“Good morning, everyone! Is France online? What about Italy? Russia and India, are you there?”
That’s how I initiate my weekly call with my team. Although we work together daily, we rarely find ourselves in the same room. Like many international companies, my team is virtual, which means we are geographically dispersed, residing in different time zones and encompassing diverse backgrounds, cultures, and English language proficiency levels.
Understanding the working dynamics of each region and culture is crucial for effectively managing such a team. It’s easy to get caught up in the challenges of working in a virtual and dispersed environment and overlook the immense value that diversity brings. As the leader of a virtual team, one of your primary responsibilities is to encourage multicultural awareness among the team members. The key is embracing cultural background differences while fostering unity and a sense of belonging.
Building an effective team starts with understanding how each team member perceives others, eliminating uncertainties, and focusing on mutual support. It’s about cultivating empathy, promoting collaboration, and, most importantly, creating a cohesive group dynamic. Your objective is to establish rapport.
Humans thrive when they feel a sense of belonging. Whether supporting a football club, identifying with a nation, or defining ourselves based on professional values, personal connections are easier to form when working in the same physical office space. Daily face-to-face interactions facilitate relationship building. However, in a virtual team, distance adds complexity to these dynamics.
To overcome this, leaders must foster a “one team” spirit and create an environment of mutual understanding where team members can learn from one another. This involves facilitating discussions, fostering curiosity, forging connections among remote employees, and ensuring that everyone feels like an integral part of something greater. Their contributions should benefit the entire team. Empathy is paramount. Listen first, then communicate.
Establishing rapport and trust
Whether virtual or not, a group with shared goals should perceive themselves as part of a team, regardless of geographical, cultural, and time differences. The objective is to build trust and create a cohesive group capable of achieving success. The team should recognize that “we” is stronger than “I” and that each member’s virtual contributions contribute to the collective triumph. Empathy is a powerful tool for achieving this. Genuine interest in each team member, understanding their differences, and recognizing the effectiveness of their unique approaches and styles are vital.
Maintain cultural sensitivity.
We’ve all heard jokes that start with phrases like “There’s a French, a German, and an Italian guy…” Typically, these jokes highlight one country’s superiority at the expense of others. National stereotypes, whether humorous or harsh, are well-known. Stereotypes exist because we attempt to simplify and make sense of a complex world, but they can be destructive.
Focus your energy on helping your team embrace differences and understand how their peers respond to various situations. Transform these differences into opportunities for learning. Sharing best practices is an excellent way to comprehend a specific region’s operations. Furthermore, success in one place often translates to success elsewhere. Sharing knowledge empowers the team and fosters rapport.
In a virtual team, we lack the luxury of body language or visual contact. Ironically, the technological tools that enable remote teamwork, such as Teams, phones, and email, can also distort our understanding of each other’s meaning. It is all too easy to misunderstand, particularly when team members have varying proficiency levels in the common language, which for me is often English.
When there is a difference in understanding among individuals, it is important to adapt the communication to the lowest common denominator. If the rest of the team doesn’t comprehend, calmly assist the speaker while maintaining a polite and constructive approach. To strengthen communication and team bonding, organize live meetings whenever time and budget allow. Ensure that your team members regularly communicate with each other and avoid relying excessively on email, as it carries a higher potential for misunderstanding and relationship breakdown.
In an ever-changing work environment where things move rapidly, it is crucial that strategies and decisions are crystal clear to everyone. As a leader, you must minimize the potential for miscommunication. Use various formats to articulate and repeat your current objectives and directions as frequently as possible. Explain them during calls, provide summaries via email, and check for understanding through messages. Clarity is even more essential in a virtual team where language barriers and imperfect communication tools put your message at risk.
It is also vital to maintain one-on-one communication with your team. This not only allows you to reiterate goals but also provides an opportunity to gather their feedback and encourage them to raise points they may not feel comfortable sharing with the entire team for any reason.
Empower the Team
Great teams thrive when their members can grow. Give everyone a chance to lead, whether by taking responsibility for a whole project or becoming the lead in a specific activity. Feeling “in charge” is especially important for employees, becoming even more critical in a virtual environment. When team members feel their manager relies on them, they are empowered and motivated. This boosts their confidence and frees up their time to focus on other projects.
However, it is important to balance the distribution of responsibilities among team members. Creating an environment where only a few individuals are perceived as always getting the best opportunities can harm morale. Rotate responsibilities, ensure that everyone is accountable, and encourage team members to share their successes and failures with the entire team. Empowering your virtual team helps them feel more engaged while relieving some of your burdens.
Your employees will be taken aback if you schedule a call at 7 PM or 5 AM! If you manage a large territory like Europe or work for a US-based company, your virtual team likely resides in different time zones. Be mindful of these time differences. Finding the perfect timing for a global call is not easy, but it is crucial to ensure that your employees are in a receptive state if you want to achieve your goals.
Of course, there will be a few occasions where emergencies require everyone to make sacrifices. However, emergencies should never become routine. Requiring your team to sacrifice their valuable personal time will make them less focused during the call and erode the trust you have built. If finding a time that works for everyone is impossible, consider making decisions with a smaller group.
Finally, do not hesitate to question the necessity of a meeting. Just as you would carefully consider gathering your virtual team face to face, conference calls should not be arranged without considering if they best use your valuable time and resources. In conclusion, respect everyone’s time.
To effectively manage a virtual team, consider the following guidelines:
- Take into account the varying linguistic abilities and time differences among team members.
- Demonstrate a genuine interest in individuals and practice empathy.
- Foster rapport among peers and establish a climate of trust.
- Make yourself accessible for both one-on-one and team meetings.
- Provide specific guidance and reinforce it frequently.
- Rotate leadership responsibilities among team members.
- Encourage cultural understanding by facilitating dialogue and exchange.
- Share successful practices from different regions.
- Recognize and reward team members when they collaborate effectively.
- Create opportunities for in-person team bonding experiences.
While managing a virtual team may seem challenging, focusing on the positives can lead to a rewarding experience. Embrace the challenge, promote growth among team members, and you will all reap the benefits of a cohesive and successful virtual team.
Picture credits: Masao Kawamoto