A decade ago I was staying with a friend in Tokyo who ran a global team for a top multi-national technology company. Meeting times that were convenient for the company’s headquarters in New York were less than ideal for my friend.
Since my friend worked from a home office, I was able to witness all the separate conversations she juggled—from the actual conference call to all the other micro-conversations happening in the four open instant message chat windows. A lot of office politics got played below the surface of the main phone conversation.
Watching this illustrated not just how important communication is for global teams, but how much real business gets played out that isn’t on the meeting agenda. The work-life balance of being a member of a global team plays out in a very personal way for a team leader sitting at her kitchen table.
Global teams are nothing new, but the challenges of a widely dispersed team are ongoing. Here are 7 tips to bridge the gaps that come with being a geographically and culturally diverse team.
1. Navigate time zones.
Sometimes it feels impossible to find a meeting time for everyone in a team that’s spread all over the globe. However, TimeAndDate.com has a nifty world clock that tells you what time it is right now anyplace in the world and has a Meeting Planner tool for coordinating times. (There’s an iPhone and iPad app, too.) Early on in a project, ask team members on calls to state their local time so everyone understands the time variances early on.
2. Be aware of national and religious holidays.
Countries and people honor holidays differently. As a team leader you want to make sure you know which holidays are particularly important to individual team members—as well as the observances that are important to specific regions. Be sensitive to unexpected details such as, how a fasting holiday might affect a team member, and which countries might not observe popular Western holidays, like the week between Christmas and New Year’s. TimeAndDate.com has a handy holidays and observances tool to help.
3. Be savvy about the cultural differences among team members.
These are more subtle and trickier to manage. Just because your team member in China speaks flawless American English, don’t assume that her cultural values are the same as yours. This bridge might be easier to cross in experienced global companies because, over the years, the corporate culture has become strong enough to put everyone on the same cultural professional page.
As a manager, you can research your team’s cultural backgrounds in fun ways—reading books and website articles, watching movies, talking to people who are willing to share their experiences. Or, if you work with someone in Turkey who loves food, go to a Turkish restaurant in your neighborhood and then talk to him about it. Being sensitive and aware is a good first step.
4. Share a common software platform with all team members.
For example, use collaborative project management software that everyone on the team can access on their own timeframe, and then track progress and follow comments of team members. Because your team is scattered geographically, cloud-based software makes sense.
Standardize on other basic communication tools as well, like using the same instant message software or chat tool. If shared white-boarding is important, pick a common collaboration app. A shared calendaring application (which can be part of your project management tool or email software) makes scheduling meetings easier.
5. Check in with team members, and have them check in with each other.
And use the phone. Unless your colleague is the silent type, voice-to-voice communication conveys a lot that electronic cannot. If you’re at corporate headquarters in the U.S. and a team member works alone in a home office in Belgium, encourage the remote worker to check in weekly. Or have remote workers check in with each other. If you or other team members are traveling for business, get together at the industry conference you’re both attending, or go visit team members when you’re in their city.
6. Don’t generalize, stereotype or make assumptions
Especially about people you’ve never met and cultures you don’t deeply understand. Be inclusive and seek advice from a friend or colleague who’s familiar with local customs when culture-specific issues emerge. You might discover you have some cultural biases; don’t let them get in the way. And when you’re stumped, ask open-ended questions. You might discover some interesting and helpful insights along the way.
7. Don’t get hung up on work style or approach
Unless it affects results. Learn early in the life of your project to make a note of each team member’s communication and work style. Note that some of these differences are influenced by cultural norms. And then remember: Your project is about outcomes, not winning style points.
Finally, your team exists to achieve common objectives, so focus on how each member’s role contributes to your project’s objectives. Emphasize shared goals and don’t get too hung up on differences.