We have been delivering global virtual team training programmes for major global organisations for more than fifteen years and are therefore very aware of the various global virtual team challenges that are faced by people on a daily basis. We have run these training programmes for people in multiple geographies in both a ‘live’ classroom setting and in a virtual classroom through the use of webinar technology across a wide range of sectors – but whatever the geography and whatever the sector, the challenges remain constant.
Companies have had a choice up to 2020 – they could either ignore the issues which tend to make virtual teams less productive than co-located teams or they could address those issues through well-structured practical training programmes. They had that choice up to 2020 but the Covid 19 pandemic has dramatically transformed the working landscape and it looks highly likely that in the future far more people will be working in virtual teams than are sitting together in a traditional office location. Even if people don’t work remotely all the time, they will inevitably be working part of the week from home.
Global virtual team training therefore becomes a ‘need to have’ rather than a ‘nice to have’ and I thought it might be helpful to share my experiences around what the major global virtual team challenges actually are. I think these experiences might prove valuable because they are not really my experiences at all – they are the experiences which hundreds and hundreds of training programme delegates have reported back to me on the training programmes I run for clients. These challenges are not in any way theoretical; they are deeply rooted in real-life experiences.
Global Virtual Teams – a definition
I have a definition which I very often share on global virtual teams training programmes which delegates seem to find useful and which always seems to stimulate a debate. That definition is:
- A global virtual team is a group of individuals who work across the boundaries of time, geography, language, and culture and who link successfully by technology and agreed common goals
- This team should have the right skill sets, be committed to agreed corporate goals and should be able to hold each other mutually accountable for reaching those goals without fear of offending
This definition describes the theoretical aim of any virtual team, but unfortunately most global virtual teams fail when benchmarked against most of the objectives listed above. It is undoubtedly true that a global virtual team ‘is a group of individuals who work across the boundaries of time, geography, language and culture’ – this part of the definition cannot be contested but I start to have serious problems with the phrase ‘who link successfully by technology and common goals.’ If these teams were in fact linked successfully by technology and common goals why do people in every training programme I run complain about the ineffectiveness of the technology they use and simply laugh at the idea that everybody in a virtual team share common goals? And this is before we start to look at issues around skill sets and mutual accountability!
Global Virtual Team Challenges
So, what are the most common challenges that people raise when we look at these issues during the global virtual teams training programmes we run for our clients? Here are five of the most often raised issues:
- Lack of spontaneity: Simple as it sounds, I think this single issue sums up the challenge of making global virtual teams work effectively. Simply put; there are no ‘water-cooler’ moments and these unplanned ‘water-cooler’ moments are often what make co-located teams work effectively. In a co-located team, information gets disseminated in an informal way even if the leader forgets to formally tell things to people (and let’s face it not all leaders are great communicators!) However, if information is not formally exchanged in a virtual team that information simply doesn’t get spread and, over time, people on the edges get left out and start to feel disengaged and unloved. I think this is the single most important reason why virtual teams simply don’t bond successfully and points to one of the key solutions for global teams which is the need for everything to be rigorously planned and executed because ‘spontaneous’ just doesn’t happen.
- Ill-defined and poorly communicated roles and responsibilities: People tend to know exactly what everybody’s roles and responsibilities are in a co-located team because you can physically see and hear what your colleagues are doing. You hear them on the phone and in conversations at their desks with colleagues, you talk to them about issues at lunch and in meetings and you work with them on shared tasks. When working in a global virtual team it is almost impossible to get a good feel for people’s roles and responsibilities unless they are explicitly defined to everybody in the team. It is absolutely imperative that each team member’s roles and responsibilities are understood by everybody else and this means that the team leader needs to be very explicit on this issue at the initial team-inception stage and at all future stages when new team members join.
- Over-reliance on the team leader: In a well-functioning co-located team (in the West), team members only tend to ‘bother’ the boss in exceptional circumstances. People are expected to work with other team members to resolve issues and then refer to the boss when there are problems it is felt the leader should be made aware of. However, so many virtual team leaders I have met complain bitterly about the tsunami of emails they receive from virtual team members – the team leader is literally copied into every email from every team member. The team leader thereby becomes nothing more than a glorified email taker and forwarder. Why does this happen? Why do people who would not normally want to bother the boss when in a co-located team completely change their behaviours when in a virtual team? The answer to this is simple – they don’t fully understand the roles and responsibilities of all the virtual team members and therefore have no option but to contact the boss! This becomes a vicious cycle and can lead to team paralysis.
- Cross-cultural misunderstandings: Cultural differences come with the territory of working in a global virtual team. Each team member from each country brings their own cultural bias and preconceptions to the party. Every single activity involved in working in a global team elicits a different ‘normal’ approach depending on the nationality of the team member. Key issues to keep in mind here would be:
- What does good leadership look like? Each team member might have a different answer to this question so how is the team leader expected behave and adapt?
- How should we run our meetings? There is no such thing as a ‘well-run’ meeting from a cross-cultural perspective. What one team member in one country might consider an efficient and productive meeting might appear as chaotic to another team member from a different country. So how do we make meetings work for the whole team?
- What is the decision-making process? Does the team leader ask for input and then make the decision, or do we have a truly consensual approach? Should we wait to make the decision until we have all possible information, or should we move quickly and look to adapt the decision as events unfold?
- Should we write or speak? Some cultures are more written word-oriented whereas others are more spoken-word oriented. Some cultures will see a written request as more important whereas another culture might only respond after discussing something. So, what communication methodology do we adopt as a team?
- Communication and misunderstandings: A virtual team might easily consist of 20 people from 14 different countries who speak 10 different languages as their native tongue. In this situation miscommunication and misunderstandings are bound to occur. Not only will language ability in the common team language (usually English) vary enormously but each team member will bring with them their own cultural assumptions around what ‘good’ communication looks like. What is perceived as clear, unambiguous communication by one team member might be seen as rude and aggressive by another; a diplomatically phrased instruction might easily be interpreted as deliberately vague and suspicious by another.
Global Team Solutions
We specialise in helping global virtual teams and global virtual team leaders understand these challenges and develop solutions to ensure people can work effectively in these most challenging of situations. Our courses include:
- Leading global virtual teams
- Working in global virtual teams
- Effective global virtual meetings
- Developing cultural awareness in global virtual teams
All programmes are tailored to meet client needs and delivered by trainers with decades of experience of cross-border working.
About the author
Keith helps clients work smarter in global, virtual and hybrid landscapes through developing greater levels of cultural fluency, improving their abilities to work in global virtual teams and by helping them navigate the challenges of transitioning to a hybrid future.