In order to support a multicultural and virtual team it is important to use empathy and creativity to bridge the gap between members of the team; for example, between cultures or between introverts and extraverts. This requires a combination of cultural intelligence, the ability to identify misinterpretations based on cultural differences, and emotional intelligence, the ability to sense the differing needs of each team member.
Social distance refers to the emotional connection between members of the team.
A global team is defined as a team that includes members from differing cultural backgrounds. Although it is not an essential factor to be considered a global team, these teams often work on a virtual basis. Social distance refers to the emotional connection between members of the team. Accomplishing a high level of connection, thus low amount of social distance, is the ideal goal for every team. This goal can be extra challenging with multicultural and virtual teams, so how can you improve this? By using the SPLIT framework developed by Professor Tsedal Neeley.
S = Structure
This refers to the perception of power within the organisation. It is important for employees to feel they are heard and seen and that the specific needs of their team are considered when decisions are made. The perception of power and influence is based on three factors; the number of employees in their team, activities on site at individual locations (i.e. headquarters vs. sales office), and where the leader is located.
Some great strategies for dealing with a perceived power imbalance are to focus on:
- Who we are – build unity by focusing on common values.
- What we do – provide reminders about shared goals and purposes.
- Being there for all team members – provide support and involve each team member in decision making.
P = Process and the importance of empathy
This category is much more difficult to build up when working remotely as opposed to being in the office together every day. The reason for this is because virtual communication is mostly business focused and non-verbal cues are not as present and visible. However, there are effective ways to deal with this.
Since office chit-chat is much less common in a virtual environment it is important to plan “unstructured” team time.
For instance, consistently gather feedback about the communication style and process to find out what works best for team members and if anything needs to change. Since office chit-chat is much less common in a virtual environment it is important to plan “unstructured” team time. This can be as simple as spending more time catching up on a personal level at the beginning of a meeting or can be as involved as planning a quiz night for teambuilding.
Another way to get team members involved is to introduce new concepts in a way that invites involvement and brainstorming.
This part of the team connection is often forgotten, so it is essential to consistently and consciously make an effort to create relationship building moments. Another way to get team members involved is to introduce new concepts in a way that invites involvement and brainstorming. In this way, team members will both feel heard and more easily get on board with the project.
L = Language and fluency gap
The fluency level of team members can affect the level of influence that they automatically exert in the team. For example, if the company language is English those who speak English as a second language may feel overshadowed or misunderstood by those who grew up speaking English. It would be a shame to miss out on valuable insights from team members simply due to a small language barrier.
In order to ensure that team members are heard and understood, no matter what their level of fluency is, there are some “rules of engagement” you can follow. For fluent speakers this comes down to making sure that they are not dominating conversations by slowing down, asking if others understand, and giving everyone a chance to speak.
The team leader can help everyone by giving team members equal chances to participate, for example by going around the room and hearing everyone’s opinion.
For less fluent speakers the focus is on getting out of their comfort zone and insisting on sharing their opinions and understanding others. The team leader can help everyone by giving team members equal chances to participate, for example by going around the room and hearing everyone’s opinion.
I = Identity and the mismatch of perception
Every person’s identity is developed based on a variety of factors, including cultural background. This can often also lead to the development of cultural biases which we are not even aware of. For example, giving and receiving critical feedback may be considered honest and transparent by one person while considered harsh and destroy trust for another.
There are four main areas worth paying attention to, as they are often the source of conflict or misunderstandings: Leadership styles, communication, time, and trusting.
Luckily, with a little awareness we can find a way of working that is effective for all team members. There are four main areas worth paying attention to, as they are often the source of conflict or misunderstandings: Leadership styles, communication, time, and trusting.
The best way to handle challenges based on cultural biases is to first take a step back and observe. It is important to postpone judgement as well and not draw any conclusions without hearing the other side. Putting forth an effort to understand will go a long way in coming up with a solution. Next, work to identify the cultural gaps that can lead to misunderstandings.
Once you understand where the other person is coming from and why you were not connecting you can find a way to adapt your way of doing things to find a solution that works for both parties. Sometimes the most effective way to get your message across is to listen and find out if it is being received the way you intended, if not, change something. Keeping an open mind and a willingness to learn about your team members will make this process much more fun and lead to positive outcomes.
T = Technology and the connection challenge
In a virtual work environment figuring out what tools to use and when is key. To evaluate what will be most effective in any given situation, ask yourself the following questions:
- Who is the audience?
- When should communication be delayed (i.e. receiver is in meeting) or instant (i.e. urgent)?
- Do I need a media rich option (like a video call) or will an email suffice?
- Does the message need to be reinforced through multiple channels of communication?
After answering those questions, you should have a better idea of which medium will be most helpful for the task at hand. In general, using fewer emails can help to maintain more personal contact and not over-communicating can help prevent annoyance or micro-managing. Document sharing is also an effective way to stay in the loop without having to answer too many emails per day.
Another tip that can help maintain a healthy communication is to establish “no-go times,” when everyone understands that it is no longer work time and they do not need to be reachable or online.
Using visual media can be a great additional tool for getting your point across and getting everyone on the same page, especially in multicultural teams. Another tip that can help maintain a healthy communication and connection style in a technology heavy work world is to establish “no-go times,” when everyone understands that it is no longer work time and they do not need to be reachable or online.
At the end of the day the best way to support your global team members is to create awareness, be open, and discuss challenges from all perspectives in order to find a new way of working that is happy and effective for everyone. You can start today by choosing one of the above areas to focus on, set a goal to apply one of the specific strategies discussed, and take action to start building a stronger emotional connection within your team this week!