In today’s global village environment doing business increasingly means operating in a virtual environment, due to both globalisation and a talent shortage. A virtual team can consist of members across towns, countries and time zones. One must be able to adapt to and leverage on the different work styles and cultures and utilise appropriate technologies to create efficiencies in the global workplace.
Some of the key challenges for culturally diverse virtual teams are:
Due to the geographical distance separating their members, virtual teams rely on communication and technologies to facilitate interaction and coordinate work. Communication is a critical factor for any team but particularly for virtual teams that are also culturally diverse. Mehrabian, in his study conducted in the 1960s highlighted the effectiveness of human communication. Mehrabian’s experiments showed that in interpersonal communication, less than 7% of the meaning of communication is contained in the words, some 38% of the meaning is contained in the pitch, tone, emphasis and volume of the words, and the bulk of the meaning, some 55%, is contained in body language and context.
While people are often shocked when they first hear this, they accept it fairly quickly. In virtual teams that communicate in languages that are often not a person’s first language, the potential for misunderstanding is high. Mehrabian’s findings demonstrate that the bulk of meaning is communicated via body language and context, both of which are difficult to grasp in a virtual team.
These are the three areas that must be considered when designing a collaborative team environment:
- Process; and
These components make up the bulk of the team and its communication styles. The way in which we communicate is enormously influenced by our culture. Culture poses communication problems because there are so many variables unknown to the communicators. For the person communicating in a multicultural environment, one must remember that the message that ultimately counts is the one that the other person gets, not the one that is sent. There need to be guidelines regarding the communication process in a virtual team and the correct technological platform in order to enhance communication.
Trust is the essential ingredient for a successful team. Effective communication will produce a healthy degree of trust and, a large component of success, is based on trust. It does not mean the members have to like each other, but they do have to be able to understand and rely on each other.
Trust is the ‘glue’ of the virtual workplace. Trust is the basis of a team as it is the foundation where real teamwork begins. Without trust, admissions of weaknesses and mistakes are met with fear of punishment and asking for help becomes more difficult if there is little trust.
When establishing trust in virtual working teams there are underlying cultural aspects of trust that must be recognised. A lack of trust can result in a lot of wasted time managing behaviours and interactions between team members. Lack of trust can create a reluctance to take risks or ask for assistance, it can lead to low morale and ultimately high staff turnover. It is important that members of the team have the confidence to speak up or offer suggestions. People tend to trust those whom they perceive as similar to themselves, so trust is difficult to establish in virtual teams where members are likely to have different backgrounds, experiences, and cultures.
3. The Three Cultures
The Three Cultures map shows how both trust and communication are developed and reached via a three-tiered approach: National Culture, Organisational Culture and Personal Culture. The three cultures are separate entities and interlinked with one another. When one is working in virtual teams across borders, we are clearly working within these three cultures. The unique individual operates within their own culture, which is responsible for establishing the foundations from which we make judgments, form opinions and formalise decisions. There may be several national cultures that are represented and even within the corporate culture there are often differences. These appear at first glance to be subtle, but once we go below the surface the organisational culture can be significantly different between offices and countries.
Once team members are sufficiently aware of their own enculturation, they can then see how comprehensively it affects their own decision making, particularly in the area of developing trust and communication techniques. Team members can then progress to understanding other cultures and begin learning how to build trust with people from different cultures. This will improve their understanding not only of the things that are said but also of those that are not said.
Marjorie, D. (2016). Diversity and inclusion are essential to a global virtual team’s success. Retrieved from https://www.td.org/magazines/td-magazine/diversity-and-inclusion-are-essential-to-a-global-virtual-teams-success.
Mehrabian, A., (1972). Nonverbal Communication. Chicago, Illinois: Aldine-Atherton.
Ludmila, V. (2018). Diversity in virtual teams: Challenges and solutions. Virtual teams management, Case study. Retrieved from https://www.theseus.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/148710/Ludmila_Velikodnaya_Thesis.editedFinal.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
Verghese. T., (2008). Virtual teams and cultural diversity. Melbourne, Australia: Synergistic Press.