Lately I wrote a post on what it takes to lead multicultural teams. It now struck me that many of us don’t just lead multicultural but also “virtual” teams; this adds a lot of complexity to something that is already not so easy on its own.
What actually is a virtual team some of you might ask? Following Wikipedia, a virtual team is “(…)a group of individuals who work across time, space and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technology”. In clear it means that you might be sitting in one location, like me in Switzerland for example, and you actually lead and work with people all across Europe or even around the globe. It also means that you might not even see these people physically throughout the year. Additionally, it might be that you are not the direct line boss of some of these people but ‘only’ the matrix with less direct possibilities to motivate your staff as you are not the final ‘evaluator’ and ‘bonus giver’.
So, how do you then communicate and how do you walk the fine line of what is acceptable in one culture and what is not? I have to say that at first and being a coach, it was very difficult for me, not so see people as the non-verbal and paraverbal components of face-to-face discussions usually tell me the whole and hidden story and let me intuit the truth behind spoken words. Video communication through web cams or other means would have helped a lot but unfortunately this was not available. So what to do?
First of all and especially concerning team members from cultures I did not have had any work contacts before, I informed myself about the habits, the style and the usual work behaviours from colleagues who were willing to share. I also spent a lot of time speaking to my team and of course listening to them, in order to find out more about them as persons, their lifestyles etc. Very often I also asked open questions like: “What does this mean for you”? Or “how do you interpret this particular objective or task”. Creating a trusting and open relationship where all partners and team members feel comfortable is extremely important. Of course I made mistakes, as we all do I am sure, misinterpreting things or inadvertently creating a situation that for others could be quite uncomfortable. Learning from these mistakes, discussing and exchanging are the ingredients to successfully setting a viable basis for virtual work relationships. Interesting enough, when you listen emphatically, mindfully and with attention and when you are truly interested in what your counterpart has to say, you will quickly find that the tone of voice alone can tell you stories about the state of mind of the other person.
It actually is a skill to be able to listen and direct a conversation when there are so many things competing for your attention in the office at the same time. What is your experience with virtual teams? What works and what not? Looking forward to your thoughts!