Virtual multicultural teams: real communication in the virtual world
The following situation sounds common enough for Romania, a country which has been chosen by many companies as their outsource location. The cheaper and more skilled labor force, plus the expansion of online technologies make it easy for Romanians to tele work with colleagues in other countries. But how easy is it to communicate with them?
By Irina Budrina
Let’s start from the following situation:
A company based in the United States develops multimedia software with a team of 7 free-lance developers located in 3 different countries, including Romania. The team was formed through Internet chat groups or interpersonal relations and is completely virtual. All developers are under commercial contract with the main company. The company has no offices and developers have never met with each other. All employees tele-work from home and informally communicate through electronic means. Each developer has specific tasks and is in charge of one part of the software development. They plan the work together at the beginning of each project. They work on the same data file and post their contributions on a collaborative platform. The company’s job is to assemble the different pieces developed by the tele-workers.
Many companies use virtual teams of geographically dispersed people to work on short- and long-term projects. A long-term “virtual” team is one that conducts its work almost entirely through electronic technology. Such technology and the expansion of global business have changed the work environment for organizations of all sizes, allowing even small companies to compete in the international market place. Communicating across cultures using technology can be a difficult task. It requires understanding the advantages and limitations of technology and how to build relationships via technology.
Though it gives an opportunity for frequent, easy, low-cost, around-the-clock communion and collaboration, virtual team members need to choose an appropriate communication channel for their purposes and be sure to balance distance work with face-to-face communication. Learning how to handle the technology and to deal with different cultures pose the biggest challenges.
How do you supervise team members you don’t see? Results, rather than time and effort, are what you do see. Therefore, outputs become primary. In many cases virtual projects create a 24-hour workday distributed around the world. Here work and time management styles that differ culturally and personally, and work on building trust around the difference should be discussed. And health and safety implications of virtual work, not just use of technology, but its psychology, the stress it creates and its impact on the lifestyle of the workers should be examined.
Virtual culture clashes with organizational culture
Remember that organizational culture is, most of the time, a particular expression of regional and ethnic culture. The values and behaviours of virtual project management can seem threatening if they are not already a part of the culture of the larger organization. They need to be fully communicated, understood, wrestled with and accepted if the organization is to support the implementation of virtual project management and realize the benefits that it offers.
Hard feelings may arise, for example, if the virtual team operates with “flat” values in a hierarchical organization, like in Romania. Suspicion and resentment may surface if “work” is defined in terms of hours spent in an office and virtual workers may not be found there on the normal schedule.
Another typical feature for Romania in organisational cultures where information is highly guarded, used as power or traded as currency, virtual teamwork and the corporate intelligence it creates will be affected. Expectations may be frustrated and little value added may result from virtualizing business operations in such environments. Therefore successful implementation of virtual working may require that we work out agreements about sharing people’s time information in ways that fit, as well as challenge the existing culture; and reward sharing psychologically and reinforce it by the compensation system. People should start to think automatically, “You are not a real professional unless you share effectively.”
At the same time, take security concerns most seriously and work out the needed protocols and commitments to prevent leaks and invasions that could subvert the project.
Relationships of individuals and project teams working virtually
The members of the virtual project teams will need to become culturally competent, at least in respect to their own members, if they are to manage diversity issues. There are some diversity advantages to virtual working, however. Skin colour, gender and other biases based on visual factors will be minimized when the group works in technology that is limited to audio and written transmission. Individuals who by ethnicity or personality are less outspoken in face-to-face situations may contribute more to newsgroups and forums that provide more offline time to prepare a response, or where they enjoy anonymity or less exposure.
Finally, face-to-face meetings, when they do happen, can be made to be of a higher quality. They can be used to focus mainly on the important issues of vision, planning and above all, motivation and teambuilding and culture management rather than lower level data sharing and technical discussion that can be done by virtual means prior to and as a follow-up to the face-to-face sessions.
Mismatch of cultural context in virtual communication
In individualistic cultures (Northern Europe, North America) commonly the MESSAGE is all that is needed for the recipient to respond or take action. A person from such an individualistic culture may send a one-line e-mail request, but to act or respond, a person from a more collective culture (in varying degrees – Southern US, Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America) may need to know: Who (status, role) is the sender? Why was this message written? Who else in my organization knows about this or needs to know about it? What information, consensus or permission do I need from others in order to respond?
How can this be addressed? Training can help to understand the importance and nature of differing contexts on both sides. Use face-to-face time to get project teams started in this direction and to maintain them. Encourage virtual workers and teams to build common context for teamwork by providing personal information, pictures, accomplishments, titles, roles in the system. Allow for online time for introductions, warm-ups, and chitchat about things especially people you have in common. Encourage social events and personal forums online.
Individualistic cultures stress what you can do and what you know. Despite similar technical capabilities, more collective cultures ( like in Romania) often stress who you are and whom you know. In one case, facts, data, and deadlines get things done; in the other, relationships, contacts, and roles get things done.
Inappropriate, unprepared, incorrect, or blunt responses from the “what” cultures cause loss of face in the “who” cultures for: the sender, the sender’s superior and subordinates as well as for the recipient and his or her network.
The use of time
In individualistic cultures, time is money. In collective person oriented cultures, relationship is money (and much more). This often results in mismatch of expectations around use of time, response time, meeting deadlines that may not be sorted out as easily in virtual environments as they are face to face.
When polychronic (human multitasking) cultures face monochronic (one-thing-at-a-time) cultures each sees the other as respectively narrow-minded or distracted. Polychronic individuals may seem less committed to the team or differ in how they arrange work because they have multiple responsibilities. Different uses of time may not be immediately apparent in virtual working because they are less visible and often masked by time-zone differences.
Cultural preferences for certain technologies
Cultures may prefer or resist the use of certain media or technologies at different times and in different contexts. For example, where saving face is important, there may be embarrassment about such simple things as one’s spelling skills when contributing to forums or e-mail, and concern about giving unprepared, quick, imperfect answers in real time connections.
Some individuals and groups may resist certain technologies because they reinforce a power imbalance between first and second language speakers or writers, such as native English speakers and English as the Second language speakers. Second language speakers become an out-group.
Eliminating cultural differences is practically out of question. Most global players do not consider intercultural diversity as an obstacle; on the contrary, they perceive it as an asset. In the market understanding, it creates an appreciable competitive advantage.
What is your experience of virtual multicultural teams? What is your experience with the Romanians who are part of these teams?
irina-budrina [ at ] hotmail.com
More about Irina Budrina here.
Virtual multicultural teams: real communication in the virtual world — Daily news in English from Romania - Romania-Insider.com