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Time differences, Internet connection problems, idiomatic misunderstandings, conflicting cultural behaviors - the list goes on. These are all familiar challenges when managing a cross-cultural remote team.
It’s tricky to get a group of very different people to work together seamlessly, especially when they’re dispersed around the globe. But successful companies with their own culturally diverse teams have proven that it’s not impossible.
With expert advice that has kept their companies running smoothly from all corners of the world, here’s how these successful leaders manage their cross-cultural teams so that no matter where they are, they’re always in sync.
Have non-work conversations
When working in a virtual setting, there is no communal break room or water cooler to chitchat and build relationships with your workers. You have to make this accidental chatter happen by intentionally setting aside a few minutes a day and having a genuine conversation with someone in your team.
Zoho is another strong supporter of this practice. They recommend going beyond the weather and how ‘crazy’ the time difference is. Instead, ask questions about their national holidays, swap your music playlist, exchange views of your office spaces, talk about the latest movies or the game last weekend. Whatever it is, make it feel natural and show genuine interest in their answers. The point here is to find a non-work connection that will build trust and loyalty between you and your multi-cultural employees.
Ask how they prefer to receive feedback
While Western countries are very outspoken and tend to be direct in their feedback, other countries are more reserved in this respect. While one worker is used to being told outright what they should improve, another could feel attacked being called out during a team conference.
To avoid unnecessary friction between you and your cross-cultural workers. Ask each member of your remote team how they want to receive feedback. It could be in a private email, during the daily call, or over the phone.
In the case of positive feedback, Patrick Verdonk, Community Manager at Happy Melly recommends using a peer-to-peer recognition tool called ThanksBox. This tool allows you and your remote team to send appreciation to fellow workers while including a pre-enlisted company value to their message.
Not only is this a fun way to give kudos where it’s deserved, but it also provides insight on which values are regarded as important for each culture. You can also use this information to evaluate which values are the “best fit” for your own company culture to guide your future hires.
Send out team surveys
One important rule for managing cross-cultural remote teams is to set rules that must be met regardless of which country they’re from. Delivering work on time, responding to emails within the hour, etc. But arriving to a comprehensive set of rules for your particular team can be challenging.
“If you can prove that a set of rules is leading to better outcomes, people will listen to that. It just needs to be based on data and evidence.”
To gather the “data and evidence” you need, create an online survey and ask your team if they’re willing to participate. Once you get the results of the survey, you’ll know exactly what works for your diverse team and what doesn’t.
The beauty of these surveys is that they can also save you hours of head-scratching trying to figure out why your team isn’t getting along. Asking them outright isn’t always the best approach, so private surveys are more likely to get you an honest response. Your more reserved workers will feel comfortable enough to point out what (or who) is affecting their productivity. It could range from misunderstandings with a certain co-worker to the inconvenient time of work calls. Whatever it is, this is how a conversation can be opened to seek improvement.
Stick to video calls
Every culture has their own expressions and these can be easily misinterpreted if everyone isn’t familiar with their true meaning. This makes it risky to limit your communication to faceless texts or emails.
Video calls simulate the face-to-face interaction that we consider to be so important at the workplace. Having your cameras on and actually seeing the person gives you the opportunity to spot non-verbal cues. In the particular case of multi-cultural teams, it’s hard to tell if someone is understanding every word you’re saying when all you hear is silence on the other side of the phone. With video calls, however, subtle looks of confusion or nodding can cue you in on how well you’re being understood.
Ricardo Fernandez, Chief Marketing and Sales Officer for Prodigy Finance learned this the hard way when he congratulated his remote worker by saying “you’re killing it out there” over a voice call. To his surprise, he later received an email from the same worker asking what he had done wrong and how he could improve. If Fernandez had used video calling in the first place, he would have spotted the negative reaction in his employees’ body language and avoided the misunderstanding altogether.
Nowadays, Fernandez has a daily video call with over 30 people from very different countries, and is very pleased with how it has streamlined team communications and processes
However, while video calls enable the most effective communication with your cross-cultural remote team, it never hurts to get some actual face time with your workers. Meeting who you work with in person can strengthen your relationship with them and cue you in on certain mannerisms that go unnoticed on camera.
Granted, you may not have the time to make that 16-hour flight to go see them. But that doesn’t mean your team can’t meet in person themselves and get to know each other better. If you have various employees in the same area, create a co-working space for them. They’ll improve their in-team communication, easily sync their tasks and priorities with each other, and build that much-needed trust and empathy that keeps teams together.