Many of us experienced in 2020/21 what much research has shown already: virtual collaboration across global teams is not without challenges. Putting technical difficulties aside, differences across time zones, languages, cultures, as well as the different economic and political conditions of the team members’ countries, can affect how virtual global teams work together and how they perform.
How Differences Shape Performance
A recent study, observing the interactions of 5,728 individuals in 804 remote global teams of 6-8 team members entirely relying on digital communication tools, identified more specifically how these differences shape the performance of remote global teams. Two broad categories of differences were determined: personal diversity and contextual diversity.
Personal diversity includes personal characteristics such as cultural background, age, gender, language, skills, and values, while contextual diversity refers to differences in the environments that the team members live in, such as levels of economic development or different political systems.
Additionally, the team’s task performance, including the quality and timeliness of a team’s output, and the team climate, consisting of team cohesion, enjoyment and interest in the joint work, were monitored.
Personal Diversity Leads To Conflicts
The study clearly showed that when team members come from different cultures, are of different ages, unequally fluent in the team’s working language, or differ otherwise at the personal level, they tend to find it less enjoyable to work together. They trust each other less and also communicate less. As a result, they experience more conflicts and misunderstandings than more homogenous teams.
Contextual Diversity Increases Task Performance
However, contextual diversity can positively affect task performance. When team members come from countries with different institutions, economic, and political systems, they understand a more comprehensive range of contexts and access more diverse knowledge and experiences. Contextual diversity allows for more views and perspectives, which aids creativity, decision-making, and problem-solving. Therefore, contextual diversity appears to be particularly beneficial when teams work on challenging tasks that require rather unconventional approaches. The variety of perspectives and understandings aids creativity that provides for better solutions.
Contextual And Personal Diversity Cannot Be Separated
Naturally, contextual and personal diversity can hardly be separated. For higher contextual diversity, you need more nationalities on the team, resulting in higher personal diversity. Therefore, challenges caused by personal diversity need to be managed well to benefit from contextual diversity fully. The scientists recommend that team leaders employ cross-cultural communication and diversity awareness training to improve cultural intelligence within a global team and increase enjoyment in working with people from other countries. People who affiliate with multiple cultures can serve as bridges between team members and are particularly beneficial to remote global teams.
Furthermore, the boost that contextual diversity can provide for creativity and innovation can only be fully realized when global team members freely exchange ideas. Therefore, psychological safety that supports brainstorming, friendly feedback, calm discussions, as well as constructive criticism and disagreement should be an integral part of the global team culture.
Vas Taras, Daniel Baack, Dan Caprar, Douglas Dow, Fabian Froese, Alfredo Jimenez, Peter Magnusson, Diverse effects of diversity: Disaggregating effects of diversity in global virtual teams, Journal of International Management, Volume 25, Issue 4, 2019
Vasyl Taras, Dan Baack, Dan Caprar, Alfredo Jiménez, and Fabian Froese, How Cultural Differences Can Impact Global Teams, Harvard Business Review, June 09, 2021