How to lead successful global virtual teams has been a challenge for some years now and is not a topic that just popped up during Q1 of 2020. Whilst many teams worldwide were forced to go virtual during 2020, for international teams this has at least been a partial reality for many years already. Most international leaders are aware of the challenges faced, but not all are equipped to deal with those effectively to achieve success with the team.
If you are leading international teams then you need to be considering how to communicate, collaborate and promote understanding between them. To do this you need to consider all aspects to do with the team, the individuals and also yourself as a leader.
Under normal circumstances these virtual interactions and relationships are reinforced by personal meetings, however right now it’s critical to get the virtual part right. You need to consider how to make them feel psychologically safe so that they can really bring their best self and best work into your team.
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Challenges of Global Virtual Teams
Whilst there are many similarities between any virtual teams and international virtual teams, it is considerably more complex to successfully lead global virtual teams. The main challenges faced can be summarised as:
- feelings of isolation of team members
- differing communication styles across geographies
- a variety of working styles across countries
- contrasting expectations about the style of leadership (how does “good” leadership look?)
- cultural differences about giving and receiving feedback
- managing conflicts
- how to deal with motivational issues
Obviously whole books can be written on this topic, so I can only scratch the surface of it here with some tips for leaders of international teams.
1. Lead by Example
How do you want your team members to behave and to treat one another? Do you want them to trust and respect you? What style of collaboration do you want to adopt? You probably need the team to follow your rules, but do you keep to them yourself?
It may sound trite, but if you want to lead successful global virtual teams then you have to lead the way with your shining example. That doesn’t mean you’re expected to be perfect, but it does mean that you should practice what you preach.
Talking of preaching, you have to repeat the values that you want your team to live by like a mantra until they are part of everyone’s psychological muscle memory. If you want to get the best results together with your team, you have to create an environment where everybody can be heard, and where they feel safe to speak up about any issues. That begins with your own behaviour.
Nobody wants to be lead by a dictator, and you need to show up as a “realistic optimist”. That means bringing positive energy to each team meeting. Video calls “suck” the energy that you appear to have so that you need to show up as a “larger than life” version of yourself, in order to appear “normal” through the screen.
Be clear about your attitude to taking down time or time off. You don’t want to find some people burning out because they falsely believe that they need to work all the hours that other people are perhaps working in the team. Europe has regulations around working hours and generally a more “work to live” attitude. Asian team members may however believe that 996 (9 to 9, 6 days a week) is what is expected unless you state that very clearly.
Effective communication is at the heart of successful global teams, whether virtual or not. That starts out with fixing the language that will be used officially for all meetings and written communication. In many cases that will be English, but it doesn’t matter what it is, only that you have a fixed language that everyone speaks. However, you need to bear in mind that it can be really intimidating for team members to speak in a foreign language so be patient.
Ex-Google boss Eric Schmidt wrote in his book “How Google Works”, that employees need to hear something 22 times before it really sinks in. I’ll repeat that: 22 times! That means that for critical information (eg WHY are we doing this project) you need to keep repeating yourself until long after the point at which you are sick of saying it. That number may even be higher with teams whose native language is not English and who perhaps struggle a little linguistically.
These days there are a plethora of digital tools available which can support your team. Make sure that everyone knows how to use these well in order to have the most leveraged effect. Also, don’t forget that not all tools are available in all countries (especially China) & not all tools are created equal. Alternatively, in some countries the internet is not so fast, so having tech tools that are heavy on bandwidth may not be ideal for meetings (as many people discovered working from home during 2020!).
I’m not going to recommend some specific tools, because I believe it comes down more to how you use them as to whether they are effective or not. Remember that teams across time zones are going to be working asynchronously and that a flood of information can easily lead to misunderstandings.
Make sure that you have clear lines of communication to avoid confusion. Also, be clear about which milestones your team need to report on, how often and about the quality standards that you expect. My recommendation would be a written communication policy. On the one hand, this makes it clear for all members of the team HOW you want them to communicate and on the other hand WHEN & under which circumstances. This is important at any time but becomes vital during any kind of crisis.
When are you available for your team? Even if you’re working with team members worldwide, you don’t have to be available 24/7, but it does help to make it clear for them when you’re generally available and when they can contact you outside of those times. What constitutes an emergency? Realistically, you may find that formal channels of communication such as email are restricted to working hours and outside of that a chat programme will be used. (Which one will depend on the location of the team and the tools you have available).
As far as possible, it’s good to be transparent if you want to successfully lead global virtual teams. However, you should remember that the levels of openness expected from a leader vary across cultures. Before you “overshare” with your team, think about how you can best make yourself visible to them, both as a leader and a person. What are their expectations of you?
4. Document the Processes
This can really help when you have teams with different levels of language skills and working across time zones. It is so easy to make a quick screencast to explain how a task should be done, using something like Loom, Zoom or even just your phone. That way your team can refer back to it when they’re not sure what the next step is and it’s 3am in your time zone.
If you (or of course a team member) need to demonstrate how to go about a task, it really helps to produce a video of one person actually DOING that task (including screen capture, if you are showing how to use some kind of company system). From there you can also produce a document with the task broken down step by step. This kind of standard operating procedure (SOP) isn’t meant to be something tremendously formal, but a way of empowering your team to be help to help themselves to move forward. SOPs are great for any teams but become even more so when you’re working asynchronously and across cultures.
5. Document Your Progress
It’s really easy for globally dispersed teams to feel isolated or as if they are making no progress on projects. Short daily and weekly updates can help to relieve that impression. This will encourage teams to share their wins, even if small, and allow you to highlight the collective progress.
