Global and Virtual Teaming
What are the primary obstacles that global, virtual teams must overcome, and how can they address them? Creating a high performance team is difficult enough in any context. For a team with members in different parts of the world who must work virtually across time and distance, accomplishing ambitious performance goals becomes more challenging still. Yet an increasing number of teams today — functional teams, dispersed development teams, project teams, M&A integration teams, and so on — must do exactly this, and expense constraints may mean that they seldom if ever meet face to face.
Typical issues that global/virtual teams face include the following:
- A few team members dominate discussions.
- Time and distance impede communication and information-sharing.
- Mutual trust is hard to establish and easily undermined.
- Conflicts are fueled by different priorities, perspectives, and problem-solving styles.
- There are different assumptions about leadership and decision-making.
- Team members have divergent priorities and there is a lack of clear accountability.
- Competing regional or national styles and interests can pull team members apart.
There are real costs associated with these kinds of issues, as well as opportunities for significant productivity improvements. Research suggests that multicultural teams may take as much as several additional months to become as effective as teams with members from the same culture, and that users of virtual communication methods can take up to four times as long to exchange the same number of messages as others who are communicating in person.1 Even small increases in efficiency delivered across large numbers of teams add up to substantial savings and a subtle yet important source of competitive advantage.
What We’ve Learned From Working With Global Teams
Our own analysis of data from more than 300 global teams, with a combined total of in excess of 3,000 team members, highlights two areas in particular that teams identify as areas of weakness. Our Global Teams Online survey consists of seven dimensions and 42 survey items, and has achieved high scores for both reliability and validity.2 Among the ten items rated lowest by team members, eight of these ten came from just two dimensions, Team Process and Conflict Resolution.
Team Process: Sample Survey Item
“The team has an effective decision-making process that reflects the input of team members.”
The item above was one of those frequently cited by team members as an area of weakness, and it was designated by our survey respondents as a high priority item as well. There are probably multiple reasons why decision-making is particularly problematic in a global/virtual context:
Possible Cause: Matrix Organizational Structure
Virtual team members commonly work within a matrix reporting structure. Often this means that they have responsibilities both to a global business line or function, and to the manager of a geographic region. When there are multiple masters, each with their own priorities, there is considerable potential for confusion related to decision-making, and team participants may feel that the team leader does not understand them or their input.
Recommendation: Whenever possible, goals for new projects or initiatives should be aligned between key stakeholders at the matrix management level, and introduced jointly to team members. If participants on a team are able to see stakeholder alignment regarding the definition and priority level of these goals, along with support for the leadership structure of the team itself, it is far easier for them to take part as active and accountable members. They can also provide input that reflects the requirements of a particular stakeholder they represent, while remaining clear about the team’s overall priorities.
Possible Cause: Different Cultural Expectations
Expectations about who makes decisions and how they should be made are also shaped by cultural perspectives. Here are examples of several sets of contrasting assumptions that tend to have the greatest impact on team members.
Recommendations: Because diverse team members will likely have quite different expectations about how decisions should be made, it is advisable for the team leader to introduce such contrasts to team members in a neutral way, share mutual expectations, and clarify any points that are unclear. This is especially necessary because each of us tends to assume that others share our own common sense assumptions, and considers others to be more like us than they actually are. Leaders working with team participants who are predominantly from another culture should consider “style-switching” to accommodate the expectations of others, or look for opportunities to build a style that combines positive aspects of different decision-making approaches.
Conflict Resolution: Sample Survey Item
“There is a clear and efficient path of escalation when a conflict cannot be resolved by the team members who are directly involved.”
Members of global/virtual teams are bound to run into conflicts, and some are better equipped to handle them than others. One important means of conflict resolution is having a clear and efficient path of escalation to use when necessary — this was singled out as a common team weakness by survey respondents.
Possible Causes: Lack of Clarity about What and How to Escalate
It is common in a global team context to feel pulled in different directions by different stakeholders who are each asking for actions related to their own initiatives. All of these initiatives may be presented as high priorities, and such competing priorities are often reinforced by conflicting metrics.
Recommendations: Team members need to know what they can solve themselves and what must be referred to a higher authority. When they have a clear line of sight to organizational strategy and goals, they are frequently able to make their own choices about how to weigh future growth versus cost-cutting, or the demands of one region or product group over another. Leaders for relatively new teams can walk team members through the criteria they would use to make decisions, and ask team members to use a similar process for making choices regarding topics that do not require the leader’s direct involvement.
It is best to anticipate conflicts and to introduce ahead of time an escalation process for occasions when escalation is unavoidable. Without such a process, different team members will naturally seek out the higher-ups they know best and tug on separate strings within the global matrix, each person making his or her own case while depending upon others to find solutions. A more constructive escalation process requires global/virtual team members to work together in order to:
- Specify the issue that they cannot resolve themselves;
- Assemble relevant data or other information;
- Identify possible options for handling the problem;
- Note possible pros and cons for each option;
- Indicate what type of decision is needed and by when.
This structured escalation process both removes some of the risk of escalation for team members and also increases the likelihood of receiving a well-informed and timely response.
Further Recommendations for Global/Virtual Teams:
There are various other best practices that can help to create the groundwork for successful decision-making and problem-solving. Many of these involve developing personal ties across boundaries of all kinds: national, cultural, organizational, and functional.
- Ensure that each team member, including new entries, has a structured “big picture” orientation to the team’s goals and their links with corporate strategy.
- Foster systematic people exchange between geographies.
- Place a “Window Person” in key team locations who knows the other location(s) well and can help in providing contacts and background information.
- Build close partnerships, or “tag teams,” between people in different locations. (“She helps me to plug into the headquarters decision-making process, and I help her to get direct input from clients in our local market.”)
- Provide mutual progress reports to avoid the sense that one part of the team is inspecting or evaluating the other.
- Create additional context for remote team members through means such as one-on-one phone conversations outside of conference calls, or instant messaging capability during virtual team meetings to enable clarification and written as well as spoken input.
- Assign team leadership roles based on capabilities rather than country of origin.
Prior research has found that multicultural teams have the potential to excel at tasks such as creativity and innovation that involve “divergence” from group norms, while they struggle with “convergence” in the form of decision-making, problem-solving, and joint implementation.3 Our survey findings from a large pool of global/virtual teams strongly support the claim that achieving convergence is a major obstacle. Teams and organizations that can anticipate such challenges, identify their causes, and implement the kinds of recommendations outlined here will have a better chance of reaching the highest levels of global performance.