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How to Make Global Teams Successful

Updated: September 7, 2018

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Business teams today are increasingly global in scale. The advantages of drawing team members from a global talent pool are clear: It avoids costly relocations, allows workers who'd rather not relocate to participate, and creates teams of highly specialized talents and experience. Managing teams that span multiple continents is possible using modern communication technologies, but the difficulties of enabling remote teams to reach their full potential can't be overstated. Here are some of the ways global teams overcome these difficulties and realize their full potential.

Forge a Common Identity

An essential problem of managing global teams distributed throughout two or more countries is the social distance created by geographical, cultural, and lingual differences between team locations. Large teams, in particular, can dissolve into many informal groups based on language and culture.

To combat this tendency of global teams to break down into local groups, successful managers have worked actively to forge a common identity that holds the team together. Encouraging team members to share their different cultures, refusing to tolerate cultural insensitivity, and creating narratives of unity are all methods that have worked to unify diverse teams.

Make Feedback a Routine Part of a Team's Process

Another difficulty that global teams encounter is the lack of regular feedback that happens naturally on local teams. This is caused by the infrequency of communication, language barriers, and time zone disparities. Remote team members are also less likely to give feedback because it typically happens during informal, face-to-face interactions that make it more comfortable.

Managers have overcome this problem by building regular feedback into their team's process. One way to do this is to transfer team members between locations regularly to give them an opportunity to meet and spend time interacting in person. Another is to leverage communications technologies like video conferencing and close collaboration tools. By building these personal interactions into team processes, managers have enabled the empathy and trust needed for them to be as high-functioning as local teams.

A multicultural workforce requires strong communication

Bridging Cultural and Language Barriers

Cultural and language differences are a major impediment to clear communication between locations in a global team. For example, even when a global team communicates using the same language, misunderstandings can be caused by regional dialects and second-language accents. Local cultures can inadvertently cause mistrust as well. One location may communicate only once or twice a day to minimize interruptions during their work hours, while team members at another site may find the delays between messages difficult to accommodate or even suspicious.

The remedy for these issues is to encourage greater communication and enable teams to interact outside of regular work-related meetings. Team members at different locations can get to know each other better by attending virtual events of unstructured, social time. The interactions will also support the development of cultural awareness and overcome language barriers. Combined with traditional diversity training, this can closely integrate remote teams that are multicultural.

Develop Local Specializations

Global companies often suffer from the problem of duplicating specialized skills in each of their locations because they find it difficult to form effective cross-location teams. Finding the right talent that could be at any company location makes recruitment of global teams more complicated and inefficient.

Companies like SAP have found that establishing locations with specializations makes forming virtual teams efficient and eliminates duplication of skillsets within their organization. When a local team is dedicated to a particular research subject or skill, it creates a synergy between its members. Global teams can then be formed by recruiting candidates from the locations with the right expertise for the team's objectives. This method also gives every location the experience of regularly working within global teams.

Create Processes that Resolve Conflict

Global teams can have greater difficulty with conflict resolution than local teams because of the communication and interpersonal barriers they contend with. Because it's easier to avoid airing conflicts with other locations, global teams can suffer communication breakdowns caused by unresolved disagreements. The lack of personal contact makes it more difficult to overcome the feelings of mistrust and resentment that result.

A successful method to avoid these problems is to build conflict engagement and resolution into a global team's collaborative process. Explicitly encouraging disagreements to be aired and training project managers to use de-escalation techniques to manage conflict will mitigate these problems when they crop up on remote teams.

Ensure that Team Members Are Heard and Understood

Another difficulty that adds to the social distance experienced by global teams is that their limited meeting time can be dominated by strong personalities. On local teams, this is mitigated by one-on-one conversations outside of meetings, which is not as possible for team members who are at different company locations. This is amplified by the comprehension problems that happen on multi-lingual teams.

One way to handle these problems is to create explicit rules for speakers to follow during conference calls or video-conference meetings ensuring that all team members are included and participate in discussions. Comprehension problems can be mitigated by requiring fluent speakers to slow down and to avoid talking over others. Less fluent speakers can be encouraged to engage, ask questions when confused, and check they that are understood by others.

The Path Forward

Global teams have the potential to eclipse the productivity of local teams because of the larger talent pools that they can access, but they do have unique communication problems that can stop them from achieving their full potential. Bringing remote teams together for face-to-face personal time and using technologies like Epik's unified communications and unified locations tools can solve these issues. The experience of successful global companies has shown that the duplication of knowledge and skill within the organization can be eliminated when global teams are managed effectively.

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