The Challenge and Promise of Global Virtual Teams

As companies become increasingly global, they recognize the need to leverage their international presence to better meet the needs of customers. Using global virtual teams help companies increase their responsiveness to change in today’s hyper-competitive markets.

A study, Virtual Work Environments in a Post-Recession Era, conducted by Forrester Consulting, included 135 senior leaders and hiring managers in America’s Fortune 500 and large global companies (5,000 employees or more). The survey revealed that 40 percent of company employees work in virtual teams today. More than half (56 percent) expect virtual teaming to increase in the next one to three years.

So, if you are a global team manager who has just been given responsibility for a team with members in Boston, Buenos Aires, Bangalore, Beijing, and Brussels, read this and learn about some of the challenges of working with global virtual teams. And more importantly, learn about the promise they hold for global companies.

Challenges

  • Purpose/Roles — Global virtual teams need to understand the purpose, direction, roles of team members and the expectations of management. A lack of common understanding will lead to misdirected work and wasted time. Creating clear and defining goals will help to align members’ efforts so that everyone is working in the same direction. This is obviously a need for all teams, even when they are co-located and all members are of the same culture. It is even more important for global virtual teams.
  • Personal communication — Even if all members of a virtual team speak English, they may not speak the same English. English spoken in the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, and Malaysia (once a British colony) is quite different. Use common terms that all members can understand. Slang, idioms and jokes need to be avoided as not everyone on a team will understand them.

Create multiple channels of communication to insure that all members have the best means of understanding. Japanese read English better than they speak it. Other nationalities understand verbal communication better.

  • Technical communication — Collaborative software is powerful because people can work together regardless of how their schedules may differ. The most common techniques are text, email, virtual chatting, calendaring, file sharing, faxes, voice mail, data conferencing, etc. Posting work virtually on a shared drive, etc. can help members see what progress everyone else is making. It also helps align the team members’ work effectively as well as point out problems. Conference calls or video conferencing can then be used primarily to discuss issues regarding project status, recommendations made by team members and to resolve any differences.
  • Trust — Trust is the essential ingredient for a successful team. Team members have to be able to understand and rely on each other. Trust is the ‘glue’ of the virtual workplace. Without trust, there is a fear of admitting weaknesses and mistakes, and asking for help becomes more difficult.

It is important that members of the team have the confidence to speak up or offer suggestions. A face-to-face kick-off meeting in the beginning is a good way to promote social interaction and relationship building that goes a long way in establishing trust. If possible, face-to-face meetings should be held every 3-4 months to reinforce these relationships.

  • Cultural differences — Team members need to learn as much as possible about the various cultures that will be represented on the team. This includes background research. Talk with other employees that have worked on global teams. Nothing is better than learning about cultural differences from employees that have already worked on global teams. Care should be taken to avoid stereo-typical thinking. This can lead to assumptions, judgments and misinterpretation of member behavior.
  • Time Zones — If team members are on several continents it is a safe bet that in order to schedule a conference call, one team member will have to attend in the wee hours of the morning in his/her location. In such cases the team can “share the pain” and agree to rotate calls so that all members get to experience this inconvenience at some point in the project’s lifespan.

The Promise of Global Virtual Teams

The benefits of global virtual teams far outweigh the challenges.

Global virtual teams cost much less than face-to-face meetings. They can also meet more frequently than traditional teams which is an advantage when there are short deadlines to meet.

Teams composed of employees from diverse backgrounds and cultures tend to create more innovative solutions than teams that are more homogeneous culturally.

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Global teams have the greatest value when members work to solve company-wide problems. They eliminate duplication of effort that occurs when the same problem is worked on by each division/business unit separately.

Conclusion

Clearly, the use of global virtual teams will continue to increase as companies seek ways to create competitive advantage in the worldwide marketplace. The primary challenge for global virtual teams is how to get people from different parts of the globe to work together in harmony, share a common vision and successfully accomplish their goal.

Team managers are the key to the success of the team. They need to be culturally savvy and help members problem solve and create solutions in a way that respects each team member’s strengths and contributions.

And the best promise of all, the increasing use of global virtual teams will lead to increased cultural awareness and result in a training ground for future company leadership.

Jacque Vilet, president of Vilet International, has more than 20 years’ experience in international human resources with major multinationals such as Intel, National Semiconductor, and Seagate Technology. She has managed both local/ in-country national and expatriate programs and has been an expat twice during her career. She has also been a speaker in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, and is a regular contributor to various HR and talent management publications. Contact her at jvilet@viletinternational.com.

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