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22 Oct. 2012 | Comments (0)

Sometimes it’s the small vexations that can cause a marriage to break down. Certainly, in the business world, it is everyday nuisances which can cause the irretrievable derailment of a merger or an alliance. Global virtual teams also often fall victim to these annoying habits.

One of the most obvious sources of frustration in a cross-cultural context is the notion of time and punctuality. “Why are the Southern Europeans so late for everything?” is a question Northern European clients regularly ask (or imply).  This tension arises from two different attitudes towards time. On the one hand, some live in a world where time is scarce, there are never enough hours in the day, and there is constant pressure to do more. On the other hand, there are places where an attitude of ‘we have all the time in the world,’ is present, and slowness is valued and perceived as somehow producing better quality results. The Western sense of urgency can be used against you in negotiations, as American businessmen in Japan or China have discovered.

So how can a global virtual team integrate these different attitudes towards time while working on a joint project with clear milestones and deadlines?

The obvious answer is to build in more time if possible. Research shows that, on average, there is a time lag of several weeks between a co-located and a virtual team, regarding when they reach peak performance levels. This holds true for virtual meetings and teleconferences, as well. However, an essential first step must be to have a clear outline of the topics to be covered, and know the exact purpose of the meeting (problem solving, decision making, project update, etc.). Next, make sure that the agenda is well publicised ahead of the meeting.

However, you also need to show some flexibility and allow for cultural preferences in relationship building. Many cultures, such as Mediterranean, South American, and Middle Eastern cultures, like to participate in some small talk before they launch into the actual purpose of the meeting. One strategy for dealing with that is to get everyone to call in 10 minutes before the actual meeting, and have an informal chat. This will allow enough time for people to catch up on what’s happening throughout the different sites, indulge in a discussion of the weather and families, and build a much-needed rapport. 

There’s no getting away from it: there will be certain individuals who are great talkers and tend to derail the timing of a meeting. Although it is much harder to interrupt someone in a virtual meeting, as the organiser you need to pull them back to the main theme and remind them of what you’d like to achieve. Some companies have introduced so-called virtual water coolers or chat rooms. These are less formal meetings where no decisions need to be made: it’s just a participant update, on a voluntary basis. Perhaps, once a week or once a fortnight, there is a designated check-in time and people who like to share and talk a bit longer will then have the opportunity to do so, without disrupting the formal meetings.

Another issue that often arises is how to get conference calls started on time in a global team when there are very different attitudes towards punctuality. This is where team culture has to trump national culture. All the team members need to agree what are the acceptable margins around the starting time.  For example, 5-10 minutes might be acceptable, especially if the person feels that they can slip in quietly and don’t need to be brought up to date. This should remain the exception rather than the rule.

Most of the issues surrounding working virtually can be resolved by finding a team identity and setting up your own rules and work methods, but these solutions need to be agreed upon by all team members –- or at least acceptable for most of them most of the time. To do so, find out what is tolerable, and what is absolutely unforgiveable. No single set of rules will work for every team or every organisation, so make sure to get plenty of input from all team members in the initial set-up phase.

This may feel like a waste of time, but do not be tempted to skip this step. Otherwise, there is a serious risk that problems will crop up in the future.  There is a special term for the kind of conflict you get in virtual teams: ‘strangely escalating conflict.’ Problems in virtual teams don’t arise in the normal way; there is a pattern of simmering and ignoring, because people do not spend their entire working day together, so they feel that they can put up with things. Then, suddenly resentment resurfaces and becomes uncontrollable, often leading to a complete breakdown of communication.  So time spent getting to know each other and establishing ground rules is never wasted, even when you are simultaneously working with multiple project teams.

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  • About the Author:Dr. Sanda Ionescu

    Dr. Sanda Ionescu

    Dr. Sanda Ionescu is the founder of The Culture Broker, and specialises in facilitation, coaching and training to foster intercultural communication and cultural integration. Having lived, studied and…

    Full Bio | More from Dr. Sanda Ionescu

     

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