Working internationally

Leading international virtual teams

With the global workplace expanding, international virtual teams are definitely not a new trend. But now as with the coronavirus spreading home office becomes a safety standard rather than an opportunity, there are people and teams for whom virtual collaboration is arriving overnight, without giving the heads-up.

international virtual teams working internationally
Photo by Proxyclick Visitor Management System on Unsplash

From regular team meetings to international collaborations, everything is becoming virtual. So here are some things to consider, and some life-saving tips if you just found yourself leading not only an international, but also a virtual team.

Challenges and tips for internation virtual teams

In international virtual teams the team leader has special responsibilities and challenges, that are not present with on-site teams, because in international virtual teams they are the hub between the head office and the geographically distributed team members.

One of the main challenges come from limitations in communication – the negative influence of spatial distance should not be underestimated, and it’s the responsibility of the leader to acknowledge this.

Uncertainty is something that comes with the task. The lack of transparency is a challenge, because it is more difficult to check performance. Incompetence or inactivity of single team members is less easy to detect. This often leads to a controlling micromanagement, which in no way corresponds to the more desirable coaching function of the virtual team leader.

Recognition and resolution of conflicts is much more difficult in international virtual teams. The team leader must therefore be virtually sensitized and know which questions to ask his team members and how to ask them in order to find out if something is bubbling under the surface. To do this, they need the respect of all team members, which is also harder to gain in virtual space.

Communicating common goals also requires special efforts on the part of the team leader, as they are less easy to put into practise than on site. In every company there are also processes that must be adhered to. In international virtual teams, the team leader must ensure that these work at individual locations. However, this is often not possible because not every team member has got the same resources available at their location or at least culture-specific adjustments are necessary.

Lack of opportunities for informal and interpersonal communication can lead to disappointment in team members, and in extreme cases to a feeling of complete isolation with a corresponding loss of motivation. Also, if culturally shaped expectations are not met, communication is unclear, one’s own way of working is not appreciated or one has to constantly attend virtual meetings after “work”, frustration can quickly arise. Here the team leader must always take countermeasures and ensure that the members of international virtual teams and their personal professional goals become visible despite virtuality.

Kick-off meeting for international virtual teams

If you have to organize meetings or workshops that would have been personal, it involves people from different cultures who don’t know each other yet, and now you are preparing to conduct them online, a kick-off meeting is a good idea. It helps if team members/partners get to know each other, because cultural prejudices and intercultural differences are often underestimated – especially in a multinational virtual team. Sufficient time must be planned for this in the kick-off meeting, so that the team members can get an impression of each other and build up initial trust. This will also help them realize that their colleagues are also real people, and weaken the illusion – that will be present, especially in the beginning – that they are “talking to the screen”. The kick-off meeting in an international virtual team should also clarify goals, roles, expectations and common processes for cooperation.

E-mail ping-pong should be avoided: only those people should be placed in cc who are really concerned. Otherwise the rest of the team members will be “overloaded” and will not be able to answer all their e-mails in a timely manner, which in turn can be the trigger for conflicts. On the other hand, if information is unevenly distributed, this leads to team members continuing to work on the basis of different levels of information. This weakens effectiveness. So it is bad if too much is communicated and it is bad if too little is communicated. Together, the team members should find a good middle way.

Finally, there are often time zone differences that make communication more difficult. To reduce this problem area, some things should be defined from the start, such as when who can be reached and how often communication takes place. In any case, the team leaders of international virtual teams must remain reliably available to the team members at agreed times to reduce uncertainty on the part of the team members.

What we do at crossculture2go

And finally, some behind the scenes secrets. While putting this article together, we here at crossculture2go knew perfectly well what we are dealing with, as all of us live in different countries, with different time zones, and we still have at least 2 virtual meetings a week. I still have two colleagues whom I never met in person, and dozens of coaches with whom I only communicate virtually. And besides all of the above mentioned challenges and tips, I want to add something personal – precisely because we are all human, not only screens, cameras and WhatsApp messages, and at the end of the day this is what makes us tick: having genuine connection with the other person. What I think that helps us work as a great team despite none of us living in the same country, is that first of all we are communicating as people. Of course we couldn’t function if we didn’t have appointments, deadlines, and our own terms and agreements. But it only works because we care about each other as people. But then again, this could be the Balkans talking here – since I live in Romania, I am predestined to look for people and relationships first, and everything else afterwards. And when this meets German value of performance, the result is some pretty good work, if you ask me.

Eszter Szűcs-Imre and Katrin Koll Prakoonwit

At a glance

  • In international virtual teams, the team leader has special responsibilities and challenges.
  • One of the main challenges come from limitations in communication.
  • Recognition and resolution of conflicts is much more difficult in international virtual teams.
  • Communicating common goals also requires special efforts on the part of the team leader.
  • Lack of opportunities for informal and interpersonal communication can lead to disappointment in team members.
  • Cultural prejudices and intercultural differences are often underestimated in internation virtual teams.
  • A kick-off meeting should clarify goals, roles, expectations and common processes for cooperation in international virtual teams.
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