5 essential tips for successfully managing remote cross-cultural teams

If you’re looking for something easy, don’t try management. Supervising teams effectively has always been a challenge, in part due to workforce dynamics that are always in flux. This year, we’ve seen the emergence of two complementary shifts—one short term and one long—that promise to revolutionize the way that businesses work.

The first is the astronomical increase in the number of people working remotely as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you like visuals, check out this Statista chart that offers interesting insights into how remote work has increased since the pandemic showed its ugly face. Especially the “pre” and “after” COVID instances in the percentages of people who work from home five or more days per week has increased from 17% to 44%.

Another phenomenon has seen more workplace diversity brought about by a combination of COVID plus the accompanying growth in the use and efficiency of technological tools. I’m talking about all the little tools you might have heard of called Zoom, Slack and a hundred dozen more online services that make it possible for remote teams to exist at all.

Cross-cultural teams are nothing new, of course. Research indicates that the workforce has been growing more diverse and more global for decades. However, with the pandemic-inspired shift to remote work, and the consequent freedom to employ people from around the world, many managers find themselves in charge of cross-cultural teams for the first time.

Don’t worry if you perceive heading this type of team as a challenge. That’s a natural reaction. Managing staff from different backgrounds can be legitimately hard and the reality is that doing so poorly could hurt your company (more on that later). But on the flip side, successfully managing these teams can also yield serious benefits. In this article, we’ll look at how to realize those.

The value of cross-cultural teams

different colored hands surrounding the world

Team members from every corner. By Ray_Shrewsberry

Not to be Captain Obvious, but as global internet penetration nears 62%, the rise of cross-cultural work environments has become something of a foregone conclusion. Organizations can now cast a broad net, unencumbered by geographic limitations. The world is literally your oyster when it comes to finding the best talent on earth. Making them play together nicely, that’s a different story.

Before examining the challenges that managing cross-cultural teams creates (and how to overcome them) it’s worth pointing out that embracing diversity and welcoming different viewpoints and cultural backgrounds is liable to have a noticeably positive effect on the efficacy and profitability of your business. Yep, this could be a good thing in terms of bottom line dollars and cents.

Is multiculturalism in the corporate environment worth a hill of beans? Research says so. Studies have shown that multicultural teams are more agile when it comes to responding to changing business priorities, make better use of the resources available to them and are able to catalyze the development and expression of individual skills.

As a manager used to dealing with employees face-to-face in the real world, there’s a decent chance you need a perspective adjustment before diving into remote team management. The first step is to realize that organizational diversity and multicultural teams are much more of an opportunity than a risk. High performance companies and managers are often those eager to embrace this idea, especially the reality that learning to effectively draw on each team member’s skill could be the secret map that leads to buried treasure.

treasure hunters in the secret chamber

Diversity is a treasure for your business. By Sergey Gudz via 99designs by Vista.

This is not to say, of course, that managing cross-cultural teams is without risk. Working with people from different backgrounds can feel like a challenge at first, and managing cross-cultural teams poorly can have significant consequences to the performance and happiness of your teams and the bottom line of your business. This includes impacts on profitability as well as PR. Today, there are few news stories more damaging to a brand than those concerning managers who are tone-deaf to cultural concerns.

The challenges

Why is it hard to manage a global team? It’s simple, really. Because everyone grew up in different environments. It’s almost a given that their first and most comfortable language might not be the one you speak. Finding initial common ground or even understanding each other can be tough—and that includes the actual words being spoken or written as well as what’s being said between the lines.

Resolving communication issues is critical. Otherwise it can affect everything that your team tries to accomplish.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these challenges.

Communication and language barriers

The most immediate issue, and often the most difficult, that managers face when working with cross-cultural teams is that of communication.

hashtag hello

Start the conversation. By musique! via 99designs by Vista.

Even in circumstances where everybody might generally speak the same language and be well-versed in English for example, certain forms of dialect, slang or colloquialism can often be misinterpreted. Need proof? Lock a native New Yorker in a room with an Oklahoma cowboy and ask them to play a game of Scrabble. Hilarity and confusion will likely ensue.

Carefully set the tone of communications within cross-cultural teams and recognize that this may need to be more formal than in single-culture teams in order to avoid team members causing accidental confusion or even offense that results in board game fisticuffs.

Informational gaps

A related issue is one of informational gaps. A key insight of social anthropology, the study of different cultures, tells us that members of a culture (and that’s everyone) aren’t aware of what they know. In other words, everyone has a cache of knowledge that has been established in the background over the years and which sits in reserve as part of their cultural “training.” It’s easy to assume that everyone knows “obvious” facts, but it can cause big problems when that’s not the case.

One of the most important skills for cross-cultural team managers, therefore, is the ability to successfully examine one’s own opinions, skill sets, and resources, and recognize that these are often contingent on where you grew up rather than any sort of actual reality. Each team member needs to have access to the right resources at the appropriate time to collaborate and complete their tasks. Who needs to make sure these systems are available? Take a look in the mirror.

Working styles

three people working on laptops in the cloud

One team, many locations. By Hm.mexiadraw via 99designs by Vista.

In an ode to the joy of complications, you should recognize that even people from within the same culture can have significantly different working styles. Some prefer detailed guidance while others want you to leave them the heck alone. When we introduce more people of different cultural backgrounds to the mix, it’s easy to see how differences can multiply.

Influences and leadership

An even more difficult issue can arise in cross-cultural teams where one ethnic, linguistic, religious or gender background dominates. If that sounds like your team, that’s not surprising: most cross-cultural teams fall into this category.

