12 tips for working virtually in a multicultural team

Terry Brake gives us tips for successful virtual meetings across cultures.

You can’t beat face-to-face contact for furthering cross-cultural relationships. But sometimes it’s not always available. All over the world the main, or sometimes only, contact people have with their remote co-workers is by conference call, or email.

While technology is a wonderful thing, if this is the only method of communication you have, vital nuances can be lost in conversation leading to the breakdown in relationships – or even the failure of projects. Here are the top tips for making the most of working remotely.

  1. If somebody new joins a remote team, pick up the phone. Listening to someone’s voice and having a chat is much more personal than firing off an email. Similarly, if you are new to the group, find out how your predecessor managed communication with the virtual team and what’s expected of you.
  2. Be consistent in your communication methods. For example, hold video conference calls for brainstorming or important strategy meetings, or Google Drive for document sharing, group chat for batting ideas around and group email for disseminating information. But don’t lead people to expect one thing and then do another. Unless you have unlimited time, discourage WhatsApp groups or similar in which hundreds of one-line chatty messages pop up; try to keep it friendly but business-like. When you set up any group chat, communicate clearly what its purpose is.
  3. Be aware of what you might be missing. Mannerisms may not mean what you interpret them to – the Indian ‘head wobble’, for example, which has many different implications. Silence on the part of Asian colleagues may not be rudeness or a failure to understand; they may simply be thinking. Leaping in to fill every gap in the conversation will unsettle people and you could come across as either nervous or rude.
  4. Set some simple ground rules for video conferencing. All parties should minimise distractions, like mobile phones and music in the background. Allow everybody a turn to speak. Set an example with your own body language; don’t communicate with your Japanese team with your feet up on the desk, for example. And pay attention to any gestures that might be offensive to a different culture.
  5. Never forget ‘face’. It’s not just Asian staff who have a strong sense of ‘face’. South Americans do, too, and Italians, Indians and Arabs. Learn to interpret body language and try to understand if someone at the end of a phone or a Skype call is simply telling you what they think you want to hear, to save face. You’ll need to watch carefully for non-verbal cues to tell if someone means ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
  6. Think before you speak. Remember, the other parties may not have English as a first language. It may take them more than one attempt to say what they actually mean. Don’t jump in and interrupt someone who might be trying to find the right way to express themselves.
  7. Don’t get angry. If you attack someone verbally over a conference call, it can be very difficult to save your own face by backtracking. Don’t be over-critical. Use more positive language to express criticism: ‘Maybe we should think about doing it this way’.
  8. Over-communicate. It’s better to be clear and to speak and write in relatively simple language than to assume remote-working colleagues can pick up the subtext of what you’re saying. If you have a feeling after a conference call that not everything you said was understood, follow up with an email outlining the discussion and action points.
  9. Remember the small talk. There is no harm in a spot of relationship-building before plunging into a conference call. Many cultures expect this (Latin American, Arab, Asian, southern Europeans) and would consider you rude if you got straight down to business. Or start each video call by going around the virtual table and having each member of the meeting spend a minute or so talking about what they’re doing.
  10. Share out the time zone burden. While regular conference calls are essential in a team that’s scattered all over the world, don’t always make your Asian colleagues stay late, or expect your American colleagues to make themselves available at 6am. Take turns between the regions. Schedule discussions in advance so people can allocate the time.
  11. Think about your group email etiquette. Again, there is no harm in being polite when emailing across cultures. However well you know your remote team, you can still greet people politely and sign off. Avoid ‘shouting’ upper case and unnecessary jargon. Would you behave like that in an old-fashioned letter or a conversation? No.
  12. Try at least to put in occasional face time. Visit your team and bond with them, and establish a shared vision for the team. Go out for dinner, or to a bar, or arrange a team-building activity, and have fun. You’ll see another side to each individual. Next time you’re dealing with them remotely, you’ll have an instant rapport – and a better understanding of what people really mean in that conference call.


About the author

Terry Brake is director of learning and innovation at Country Navigator, specialising in the globalization process, cross-cultural management and global leadership. 


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