by Andy Molinsky
Republished from Harvard Business Review, May 14, 2018
Global teams have the potential to help organizations reach new markets and provide a seamless brand experience for customers across the world. But for global teams to work, team leaders need to make sure all members feel connected and engaged, regardless of their location or culture. From what I’ve seen when advising global teams, the psychological and emotional reaction people experience when participating on these teams can sink its effectiveness.
Life on a global team isn’t necessarily equitable. Employees far away from headquarters often have less access to the team leader. As a result, they may have a harder time getting their concerns noticed and attended to. Additionally, more peripheral members of global teams are often forced to speak in a language that’s not their own and communicate in a style that’s not necessarily second nature. For example, they may come from a culture where polite turn-taking is the norm when talking, while the rest of the team uses a much more assertive style and therefore dominates discussions. Their points may get overlooked, which could lead to poor decision making.
Logistically, the most remote members of a global team typically have to accommodate their work schedule to what’s natural, comfortable, and convenient to those in the core. For instance, I was speaking the other day with a member of a global team in Singapore, who, after our call — which was at 8pm her time — had two additional calls until 11pm her time. According to her, that was a fairly typical evening.
When team members face these challenges, particularly those most distant or from remote regions, they can feel underutilized, out of the loop, disrespected, ignored, and lonely. And they often don’t have an easy outlet for expressing or remedying these feelings. Such frustrations can hurt the entire team’s performance.
What can you do as a leader of a global team to rectify this situation? Here are some tips to help your most remote or periphery global team members feel more connected and engaged.
Level the playing field. Ensure that one team member (or group of members) isn’t carrying most of the burden in terms of distance, time, and convenience. For example, you might rotate the time of weekly calls to make sure that the inconvenience is borne equally by everyone on the team. Or at the very least, find the least inconvenient time for your most remote employees to participate. Even small courtesies, like noting the time of all meetings according to the multiple time zones represented, can go a long way toward making your most remote and more inconvenienced members feel noticed.
Beyond scheduling, keep in mind other opportunities to level the playing field. For instance, schedule periodic off-site meetings to increase connection and collaboration, and, if your budget allows, make an effort to have these meetings in different locations around the globe. At these events, it’s particularly important to mix business with bonding to create opportunities for live connections. Remote employees on global teams can often feel lonely, like they have no personal connection to the team and that people don’t really have a full sense of them as a person. Knowing individual personal characteristics is critical for building bonds and discovering areas of connection and similarity with the rest of the team, and building these connections at off-site meetings can help your team feel less psychologically detached once everyone returns to their usual locations.
Make your virtual communication count. Build personal check-ins into your communication and conference calls to maintain engagement among your most remote team members, and if you can, use video. Video provides a richer personal experience of the team and, combined with periodic off-sites, can be a great way to build a sense of connection and camaraderie.
Additionally, create norms that increase the chances of participation from everyone on the team, especially if your most remote employees are non-native speakers or from deferential or indirect communication cultures where it might feel inappropriate to voice concerns to the group or in the presence of a leader. Teams might also consider being explicit about feedback — whether, for example, more direct or indirect feedback is preferred and why that particular style is valued on this particular team. The overall point is to develop a clear set of agreed-upon standards that bond the team together and enhance effective collaboration among all team members.
Take a trip. Of course, leaders can make most remote team members feel particularly welcomed and included by paying them a visit. Simply making the effort itself sends a strong message about their importance to you and the team. Additionally, when you actually see what the working conditions are in a particular location or how it feels to be on a 10pm scheduled conference call, you may recognize that concerns you had brushed off as minor are really legitimate problems you need to address. You can also appreciate first-hand the effort your team is putting in and can thank them for their contributions.
Assess yourself. Finally, check your own style of leading for cultural bias. What assumptions are you making about what “good” participation looks like? For instance, how do you expect people to deliver feedback? What would be an appropriate and expected level of assertiveness among your team members? Do you see any patterns suggesting that your style might inadvertently favor one side, or that you might be excluding or alienating one group? Is it possible team members have been communicating with you, but you just haven’t heard their points because they’re not delivered in the way you’re accustomed to hearing? It’s your job to be hyper-vigilant for ways your own cultural biases may be clouding your leadership and reducing the effectiveness of the team. A trusted coach can come in handy here to assist with understanding cultural perspectives and enhancing your global dexterity.
It’s not easy to manage a team of people scattered around the globe. But if you invest the time and energy in following the tips outlined here, you’ll catalyze the energy, commitment, and insight of all team members, and in doing so, better realize the benefits of globalization.