This can be a major problem, because there is a tendency for those of the cultural majority to dominate discussions, and therefore the direction, of your team. No matter how strongly you may want to maintain a democratic approach, it might be necessary to recognize and protect the views of the minority not just because it’s the right thing to do but because you might otherwise miss out on some very good ideas.

The solutions

a lightbulb on a black background

Ideas don’t stick to a schedule. By Hes4Ka via 99designs by Vista.

But enough about the challenges. Let’s look at how you can overcome them!

Since the majority of challenges of working in cross-cultural teams stems from inherent communication problems, managing effectively in this environment means improving the way in which your team communicates with each other. Here are 5 tips for doing just that.

1. Acknowledge difference

The first and most important element in managing multicultural teams is to recognize that this is what you are doing. It can be tempting to believe that the professionalism, education, or shared experience of your team members will level out “cultural” differences, but this is not likely the case. In other words, you need to get proactive.

Even if you are aware of the cultural differences in your team, it can be hard to talk about them with your team members in a sensitive, informed way. A great way of doing just that, though, is to adopt Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimension model. The model highlights six dimensions of value perspectives between national cultures: Power Distance, Individualism vs. Collectivism, Masculinity vs. Femininity, Uncertainty Avoidance, Long Term vs. Short Term Orientation and Indulgence vs. Restraint. Lots of mumbo jumbo there, but it’s important mumbo jumbo.

Using this model lets you understand the motivations, ways of working and expectations that each team member brings. The model also establishes the basis for team-building ice breakers that are more educational than your average onboarding procedure, and that allow your team members to understand each other better.

2. Set expectations and boundaries

You should use the process of acknowledging differences—whether this be through team building exercises or simply team discussions—to set boundaries and expectations for your team.

This is a negotiation process that ensures everyone is on the same page. The key idea here is to get every member to contribute to the formation of the norms. Getting this buy-in makes the norms stronger and ensures that everyone feels committed to living up to them. Setting these kinds of norms and SOPs together can be crucial for streamlining and improving the efficacy of team communications, both internally and externally.

As an example, one of the most obvious ways in which cultural differences manifest themselves involves the time scale that people feel is reasonable in which to respond to emails. Opinions might range from five seconds to, “Eh, when I get around to it.” Better set some actual numbers in place of, say, 24 or 48 hours. This is a straightforward way of getting everyone on the same page.

3. Over-communicate

Banish the idea that you’ll be guilty of “over-communication.” Most of the time, we take for granted that our colleagues completely understand what we say the first time we say it because they have the same frame of reference or cultural background.

mouth and speech bubble

Talking more is better. By RAHAJOE via 99designs by Vista.

The thorny reality is that most teams, no matter how diverse they are culturally, tend to use one language. It can be easy to forget, if your entire team is communicating in English, that staff for whom this is a second or third language may not instantly and completely grasp the nuances of what you just said.

Over time, these types of biases can easily eradicate trust and prevent effective collaboration. So it’s not a crime for a leader to pause and make sure that all members of a team are on the same page. The bottom line: overlooking local cultures, considerations and needs associated with each team member can lead to unnecessary friction.

4. Address conflict immediately

Conflict is an inevitable part of any kind of team management, and cross-cultural teams in particular. Don’t view emerging conflict as a sign of managerial failure and throw yourself in front of the nearest passing bus. You’ll never prevent it completely. More important is how you react to it.

Here’s a little secret. Address conflict promptly no matter how uncomfortable the idea seems. As already mentioned, understand that it’s often simply a result of different cultural perspectives and working styles at play. Hew to the middle path to resolve it. A leader should serve as a cultural bridge to connect different members of the team and encourage collaboration. Finding the source of the conflict will often lead you straight to the solution.

Once the immediate conflict has passed, take a few minutes to review the incident. What lessons should be learned? Tell the team about them. Done correctly, this can turn future potential disasters into valuable opportunities.

man deconstructs with a crowbar

Leverage is a good thing. Via Wikipedia

5. Leverage cultural diversity

Finally, make the most out of the skills that each staff member brings to the table. In other words, leverage the team’s diversity to make it more effective, rather than having the goal to “mitigate” the “risk” of working with people from different cultural backgrounds. Different perspectives are an asset, not a problem.

Remember, first and foremost, that most people are understanding and accepting of cultural differences in the workplace, so your task is to merely institute a framework that makes it easier for that to happen. One method of achieving this is outlined by Patrick Lencioni in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. He outlines a number of personal history exercises that involve participants talking about where they grew up, their siblings, and their childhood.

If you have more time or budget, consider organizing a team building session or retreat. Shared experience helps to connect people. Moreover, the review section of the activities is a good way to gather feedback on how to improve communication. Exercises like this can jump-start the process of friendship, mutual respect, and pooled learning that is the most important part of managing any team, and should help overcome the challenges that individual team members (and not just their manager!) feel when working in a multicultural environment.

Managing diverse teams in a remote setting is a challenge, but at the same time it’s an opportunity. Find more tips on how to stay connected with remote employees here.

Opportunities await

If there is a central message here, it’s this: a manager’s goal shouldn’t be only to limit the potential challenges of cross-cultural teams but rather needs to openly and enthusiastically embrace the opportunities presented for increased creativity, efficacy and ultimately profitability.

The strategies discussed here are not only effective in managing cross-cultural teams, but they are the hallmarks of successful management of any team. Good luck out there!

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Author: Jeff Baerwalde