Global Virtual Team Training - 5 Key Elements | Global Business Culture
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Global Virtual Team Training – 5 Key Elements

Global Virtual Team Training – 5 Key Elements

As founder of Global Business Culture, I have been running Global Virtual Team training courses for more than 15 years for major corporations around the world.  We have run these programmes on a face-to-face basis, and we have run them in a virtual setting through conference calls and digital learning courses.  It is therefore interesting to me that the 2020 Corona virus pandemic has brought forward a whole tsunami of people giving advice on working in global virtual teams.

It worries me slightly that some of these new advisors might be advising from a position of partial knowledge at best and so I thought it might be helpful to people looking to commission Global Virtual Team training if I highlighted a few areas which should be considered when commissioning and delivering this type of learning and development activity.

I have to admit that all of my experience has been in helping multi-cultural, multi-country teams work together more effectively across the barriers of culture, geography, language and technology but many, many delegates have said that most of the learning also applied to working with remote colleagues within their own country.

The aim of writing this blog is not to say ‘buy our training programmes’ (it would be great if you did) but more to add some structure to a few thoughts that people might already have in their minds but find difficult to articulate.

So here goes – 5 key elements in Global Virtual Team Training which I think clients should focus on (not in any particular order of importance.)

Ditch the Theory

There are lots of theories out there about remote working and lots of research undertaken on this topic.  (I expect a lot more will be done as we move out of the current global pandemic.)  Although this work has lots of merit, my experience is that employees in international organisations who struggle with the challenges of global virtual working are much more interested in exploring the real day-to-day areas which are impacted by virtuality and at looking at practical solutions to these challenges.  There are definitely differing expectations around what ‘good’ leadership looks like in different countries but focusing on Hofstede’s ideas around ‘Power Distance’ usually leave delegates with blank expressions on their faces and an air of ‘so what?’

Businesspeople need concrete examples which relate directly to their own experiences and day-to-day activities.  Therefore, any global virtual training programme should be designed to address those issues directly.

What are the challenges of working in a global virtual environment?

  • Dependence on technology
  • Lack of spontaneity
  • The need to plan much more meticulously
  • Difficulties in creating real, meaningful relationship
  • Leading people with differing expectations on what ‘good’ leadership is
  • Trying to understand the cultural differences within the team
  • Running virtual meetings
  • Mentoring people at a distance
  • Evaluating performance issues
  • Effective cross-border communication using a common language

The list is long, but all these challenges are rooted in day-to-day activities and delegates react positively when confronted with reality rather than theory.  Course design needs to be anchored to these practicalities – ditch the theory and focus on real issues!

The Trainer Needs Experience

Ensuring that global virtual teams can work as effectively as co-located teams is one of the great business challenges of the twenty-first century.  Virtual teams will become the norm and not the exception and teams that straddle cultures, geographies and languages will also become the norm rather than the exception.

Without fully functioning global virtual teams, productivity will fall as will profits; employees will become disengaged and leave the business which, as the war for talent intensifies will be disastrous for companies.  Not investing in training which looks to improve the efficiency of virtual working is, therefore, not really an option.

Global Virtual Team trainer selectionIf you are going to run training programmes on such a business-critical issue, your choice of trainer is key.  No matter how good the course design, no matter how engaging the materials the trainer is the key.  A good trainer can make a badly constructed course work well and a bad trainer can equally destroy even the best designed programme.

So, what skills and experience does a good trainer for a global virtual team training programme need?  This is a really interesting question and one I’ve struggled with myself over the years as I’ve tried to introduce new trainers onto Global Business Culture’s training modules.  Over time, I have come to realise that there are really three attributes that a trainer needs in these scenarios:

  1. A great deal of global experience which should include having lived and worked in multiple countries over an extended period. The trainer needs to have a deep understanding of how global cultural differences can impact on the dynamics of a global remote team.
  2. Hands-on experience of managing people in remote teams. Managing people locally is difficult enough but the additional complexities of culture, distance and language introduce even more challenges.  How can you hope to train people to do this effectively if you have never faced the challenges yourself?
  3. And finally, the trainer obviously needs to be good at the basic skills of running a training course. Some companies draft in a colleague to talk about these issues because they have some experience of the subject. That is great and their experience can be an invaluable asset on any training programme – but running an effective training programme is an art in itself and being a successful leader of a virtual team does not necessarily make you a good trainer of the subject (although it might in some cases.)

