We’ve been supporting the development of geographically spread teams for years; global project teams, functional teams spread throughout a region, and teams located in one office whilst the manager is in a different city. All sorts of variations. And in that time we have seen some really successful virtual teams, so we’ve put together our top five factors that we think makes a really good virtual team.
1. Get aligned on your new operating principles - create a team charter
How your team works together remotely is different to face to face. So how we collaborate, communicate and resolve conflict will all need to be done differently. The risk is that we each have our own ways of perceiving how those elements should happen, so the role of the charter is to do the one single thing that can set your team up for success the most. Make sure the team is aligned in a very clear and explicit way on how they think they should be working together in this ‘new normal’. All teams should go through this process – from the C-suite down.
2. Optimise how you work between teams
Work still needs to get done between teams – and this is one of the forgotten aspects of converting a face to face business to a virtual business as the focus tends to be more on how ‘a’ team works. So there is a piece of work that successful virtual teams do that simply mirrors the principles of the above point, and provides a means for the leaders of teams to connect, share and be clear on expectations regarding priorities, eg; what business objectives are more important or how shared resources should be deployed. It also allows the team leads to create some rules of engagement for how collaboration, communication and conflict resolution happens between teams. This is underpinned by the team charter, and allows guesswork to be replaced by real work!
3. Train and be coached for working in a virtual team
Working and leading in a virtual team requires a different set of skills and mindset. The ability to understand and work with uncertainty and ambiguity, manage stakeholders remotely, build and maintain relationships and collaborate all require different development to that in face to face structures. There's no point training to ride a bicycle when you will be riding a motorbike! Good remote working training combines behavioural skills with a focus on connection at a values and relational level. But we also know that on a deeper level, there are other factors that enhance or reduce our ability to be effective in a remote team; our confidence, need for recognition, cultural background and personality (eg; rigid vs flexible). Consider coaching if you know that working remotely doesn't fit who you are...but you like what you do and don't want to, or can’t afford to leave.
4. Things Change - so keep the team charter alive
This point comes into its own in these times of rapid change. The really good virtual teams look for opportunities to reinforce a culture of collaboration by reviewing the extent to which their team charter is still a constructive means of supporting them. They use this as an opportunity to come together and to work on the team, and continually update their preferred ways of working. And when things are changing so quickly, you can’t afford not to be reviewing the way you work together.
5. Culture Matters.
Recalibrate your team culture to reflect the remote working environment. The really effective remote teams that I’ve seen acknowledge that the culture that got them here, may not get them there. A simple example of this is the shared thinking around how open and approachable we should be. In a face to face environment it may be ok that a new team member needs to work a little harder show how they fit in and being slightly more closed between teams may be acceptable. But in a remote setting that unspoken way of thinking won’t fly. You need to make your culture more explicit, and perhaps it can be reflected in the first point when the team charter is designed. We know that culture is needed to drive the execution of strategy. Right now though, plenty of strategies and plans are being upended, revised and in some cases completely re-written. So, it makes sense that even at the level of the virtual team, a conversation be had around how the culture may need to be shifted to help them execute a little differently on their team objectives.
We often hear the term 'flying below the radar' in global organisations. It’s a catch cry that tends to originate from the non-HQ countries in multi-nationals who don’t necessarily see the benefit of doing what HQ is asking of them and so they go rogue…fly under the radar…and get on with business in a way that makes sense to them.
But are they really going rogue? And could the notion of 'flying under the radar' really be a misplaced assumption that does more damage than good when seeking to build stronger global approaches to working?
To make sense of how this could happen (either the assumption or the reality), and therefore be positioned to make some different decisions, we need to get to the heart of why we feel the need to fly under the radar. The answer could be simpler than we realise; not that it may make it any easier to deal with in some circumstances. In the book Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, (Hofstede, Hofstede, Minkov: 2010), there are many ideas offered that shed light on the topic; in this article we will look at two of them in brief.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Management policy, techniques or directives formulated in one country, through a particular cultural lens may not be so suitable for all countries in the network. How often do we see it that a single way of working (or conducting business) is identified, and then combined into a nice looking booklet or powerpoint presentation, and then massed produced and pushed out to all countries in the network, sometimes accompanied with training and additional resources. Not long after frustrations tend to surface due to lack of take up, or we suspect that the whilst the dashboard or metrics may look good, we are hearing that this isn’t really what’s happening on the ground. In these situations two things tend to occur. Either we push harder and force people to explain show what they are doing (think forcing a square peg into a round hole!) or we review the way the initiative was implemented, in most cases, through a change management lens. And whilst this provides some insight, there is an additional lens that we often fail to acknowledge that could have positively impacted the implementation. National culture.
Let’s use an example most of us can relate to; annual performance objectives and appraisals. Management by objectives based approaches may work perfectly fine in cultures where it is culturally acceptable to sit down and explore – or even negotiate – with your manager around what your objectives will be throughout the year, and then in the annual appraisal be given a voice and a right to reply regarding your rating. In other cultures though where the reliance on hierarchy is significant, and top down leadership is the accepted norm, there isn’t an accompanying mindset or in many cases a developed skill set to make an approach like this work. Not that there’s anything wrong with this; it just isn’t a natural (or in some cases known) way of working. So it makes more sense to fly under the radar; offer up some lip service to HQ and tell them that the new way of doing appraisals is working, and then just get on with business as usual. Whilst I’m using the example of appraisals here, there have been many other situations I’ve seen over the years relating to global standardization of business processes where the ability to fly under the radar becomes a refined art form, and perhaps an unspoken means of survival in the network.
