Managing cultural differences
We see more and more virtual teams or geographically dispersed teams working on a project now than couple of years back.
Several benefits of virtual teams include the following:
- People can work from anywhere at any time.
- People can be recruited for their competencies, not just physical location.
- Many physical handicaps are not a problem.
- Expenses associated with travel, lodging, leasing or owning an office / infrastructure may be reduced and sometimes eliminated.
- There is no commute time.
There are of course challenges associated with managing virtual teams the major ones being
- Cross Cultural Differences
- Geographical Distance including Time Zones
With today’s technological development and tools available Geographical distance issues can easily be overcome and the teams can adjust their work hours to ensure that you have several hours of overlap per day in common or at least the time of the meetings overlap.
Hence it is becoming increasing important then to “Know”, “Accept” and “Manage” the cultural differences between you and your virtual team(s). Individuals from different cultural backgrounds have different beliefs, values, attitude, behavior norms and perceptions.
Some cultures find it hard to say “No”, whereas in some other cultures communication is characteristically direct. For instance, you are a project manager located in USA and you have a team member working from India and there is a meeting scheduled late in the evening. This team member has another commitment that same evening. He would rather compromise on the personal commitment then having to say “No”.
In some cultures, hierarchy/ranks/titles are not as important, team members are expected to offer direct comments about their opinions and concerns. This is not always true for people who live in other cultures, where this might be treated as disrespect if he offers his opinion without having being asked to.
Some cultural consider it rude if a colleague is criticized publicly they would rather be told one to one. Traditionally, the Chinese do not like to publicly criticize a colleague. They want to ensure that the person being criticized does not lose face.
In short you need to understand the following cultural aspects of your virtual team
- Communication styles
- Attitude towards conflicts
- Approaches to completing tasks
- Decision making styles
- Attitude towards disclosure
- Approaches to knowing
Here are five things you can do to overcome cross cultural differences
- Create a shared understanding of and team goals and objectives.
- Do not assume things – Communicate, Communicate and Communicate
To begin with you would need to define a communication strategy for your project and team which should include
- What, when (and how much) are we going to communicate?
- Who will play what roles in the team's communications?
- Where and how will we communicate?
- What technologies and media will we use?
- It is advisable to use visuals in communications as much as possible.
- Build Trust
- Listen actively and empathetically
- Do not stereotype
- Develop an understanding of the environment.
- Have a honest and open communication
- Have a Project Manager or Coordinator who is receptive to the cultural differences in the team.
I don’t think there is any doubt here, a project manager or coordinator who understands and respects his team can get better out of his team.
- Give people shorter assignments
When the entire team works towards the shared goals and objectives the project is bound to succeed. The goals and objectives need to be frequently reviewed, shared and discussed among team members to keep all in the same wavelength.
With shorter assignments you will be able to gauge the capability, commitment and the ability to deliver of the virtual team members without putting your project at a risk.
In view of globalization where in the physical boundaries no longer exist, virtual teams and globally dispersed teams are here to stay. The Project Managers and Project Coordinators have to adapt themselves to this changing scenario and manage the virtual teams by overcoming cultural differences.