can be a significant source of social distance and distrust.
Leaders should always promote respect, diversity and community within their teams. Talking is a fantastic antidote to any potential cultural clashes. By allowing people to share their views and opinions, you can foster an environment of mutual teaching and learning.
It also helps teams feel confident and empowered to ask questions without repercussions and to feel that they can be open about their cultural differences.
4) Effectively Managing Team Interactions
One of the biggest challenges of leading global teams is language. The obvious challenge is when not everyone speaks the same language, but it can be just as problematic if people do speak the same language but at different levels of fluency.
Strong communication drives knowledge-sharing, decision-making, coordination and performance. When this breaks down, it can create barriers to productivity within the team and social distance.
The problem is that those who are more fluent tend to dominate, and those with less fluency tend to withdraw – however unintentionally.
Experts recommend leaders create guidelines for interactions between their teams. Fluent speakers are actively encouraged to slow down and dial down their dominance, while less fluent speakers are encouraged to increase their engagement and refrain from withdrawing. Calling out unintentional behaviours can go a long way in preventing them.
It is also great to promote active listening from everyone in the group and have regular check-ins to make sure everyone understands. This creates a culture where asking questions is praised and supported. Discouraging slang and idioms also helps keep the conversation more inclusive.
The team leader’s responsibility is to monitor the conversation and ensure the balance of speaking and listening is maintained while also being prepared to help explain complex topics again if needed. In leading by example, leaders influence and inspire others into action. By being flexible, adaptable and engaged with all members of the team, team leaders can bring out the best in others by building rapport and trust.
5) Understanding The Value – And Limitations – Of Tech
Technology has changed how we work. It has enabled global teams to work together effectively and mitigated many of the challenges of hybrid working.
How people interact with platforms can shape relationships. The most important thing to remember here is not to assume that communication platforms are neutral or benign. They can both reduce and increase social distance and must be understood and used appropriately.
Leaders must consider how each tool can impact team communication. For example, videoconferencing conveys emotion and context as team members can see and interact with each other. In contrast, email and instant messaging platforms have the benefit of quickly and efficiently sharing information, but it is more difficult to convey context. This leaves communications more open to misunderstanding.
Another crucial aspect to consider is whether the whole team has the same access to the technology available. It’s integral to find a way for everyone to stay up to date on projects and receive information promptly. Inconsistent resources can be a huge blocker to productivity.
The key is to create consistent communication within a team. This can be done by creating a shared space within a communication platform, allowing everyone access to the same information, no matter where they’re located. It can also help to keep everyone on the same page and create a better sense of interconnectivity when updates and information sharing come from everyone on the team, not just from the top down.
Sometimes, it is beneficial for teams to have guidance for interacting with each other through communication tools. Highlight time differences, so people know when it’s appropriate to call, when they can expect an email back and what types of communication are suitable over which channels. For example, many businesses ask their teams not to set tasks over chat or messenger because it is much more difficult to keep track of them.
To overcomes the challenges of leading global teams, leaders should:
- Have a vision and goal that everyone can get behind
- Use your corporate culture to help build your team culture
- Build trust
- Clarify team processes
- Be empathetic
- Be brave and challenge the status quo when necessary
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