With multi-cultural teams, you have to walk a careful line here. Success is celebrated and talked about in different ways across the globe and you don’t want to cause resentment rather than bolstering their self-esteem.
6. Be People-Centric
When you’re under pressure to deliver a project on time, it can be hard to keep the people at the forefront of your mind: it’s all too easy to slip into obsessing about what needs doing. That would be a grave mistake though. Studies have shown that when times get tough, the teams who trust their leader are likely to perform better.
Trust is an essential factor. Few people will willingly share work or task-based confidences with someone that they find unreliable or incompetent.
You need to show your team that they are important, both collectively and as individuals. Celebrate the work wins, but also the birthdays, holidays or births of children.
7. Apply Cultural Intelligence
This is perhaps the most complex part of successfully managing global virtual teams, depending on the specific make up of your team! It’s also closely linked with being a self-reflected leader.
Firstly, of course, you need to get to know the members in your team as individuals. Even if Valerie is from China & Pablo from Mexico, they are first and foremost individuals and not “the Chinese girl” or “the Mexican guy”. This is a process so don’t expect it to happen overnight.
Then you need to consider also the cultural aspects of working with your team. This can include things such as
- how they regard time (see also my previous blog post on that topic) and deadlines
- how they celebrate success. Your Scandinavians probably will find it slightly odd or even distasteful if the US Americans are enthusing over a minor win in a way that the Scandinavians see as “showing off”
- how you need to give praise and criticism. Your Brazilian team member will need more public and frequent obvious praise than a German (but you still have to make sure you treat everyone fairly!). A Taiwanese team member will likely be devastated at the loss of face if there is even a hint of public criticism, whilst a Dutch member will see it as normal.
- How instructions are perceived. A Chinese team member may prefer to receive more direct instructions about the task in hand than a French girl, who may feel you are micro-managing her.
- How different cultures interact during meetings. In some countries you can expect team members to be vying for your attention in meetings, always wanting to prove themselves, whilst your Japanese members may have to be persuaded to give opinions even on topics they are experts on.
8. Enable Water-cooler Type Informal Discussion Opportunities
This can be hard to achieve with teams in different time zones, but establishing informal communication channels or running regular short after-works may help with team building.
Learning about festivities and celebrations in other cultures can also help foster the team relationship. Many European companies introduced a virtual “beer” or “cocktail” on a Friday during 2020 – that may not be suitable for all your team members. If you have teams based in Israel or Muslim countries then Friday evening or/and alcohol could unsuitable. Think about alternatives that fit to your team members. Perhaps someone can demonstrate how tea is served in China or Morocco? What about the UK members leading an afternoon tea? Or the Argentinians to moderate a virtual barbeque?
It can also be worth having an informal slack or Whatsapp group to exchange fun ideas or pictures. Teams who can laugh together can work together so making space to get to know one another better is critical for improving the collaboration. Informal activities help reduce the inhibitions team members may have about working with or asking for help from other members.
9. Empower your Team to Self-Leadership
Cultural perceptions may play a huge role here, but to be a successful leader of global teams, especially virtually, you need to encourage your teams to lead themselves. Regardless of how hardworking you may be, you cannot be available 24/7.
Just don’t forget that in some countries this is literally a foreign concept (pun intended). For that reason, the communication policy I mentioned above becomes even more important as well as documented processes. Help your people to be able to help themselves, either because they have the resources at their fingertips or because they feel comfortable reaching out to other colleagues for help.
10. Be a Self-Reflected Leader
Leading any team is a hard task with many challenges. Those are multiplied exponentially when you work across international boundaries, time zones and cultures. On the other hand, that’s what makes it fun (at least in my book…? does that make me some kind of masochist?).
You need to make sure that you are generous with praise and recognition for your team colleagues, but also go through a process of deep self-reflection when things go wrong (as they will). As the saying goes, “the fish begins to stink from the head” so do your best to minimise stink!
To lead successful global virtual teams you need to increase your levels of planning and structure. You need time for your own work, but you need an increased % of your schedule for your team. Individual meetings, team huddles, getting to know people at a deeper level all require time and energy from you. You need to give frequent feedback and encourage healthy self-reflection also with each individual on the team. Do they have a healthy work/life integration (see the point I made above about taking time off!)
Lead successful global virtual teams
If you want to lead successful global virtual teams then you need to learn how to use the advantages of diversity to optimise your team’s collaboration. It’s situational leadership on steroids if you like… That means you need to put thought and creativity in enabling your team to achieve success.
All of these tips refer to teams that you have the disciplinary responsibility for, but remember if you are an International Business Development Manager, you may have the responsibility for leading international teams that are employed by your business partners. That becomes even more tricky & requires EVEN more sensitivity.
Studies have shown that leaders of successful teams are responsive to questions, comments and feedback. You need to show that you are able to take suggestions on board if they bring the team forward.
Make sure you are specific and clear in what is needed. Global virtual teams often lack context so ambiguity of any kind can lead to either people running off at a tangent or nothing getting done at all (depending on the culture of the team members affected!). Responsibilities need to be clearly defined and specific guidelines set and then you can allow your team to “run”.
“Specific and clear” don’t mean that you should be a dictator though or micromanage your team. Don’t be arrogant, be involved in the work but be cognisant of the level of mentoring that each team member may require to accomplish their tasks effectively.
Trust fosters the working relationship but don’t forget that different cultures approach this in different ways on projects (some prefer to spend time developing trust up front, whilst others develop it along the way).
Effective leaders of successful global virtual teams are highly involved in the work of those teams. They give feedback, guidance, suggestions, coaching and show understanding. Such leaders demonstrate empathy whilst asserting their authority in a personal collaborative way.
If you found this useful, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments below. Please feel free to share this article with anyone who you feel may benefit.