In today’s global economy, you may find yourself leading teams with members spread across multiple time zones and countries. Both the different time zones and the diverse cultures can present huge logistical problems. Inevitably, someone always seems to be inconvenienced when asked to either wake up early in the morning or stay up late at night to participate in a virtual meeting or conference call. Personally, I have participated in a number of meetings with India or China that have required me to set an alarm for the middle of the night just so that I could join in the call. Beyond time zones, cultural differences, communications challenges, and a lack of team cohesion can further impede teamwork. However, successfully managing distributed teams will only become more prevalent in the future. Here are three strategies that I have learned to get you started.
1. Value Cultural Differences
With face-to-face teams, each person brings a unique perspective and skill set that needs to be addressed. When team members hail from different countries, these differences become magnified and can lead to enormous challenges if not handled correctly from the start. Understanding each person’s uniqueness begins with building personal relationships, and only talking about work usually will not achieve this connection.
By actively seeking out information about an employee’s work style, likes, dislikes, and pet peeves you can break down cultural barriers. As a manager, it is important to be curious about your employees and take a genuine interest in what makes them tick. Probe into how processes work in their offices as compared to yours. You may find that their organization functions much like yours, but there might also be subtle differences that can lead to not-so-subtle problems. Who should be kept informed of project details? Who might be the decision maker, and how should changes to process be communicated? Asking these questions, and being aware of different work styles, can lead to more successful relationships.
Thankfully, this concept has already been widely studied. The Society of Human Resources website has published a number of articles about understanding workplace cultures with a particular focus on how each country values different attributes such as directness, decision making, and leading.
2. Use Video to Improve Communications
Even the best technology companies complain about how difficult it can be to get a meeting to start on time due to the technical difficulties with video conferences. However, I highly recommend them when you have meetings with your team members – especially those who are in different countries. Despite the potential technological headache, video prevents things from getting “lost in translation” as a result of not being able to see each other’s facial expressions.
In fact, I make it a point during my 6 AM calls with the team in India to do a VC. At first, I was very reluctant to do so since I may not look my best at this time. However, even when I appear to have just rolled out of bed moments before the meeting (and I usually have), the team is hugely appreciative of the efforts from my side.
This raises another point: schedule the meetings so the non-home country employees do not always have to attend during their off hours. Not only does it burden them to have meetings every night, but they may perceive it as disrespectful. As a manager, you will seem more accommodating and considerate if the other team does not always have to work on your schedule. Though this may be unavoidable on occasion, swapping who has to work after hours can boost morale and build a sense of team. And remember, your Friday meeting may be someone else’s weekend!
3. Fostering Teamwork
As a manager, it is convenient to ask someone on your home country team to lead, pilot, or implement a project. However, while this may seem easier, you might find that some of your best expertise lives in a different country. When possible, have someone outside of the home office assume responsibility for an initiative. By sharing best practices, and empowering others in your organization to emerge as leaders, you can build new capacity and identify commonalities to make future initiatives as similar and consistent as possible across the different offices. Regular interactions between team members across time zones combined with common processes and practices can also really help to bring a team together.
Leading a virtual team across different time zones and countries can be a challenge. However, if you can leverage different talents, develop similar processes around the world, and get members working together, then you will most likely find that your highly functioning team can effectively tackle any project thrown in their direction.