As companies continue to grow and expand their global workforce, managing and working with people from around the world is becoming the new reality. While international growth and team diversity may pose unique challenges, such as time-zone, cultural and communication differences, working in international teams can also offer many rewards and benefits.
“When we engage with people from around the world and with different backgrounds, we’re exposed to different ideas and perspectives. Not only can this benefit the workplace relationships we develop, but it can also lead to improved productivity and business success,” says Jennifer Piliero, senior product manager for LifeWorks.
Whether you have employees working in one country or 100, as a leader you are responsible for ensuring your team’s individual and group success. When team members are dispersed around the world, maintaining team focus and ensuring that everyone is working toward the same goals can be one of the greatest challenges managers face.
“Helping managers better coach and motivate their diverse employees can go a long way in creating a stronger sense of team unity, employee engagement and workforce effectiveness,” Piliero adds.
A primary challenge for leaders of global teams is, as Tsedal Neeley puts it in the Harvard Business Review, the level of social distance amongst team members. “Coworkers who are geographically separated can’t easily connect and align, so they experience high levels of social distance and struggle to develop effective interactions.
Here are some strategies for successfully managing international teams.
Acknowledge cultural differences and make them open for discussion
Be open with, and aware of, the members of your team and their cultural differences. Work with your team to discuss how those differences may lead to different ways of working or approaches to the team, and how that may therefore impact how the team works together. Being able to map these differences will help to make the team more effective.
Communicate frequently and regularly
Frequent communication is important for all teams. It’s especially important for international and global teams. Regularly scheduled meetings can be an important time for team members to exchange information and knowledge, to learn from one another’s experiences and to keep people current on organizational and team developments and updates.
Incorporate an understanding of cultural differences in the way you communicate with your team. Use multiple platforms for interacting, and invest in technology for video calls or document-sharing, for example. It’s important to establish a common ground by which communication can happen at a regular cadence.
Additionally, make room in your budget for international travel. Face-to-face meetings are an essential component of building trust and good working relationships for all teams. This is even more important for global teams.
Equally important as a manager is being a careful listener. Ask questions to help both you and others better understand, and listen carefully with an open mind. Getting out of your comfort zone and having an open mind can help you experience things you may not be familiar with and expose you to new viewpoints.
Ensure all members of the team have appropriate opportunities to participate
Review the way your team works together, and set participation and communication strategies for meetings. This could include anything from strategies for addressing disagreements or resolving conflicts constructively, to strategies for balancing participation. Particularly in cases where there is a language or fluency gap, each team member’s comfort level with participating in meetings may differ. Define communication rules for meetings to ensure both inclusion and engagement.
Reinforce structure and be aware of power perception
A common challenge with international teams is that a single person working in a remote location may feel like they’re not truly part of the team; or that a group of team members working together in one location, or in the same language, may be perceived as a dominant force. This can breed resentment, miscommunication and conflict.
Reinforce that the team is a single entity working towards a common purpose. Map how everyone’s work fits the overall strategy and outcome for the project. Do this often, whether building it into meetings or regular team communications. Build trust among team members.
Define core team values and establish trust
Discuss how you will work together to achieve both individual and team deadlines and milestones. Help people get to know one another as individuals. While enforcing structure is important for project deliverables, unstructured time is vital for creating positive team dynamics. Encourage small talk when the team is together. Informal discussions about both work and personal matters humanizes team members and lets them get to know each other in a comfortable context.
Equally important is for managers to establish trust with their team members. Let your team members understand your management style so that they feel comfortable providing feedback and participating, whether in team meetings or one-on-one.
Promote and support diversity initiatives
Attend diversity training classes for managers if these are offered. Also, look for opportunities to assign global team members shared projects so they can learn from each other while getting to know one other.
Increase awareness of resources available to help with personal and work issues
Resources like an employee assistance program (EAP) can help employees find child care and elder care, balance work and family responsibilities as well as deal with culture shock, stress, emotional health and other important issues.
Managing global teams comes with its own set of unique challenges, but finding ways to connect across borders and leveraging a diverse skill set can strengthen team cohesion, employee engagement and boost workforce productivity.