 Cultural fluency is essential

There is no getting away from the fact that global virtual teams will contain team members from different cultural backgrounds, and that there will inevitably be cultural challenges that come to the front during team interactions.  As this is an undeniable fact relating to multicultural virtual teams it stands to reason that any global virtual team training should contain a significant element of cultural awareness development.

And yet I have seen programmes that do not even mention the cultural aspects of team interplay or at best look at this issue for ten minutes or so.  If your training programme does not explore cultural nuances in some depth, then culture just becomes ‘the elephant in the room.’  I think some courses do not explore this area in depth because the trainers are not qualified or experienced enough to do so – which goes back to the point around choice of trainer.

Any viable training programme on this topic should look at the cross-cultural impacts on such varied areas as:

  • How meetings are run
  • Decision-making processes
  • The impact of hierarchical thinking
  • Leadership expectations
  • Differing communication styles
  • Relationship-building
  • Cultural bias in mentoring and review processes

A global virtual team training programme without a significant cultural element contained within it just is not fit for purpose because it misses one of the crucial challenges of successful cross-border working.

Team Operating Agreements

The objective of any global virtual team training programme should be to improve how effectively your global teams can interact with each other in order to achieve their goals.  Both practice and research show that the most productive tool for achieving better cross-border team cohesion is through the development and active use of agreed team operating agreements.

Global virtual team communicationTeam operating agreements should not be confused with project plans – they definitely are not a Gantt chart or a Pert chart.  Team operating agreements define the ways in which a cross-border team agrees to operate together and gives the structure and systems needed in an otherwise potentially chaotic situation.

Team operating agreements should be specific to the aims and make-up of each individual team but that does not mean that each TOA needs to be developed from scratch.  Organisations can develop templates which can be easily adapted to meet the exact needs of each team.  Al global virtual team training programmes should be structured with the development of a team operating agreement as the end point of the programme.  This gives both individual team members and the team as a collective a concrete conclusion and a road map of how to proceed after the training programme has ended.

Deciding who should attend the training

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of running a successful series of global virtual team training programmes for international clients has been for the client themselves to select which employees should attend the training and how the training should be structured in terms of face-to-face or virtual delivery.

 There are basically three ways you can slice the delegate pie:

  • Run programmes for leaders of virtual teams which focus exclusively on the skills and knowledge needed to run global virtual teams
  • Run programmes for existing virtual teams which all current team members attend
  • Run programmes for anybody who works in a global virtual team environment from any team regardless of whether they are team leaders or team members

If I am honest, the least effective way to run these programmes is to choose the last of these three options – but budget and logistics often dictate that many clients opt for this solution.  The first two options are better from a training results perspective because they allow the programme to be much more focused in approach.

However, that does not mean that the third option cannot be made to work but the programme needs to be adapted to meet the exact requirements of that specific delegate base.  When selecting a supplier check to ensure that they are looking at this issue and adapting any programme suggestions accordingly – if they are not it suggests they have a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the training delivery.

Conclusion

The topic of effective cross-border virtual team collaboration is so complex and multi-faceted that this article cannot possibly address all of the aspects that need to be considered when setting up global virtual team training but it hopefully serves as a starting point for companies who are looking to upskill staff in this area.

I admit that I have addressed this topic from the perspective of an experienced practitioner in the field rather than from the perspective of a client looking to develop cross-border skills and so there may be topics that I haven’t covered which are critical to your organisation.  If there are areas of interest that you would like to pick my brains on – please feel free to do so at any time.

I really hope that this brief article helps people to start thinking more strategically about the commissioning and implementation of global virtual team training programmes.  I wrote the article because I am passionate about helping people work collaboratively and effectively across borders – it is what I have spent much of my career working on.

If you would like more information on the training courses we deliver to our clients around the world please contact us.