Global virtual teams are ubiquitous for good reasons. Organizations can form teams with the best talent regardless of location and gather diverse perspectives for complex problems. Anyone who works virtually quickly encounters differences when interacting with a co-located team. Simply putting on headphones and hoping for the best does not work. Once team leaders and teams understand why working virtually is different, they have the agency to make effective changes.

Global virtual teams are a group of people with a shared purpose who work together across geographies and use technology to communicate and collaborate. In my research, I wanted to answer the question:

How does distance and cultural diversity impact how people think, feel and act on a global virtual team?

To answer this question, I turned to academia and combined the robust research, models and theories therein with the realities of multinational organizations. In this article, we will examine three ways the unique context of global teams impacts collaboration.

  1. Configuration Matters

The location of each team member can impact virtual team collaboration. The easiest configuration is having all team members at the same location; the second easiest is having all team members working remote. The challenge is everything in between – hybrid teams. Remote teams are easier to manage than hybrid workforces, because everyone is in the same situation. This is not true of hybrid teams, where some locations have more than one person.

Hybrid configurations are as varied as snowflakes and may experience challenges due to the unbalanced placement of team members, the seclusion of team members, or the advantage of being in the same location as the team leader or headquarters. Hybrid teams may also benefit from isolated team members, particularly if the isolate is the team leader, because the team builds structures for inclusivity. Team members in hybrid teams can also experience “co-location blindness,” meaning they rely on local colleagues even though distant colleagues have more expertise. Virtual team leaders need to consider configuration when developing an inclusive team environment.

  1. Distance Breeds Abstraction

According to construal-level theory, we perceive items at a distance as more abstract than those nearby. Consider your agenda three months from now, you have a vague idea of the events taking place. But tomorrow, you know where you need to be, with whom you will meet and how you will get there. You know the details. According to professors Wilson, Crisp and Mortensen, we think of people on global teams in the same way. We know our colleagues close to us in detail – she is an introvert, he is a morning person and she likes structure. We speak of our distant colleagues in more general terms (i.e., they are Spanish). We are more abstract and less detailed in describing them, and often we select a differentiator. In global virtual teams, cultural diversity is an easily accessible contrast.

How local subgroups view their distant colleagues can lead to an “us-versus-them” dynamic. This is because the team members do not know each as unique humans with distinctive characteristics. Colleagues in the same location may exacerbate this dynamic. Local colleagues may experience feelings of anxiety when working with distant, culturally different colleagues. They may feel it is easier to work with local colleagues, as they speak the same language and work in a predictable way. Moreover, co-located team members may confirm these feelings with comments like, “Yes, I struggle to work with them, too.”

One way to address this phenomenon is to develop cultural competence among team members. As long as culture remains a mystery, subgroups will persist. Once team members learn about the culture of their virtual teammates and work closely with them, they will begin to identify the unique characteristics of each person.

3. The Local Environment Goes Virtual

When a team finishes a meeting, they leave the meeting room and share similar experiences. They encounter the same environment, HR policies, tax regimes and local holidays. When virtual team members leave a video call and look out the window, each person sees something different. They encounter different environments, HR policies, tax regimes, local holidays and cultural norms. Some team leaders have the illusion that their team is intact, and they can create a team charter with agreed norms and behaviors. They can do this, but they must realize two important conditions.

First, they are asking some of their team members to behave differently than they would naturally. For instance, a team norm is established, and it is expected that everyone share their opinions during meetings. Some team members may be from cultures in which they confer with supervisors or other colleagues before contributing an opinion. This difference may cause tension, especially with locals who expect to be consulted.

Second, the team may face unpredictable issues that arise due to cultural norms. As professors Cramton and Hinds found in their longitudinal research, the impact of cultural diversity is not only within the team but also from outside the team. For instance, I worked with an English manager who wanted to replace a key person on his team based on merit. The local Indian managers, where the team member was located, wanted to replace based on qualification. He was surprised and dismayed that his well-functioning virtual team was impacted by local policies. Virtual team leaders need the cultural competence, curiosity and generative listening skills to reconcile the differences for global solutions.

Developing New Competencies

Today’s organizations need agile professionals who can connect and engage with customers, suppliers, colleagues and stakeholders regardless of location. This means building on what employees already know about leadership and teamwork to include cultural competence (the ability to collaborate across cultures) and virtual competence (the ability to collaborate across time and space). Developing the competencies to work on a global virtual team is a combination of knowledge, skills, mindset and behaviors.

Leading and working virtually is here to stay. Leaders and employees who build the capacity to seamlessly work globally and virtually will make the difference when their work demands agility, innovation and impact across geographical and organizational boundaries.

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