Technology, protocol keep global teams going without face-to-face meetings

In the wake of last month’s terrorist attacks, many corporations may respond to employees’ fears by reducing air travel to an absolute minimum. As a result, global teams with members located in several countries need to learn to work effectively in the absence of face-to-face interactions.

Technology offers global teams alternative methods of sharing information, discussing ideas and making decisions, and in fact, remote communication tools have multiplied recently to the point where choosing the right one may become a challenge.

From telephone and videoconferencing to a variety of online and Web-based options, with so many tools to choose from, it is sometimes difficult to determine which is the best for the current situation. In many cases, staff in the IT Department should be able to provide useful information and help make that decision. (Table 1 describes some of the tools HR managers can recommend to their global teams, along with some of the key advantages and limitations.)

Communication Protocols
To ensure an effective exchange of ideas and information, virtual meetings of global teams need to follow certain guidelines. While specific rules can be created for each communication tool (for example, avoid shuffling papers right in front of the microphone during a telephone conference), the following rules help in most cases:

Before the meeting, send the agenda and any document to be discussed during the meeting: All global team meetings should have an agenda. Task-oriented people really appreciate this, since it implies that the meeting has been thought through and should result in concrete outcomes. It also helps non-native English speakers follow the conversation; in particular, they have time to look up key words in documents in a dictionary before the meeting.

Have everyone introduce themselves: In many parts of the world (such as Latin America), people are not expected to talk to one another until they have been introduced. For them, the absence of introduction creates significant discomfort.

Speak “standard” English: North Americans should refrain from using sports English, since expressions like “covering all the bases” mean nothing in countries where baseball is unknown. When team members use such idioms, ensure that everyone understands them; explain if necessary. Similarly, define acronyms and abbreviations.

Do not go too fast: Help non-native English speakers by giving them time to process the information. Otherwise, they may feel that decisions made during the meeting were rammed through, thereby jeopardizing their subsequent buy-in.

Repeat and record decision/action steps: When has a decision been made and when is a matter still open for discussion? Ensure that the decision-making process is understood by all meeting participants and agreed upon upfront. Will the team make the decision? Will the team make a recommendation to higher-ups? Make sure everyone agrees that a decision has been made before recording it in the minutes.

Ensure everyone participates: Some people, particularly those coming from the Far East, are likely to focus on listening and may not participate as much as they would like or as others would like them to. It is important to bring them into the conversation explicitly rather than wait for them to volunteer information.

Clarify continuously: Misunderstandings are very common in multicultural/global teams. Everyone should assume responsibility for ensuring that they understand what others say and mean. The most effective way to achieve this is to ask clarifying questions and to check for mismatched information.

Followup: Following video and audio conferences, send a draft e-mail of meeting minutes including what was agreed to and action items to work on. Allow for responses, disagreement, edits and corrections. Circulate the changes.

Establishing, maintaining trust
A German saying states: trust is not of particular importance unless it is lost. Global teams need to establish and maintain trust between members to ensure that the efforts of all team members are aligned. Here are some suggestions for creating or maintaining trust within global teams:

Get to know one another: This is particularly useful when some team members come from cultures where business only takes place between people who know and like one another (for example, in Latin American). This can be done in a variety of ways. Team members can:
•call one another individually to introduce themselves;
•create a list of questions they would like to ask one another and then circulate these questions and the answers around the team; and
•share resumes and pictures.

Use videoconferencing from time to time: This is particularly useful when a global team is being formed, when a new member is added to the team or when a major decision needs to be made. The ability to read non-verbal cues and to see the person helps establish and maintain trust, particularly in the case of relationship-oriented people.

Agree on e-mail protocol: Teams should first agree on who gets copied on what information, how often information is shared and what is a reasonable time within which to expect a response.

Monitor team effectiveness: Knowing when there are issues, analysing the causes and identifying solutions early — when problems remain small — can mean the difference between the failure and success of a global team. The use of Internet technology can facilitate collection of team effectiveness data, as can electronic questionnaires and assessment products.

Taking cultural differences into account
Many global teams include members from culturally different countries. For example, when Canadians work with Mexicans, Germans or Japanese, differences in approaches to problems, attitudes towards hierarchy and decision-making processes have a significant impact on the team. One of the most critical (and often least understood) difference lies in what it means to be a team. Indeed, the behaviour expected of good team players varies from country to country.

In countries like Mexico and Japan (collective countries), a good team player is expected to help a teammate. Since a team is “all for one and one for all,” such team players will either suggest help or, depending on the urgency and importance of the task, may directly jump in and perform the task.

In countries like Canada and the United States (individualistic countries), a good team player is expected to focus on his area of responsibilities. The motto of the team would be something like, “Let everyone take care of their tasks and responsibilities and we will win.” Such team members will usually address perceived shortcomings of their teammates by expressing their concerns to the team leader.

If team members do not realize they have different ideas of what a team is, they can misinterpret the actions and reactions of their colleagues, resulting in rapid erosion of trust. For example, the “jump in and help” of collective team members is often interpreted by individualist team members as an intrusion into their area of responsibility, usually with devastating consequences for the team.

Helping team members recognize the impact of cultural differences, and learn to deal with them, can significantly increase the productivity of global teams. When a global team is effective, it can capitalize on the cultural differences among its members: team members build on one another’s ideas and significant synergy is achieved.

Keeping global teams going without face-to-face meetings is definitely a challenge. This challenge can be managed effectively by:
•using the right remote communication tools;
•following good communication practices;
•making an explicit effort at building and maintaining trust across distance; and
•taking cultural differences into account.

Lionel Laroche, a regular contributor to Canadian HR Reporter, is president of ITAP Canada. He can be reached at (416) 248-4064 or by e-mail at [email protected]. Catherine Mercer Bing is VP of new business development at ITAP International. She can be reached at (609) 921-1466 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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