Enabling Cross-Cultural Interaction
The second element is the way in which things are communicated from HQ out to the countries in the network. Again, our cultural lens plays a role in how we communicate a message. Is it from a top down position, or a more collaborative, or ‘on the level’ position. Are we providing the right amount of detail or too much detail? Just as importantly, is how the receiver would prefer to receive the message so that we enable them to respond. Think about your culture and natural ways of communicating; how will this style be received in a different country? Just as we think about the influence of our individual personalities on how we communicate within our teams or with colleagues, the same principle applies with intercultural communication. The key is as much about understanding who is sending the message, as it is who will be receiving the message.
To highlight this point, you only need to think of those times when you have felt a deep sense of discomfort with what is being asked of you. For those in a culture where hierarchy, power and collectivist thinking are accepted pillars of society, being asked to challenge up line, provide negative or critical feedback will not come easy; not because there isn’t any independent thought on the topic, rather, the means to offer such feedback may not be as well developed as in a more egalitarian society where debate and challenging the norm is culturally accepted. This leads to flying under the radar from a compliance and respect perspective; not wanting to offend and to save face. It is likely that it could also be originating from a position of wanting to maintain harmony in the relationship with HQ.
If we reverse the above example, and the communication originated from a country that holds hierarchy and societal power to be core cultural elements, there will still be a measure discomfort and an increased desire to ‘fly under the radar’ in more egalitarian and individualist countries, however more from a rebellious perspective.
What’s important to understand is that neither of these approaches are better than the other; they both have advantages and disadvantages; but understanding a little bit about the cultural ways of being will help tremendously when working out a change or communication strategy for more than one country.
In the above examples I have only considered two or three of the six dimensions researched and created by Prof Hofstede and other intercultural experts that are available to us when exploring how we can improve performance between countries and reduce the instances of ‘flying under the radar'.
Yet immediately it is possible to start seeing how one way of thinking doesn’t translate into all ways of thinking. We also have the generational impact to consider, as we do the fact that there are always outliers in any system or culture. This simply reinforces the importance of understanding who will be receiving your message; building a rapport with your audience on both the relational level and around the message you want to send. When we remember that the way we think drives our behaviour, then it makes sense that purely focusing on the behavioural and aesthetic aspects of implementing a large scale initiative will not be enough to drive the change or engagement you are looking for.
The good news? In my experience, taking some time out during the design phase of a new initiative to understand the countries and cultures who will be receiving the message, and therefore the way in which they would prefer to receive the message, can save you a lot of bother down the track. In global organisations there is an inevitability that faux pas’ will happen; this is almost a given. However a couple of hours exploring, and seeking to understand more about the cultures and people from which we want something, tends to yield greater tolerance when things go wrong, along with heightened engagement and performance.
Sometimes the biggest block to collaboration is the extent to which we make it easy for others to understand and engage with what it is we want to achieve. The perceptual chasm between you and those around you can be reduced or removed if we adopt a couple of straightforward principles. In short they are:
Be clear about what you want to achieve
This sounds easy enough, but I’ve often found when resolving collaboration conflicts that the initiating person or group can’t clearly articulate what it is they want to achieve in the first place! Many times I’ve found that resistance to collaborate exists around this very basic issue. Think of this way. When it comes to seeking collaboration, what you are really seeking is that they contribute something towards achieving an objective. Skills, knowledge, experience or time, it doesn’t matter; most people are reluctant to give up anything, or change the way they do something, without knowing why they are doing it or what’s in it for them. So this first principle is about stripping away any ambiguity and being clear about:
At the very least, be clear on ‘what’ you want to achieve and remember if you can’t explain it, they won’t get it – and neither will you!
Be prepared to let go
You want people to embrace your reason for collaboration irrespective of their bias when it comes to organisational politics or their different schools of thought. Many leaders have learnt the hard way that trying to appeal to all the different perspectives that exist is an instant killer of collaboration. This is because the focus falls immediately to addressing different perceptions, which can only ever really be effective at a superficial level. If this is happening then it’s also likely that this is how you are thinking about the reason for collaboration. Underpinning all this is the most serious issue – and that is that you cannot control what other people think or perceive.
So what’s the answer? Let go!
Communicate for collaboration
Don’t just think about ‘what’ you have to say - the way you say it is equally important. Use language that encourages inclusivity and reinforces collaboration at every turn; words and phrases such as:
A collaborative relationship can be undone before it even begins if there is no consistency between saying that you want to collaborate and then using a whole stack of “I” statements. Naturally, it’s important to seal your commitment by acting in a collaborative manner that reinforces your use of collaborative language. So be conscious of the congruency between the way you are thinking about the need for collaboration, the words you use to influence others to get involved and the extent to which you are actually behaving collaboratively yourself.
Collaboration is achievable; but it’s also important to set both you and your collaboration partners up for success from the very beginning. And if you were to only practice these three steps, then you’d go a long way to achieving a win-win outcome, based on a collaborative start.