How can effective working relationships be developed across time zones, cultures and languages? Lonnie Pacelli, author, consultant, speaker, and publisher who is devoted to preparing project managers and building strong leaders, offers this advice:
Take the first step in developing the relationship
Take some time to get to know all virtual team members by initiating periodic phone calls or visits. Learn about employees’ family or interests, and where they live. Most important, take some time to understand each person’s unique challenges in his or her location. Things that may be taken for granted in your location may be impossible in another location.
Go to them
Yes I know that businesses are cutting back big time on travel. Sometimes, though doing things face to face is the best way to build relationships. When possible, visit team members in their locations and experience their culture. Some of my most lasting and effective relationships were built over drinking sake, eating wiener schnitzel, or experiencing pickled fish stomach with team members.
Share the inconvenience
Don’t make far-flung employees the ones who always have to get up extra early or stay late for conference calls. Share the inconvenience workload and do your share of the off-hours calls. That will speak volumes to your team members.
Watch the slang with those who don’t share your language
When working with someone who doesn’t share your primary native tongue, use simple words that convey basic meaning. Flowery, colorful language is great for an English Literature class; not so good for communicating with a team member who must work to translate your language.
Involve everyone in decision-making
It’s easy to make decisions with those around you and later on “inform” the virtual team members of your decision, but that only alienates the members you left out. Make all teammates part of the decision-making and problem-solving processes.
Use email to overcome the language barrier
I’ve done many problem-solving exercises with my teams using email as the means for documenting the problem, articulating alternatives, and providing resolution. It not only ensures everyone is included, but helps those who don’t share your native tongue by putting things in written format and permitting more time for translation. However, sometimes, you’ve just got to get on the phone to resolve a problem if it’s too unwieldy or sensitive for email, or if the email approach isn’t working. Get the pertinent team members together at a time that is least inconvenient for everyone and hash it out.
Keep a written audit trail of decisions
This is just good practice regardless of whether the team is virtual or not. Keep a spreadsheet or database of the decisions made or the resolution to problems so team members can ensure it reflects their understanding of the issue. It also helps avoid re-hashing issues already decided upon.
Lonnie Pacelli is an accomplished author and autism advocate with over 30 years experience in leadership and project management at Accenture, Microsoft, and Consetta Group. See books, articles, keynotes, and self-study seminars at http://www.lonniepacelli.com.