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While working in China, Jennifer Cable had a conversation with colleagues about being a rounded individual. “They genuinely thought I was encouraging them to eat more,” recalls Ms Cable, a talent management expert at PA Consulting. When working virtually, the potential for such mix-ups is magnified, she says. “When we communicate, so much is picked up from body language.”
As globalisation has transformed business, executives are increasingly working in teams that are spread around the world. Last year, 48 per cent of executives from 80 countries polled by New York-based Culture Wizard, which provides cross-cultural training, said that more than half their teams were made up of citizens from other countries, up from 33 per cent in 2012.
Today’s teams speak different languages, work in different locations and come from different cultural backgrounds — all of which, companies say, strengthens their competitiveness and ability to innovate.
“The good news about a virtual team is that you’re not confined to geographic proximity,” says Keith Ferrazzi, a consultant and author. “You have the freedom to choose the skill sets that you need for a project.”
However, teams spread across geographic locations also encounter problems. One of the biggest obstacles is the inability to read non-verbal cues. This was cited by 94 per cent of respondents to a Kenan-Flagler Business School survey of almost 30,000 multinational employees. And many team members never meet each other. Culture Wizard found this was true for 41 per cent of teams.
As virtual teams become the norm rather than the exception, companies need to find ways to smooth out the bumps, whether cultural, linguistic or logistic. One sticking point is often over who will have to get up early or work late for meetings in different time zones. “That can be a problem, especially if as a manager of the team you’re always making the same set of people do it,” says Beth Bechky, a management professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
Dave Gallon, head of business development at B Capital Group, an investment manager with offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Singapore, says his firm’s approach is to alternate its investment committee calls — some are early morning in Singapore (late evening Pacific time) and others are late evening in Singapore (early morning Pacific time). “They try to share the burden,” he says.
Passing around written tasks is one thing, but it is harder to ensure global, virtual teams are effective when brainstorming, making decisions and jointly developing new ideas.
Technology helps. As videoconferencing systems have improved, teams can feel more like they are sitting in the same room. Advances in technology make it possible for colleagues to “drop in” casually, says Mira Lane, principal architect for Microsoft Teams, a chat-based tool that makes meetings “open” and visible to the broader group.
When an open meeting starts, the technology notifies users and lets them know who is participating. A marketing executive, for example, could check out a design team meeting and either join in or leave video and audio of the meeting running on their computer desktop in case anything relevant crops up.
“Even if you’re distributed geographically, it feels like you’re all in one place,” Ms Lane says.