by Wayne Turmel
Many people, when they think of “virtual” or “remote” project teams, immediately think of people scattered all over the globe. That’s actually a small percentage of the remote population, but it certainly has its own unique challenges. I spoke to one project manager who is getting ready to lead her first international team and she was stressed out.
“I keep hearing about ‘cultural differences’ and ‘sensitivity.’ I know it’s important, but I really need to hit the ground running.”
Don’t we all.
Here are 5 tips to think about when working with remote teams that cross borders and nationalities:
Make sure you really have a team, not just a bunch of workers.
One of the biggest challenges in international project work is that different parts of the work are often assigned to different geographies, and different value is placed on some of that work. Let’s say you’re creating software, with the coding done in Boston but all the Quality Assurance is being done in India. There is often an unintended tendency to treat off-shore resources (especially contractors) as less involved in the overall project’s success than those who work directly for the company. (No matter where they’re located, the term “code monkeys” should probably be a red flag.) If they’re not treated like an important part of the team, why do you expect them to act like they are?
Give them multiple ways to communicate.
Especially when working in countries where English isn’t their first language, it’s important to give people multiple ways to communicate. Getting everyone on a conference call, where the ability to quickly and assertively speak off-the-cuff may not be the best way to get high quality input. Many people feel their written English is better and clearer than their spoken English. If you want careful, well-thought-out input, give them the chance to do it in a variety of ways, both synchronous and asynchronous. This also helps conquer time zone challenges.
“Cultural” differences matter, but you’re not expected to be a master from the start.
One of the most important things you can do when working across cultures, is to learn from those who’ve gone before. Take the time to ask lots of questions—not just from your peers where you work, but from the people on the team wherever they may be. Private, candid discussions before kickoff can help you identify. A simple open-ended question: “how can we best work with your team in __________ to ensure everyone’s success?” may reveal some unexpected solutions to long-standing problems.
Put faces to names.
Every culture, everywhere on the planet, is visually oriented. We may look different, speak different languages, and work in vastly differing physical locations, but people are people. Studies show that when we can’t put faces to names, we tend to treat people differently. Use webcams when you can, or at least share pictures of each other so you can begin to learn who you’re really working with.
This is good advice anyway, but working on projects across time zones and mediated by technology can make it hard to follow. It’s easy to chalk problems up to “cultural differences,” even though that may not be where the problems lie. Do team members not question your decisions because “they” don’t like confrontation, or is it because there’s terrible team communication?
Listen (even to your email).
Everyone reading this knows that listening is more than just hearing the words spoken. Tone, body language, hesitation and stumbling, might all be indications that there’s more at work than what people are saying. This is true of written communication as well. We pick up tone in an email. The question is whether we pick up on it, and if we do anything about it. When you’re tired and just want to get off that 10pm conference call, or are between flights dashing off emails with your thumbs, it’s incredibly hard to pick up on communication cues or to ask follow-up questions that you might naturally ask if you were face to face with people. Re-read emails twice before responding, and if you hear something that doesn’t sound quite right, follow up in as rich a manner as possible.
Yes, you should take advantage of opportunities, both formal and informal, to learn about the differences between the language and cultural groups on your remote team. There are plenty of ways to do that, and you owe it to yourself to improve your communication skills. The best place to start, though, is by recognizing the basic humanity and professionalism of your team members and take it from there.
Hey, if you missed out on my presentation of “What Long-Distance Leaders Need to Know“, there’s another chance coming up this week to catch it. If you’re leading a remote team, you don’t want to miss this.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.