The global virtual team (GVT) has become a common business practice for multinational companies. The boundaries of the workplace have expanded across countries and continents, enabling multinational companies to leverage the skills and expertise of a diverse workforce in order to remain competitive on the global stage. These virtual teams consist of members who are geographically distributed, yet are expected to interact to accomplish the business goals of their shared employer. Often, their interdependent tasks and responsibilities are limited to electronic resources.
The price to pay for having GVTs is steep if companies do not effectively manage the factors that can make or break success: cultural differences, conflict resolution, communication, trust, technology, leading, motivation and recruitment of globally-minded people. Effectively managing GVTs also requires a hands-on collaboration from human resource professionals to provide strategic training, performance management and incentives.
Global teams began to increase in prominence following the September 11 attacks. Most business people were leery about flying and companies were looking for more cost-effective solutions to conduct business. Change always introduces new challenges. The most notable challenge and possibly the catalyst for the other challenges, is cultural differences.
First, we must recognize that differences between cultures, whether it is with companies, professions or countries, will always exist. The goal for a company and its human resources department is not to change the diverse culture within GVTs, but to find effective ways to synergize the differences. Cultural differences are a good thing and often can be used to balance the strengths and weaknesses of the team.
Symons and Stenzel suggest that two types of conflict exist within GVTs: dysfunctional affective conflict where conflict is personal and cognitive conflict that is directed towards the effective performance of a team. Even the meaning of the word team translates differently across country and culture lines. If this difference is not made clear, team members’ actions and reactions will be misinterpreted. For example, the way one approaches problems, decision making and attitudes about hierarchy differs with Germans and Americans from that of Mexicans and the Japanese. In Mexico and Japan, a “good” team player will help his or her teammate. However, in Germany and the U.S., a good team player will focus on and fulfill his or her specific roles and responsibilities. In order to create synergy, each team member will have to adopt new behavior patterns that are different from their own, and that best fit the needs of the team as a whole.
Communication is paramount to effectively managing GVTs. The obvious communication challenge is the language barriers because team members are accustomed to speaking their native language. However, even more akin to communication challenges is having unanimous decisions on the acceptable protocol when communicating. Not having the right processes in place can lead to misunderstandings and hinder a team’s progress.
There are common characteristics of communication challenges for both global and colocated teams. These may include the use of email and voicemail. Conducting virtual meetings greatly reduces the business travel expense for companies. However, to effectively manage communications, having face-to-face meetings, especially during the initial formation of a team, is greatly encouraged. Face-to-face meetings help to foster trust and positive interpersonal relationships among team members.
Establishing email and voicemail protocols at the onset of team formation also eliminates unexpected confusion. The goal is to select the proper tool for the message that needs to be communicated. Team members must clearly define their objective for communicating and follow the established rules. For example, voicemail messages should include what to do if there is a misunderstanding; when to respond; and, what to do if a team member is unable to provide the information requested in the voicemail, or within the requested timeframe.
Similar to voicemail, email protocol should address effective written communication practices. Following naval practices, email among GVTs is effective when: requested actions are in the final paragraph, rather than throughout the message; and, emails should not include a thread of previous emails, only the information that is pertinent and mission critical to the project.
Do you know what I am saying?
Companies not only must consider these electronic tools, but also the communication behaviors that differ from country to country. For example, the physical gesture of shaking one’s head means “no” in the Western culture. However, this gesture is interpreted to mean “yes” in Bulgaria. This challenges companies to provide consistent communication so that everyone receives the same message according to their culture. Employees should not be required to “get it” the same way that someone in a different country does.
Effective use of communications tools
Multinational companies have various technology tools to help facilitate global team communications. Each tool has its own individual advantages and disadvantages, but when used collectively, these tools are an integral function for effective team collaboration. Companies are encouraged to consider five interdependent factors related to technology: availability, reliability, capability, supportability and individual ability to master the tool.
This enables multinational companies to leverage its global workforce through the use of technology for communication and training purposes. Email accounts, instant messaging, and a collaboration tool are good examples. Making full use of these technologies through the Internet helps supervisors communicate with employees anywhere in the world. Additionally, a talent management system can be used for tracking global training and succession planning.
Examples of communications tools
Telephone conferences are the least expensive and easiest communication tool for GVTs. However, landline telephone conversations do not provide visual contact and team members cannot collaborate on a single document. Most multinationals use online instant messaging to get quick turnaround in responses and to instantly communicate with several people at the same time. Unfortunately, instant messaging may also hinder team collaboration and people may respond sooner than a question is asked.
To combat the issue of collaborative work on a single file, document sharing applications such as Microsoft NetMeeting allows for real-time application and file sharing among several team members. However, only one person at a time is able to work on a document.
Multinational companies that are equipped with video conferencing facilities can use software such as Smartboard, an interactive digital whiteboard, where all team members can edit simultaneously. Video conferencing is expensive and may cause a bit of paranoia of being watched by other team members during a meeting. Shared, web-based activities and discussion areas are essential to facilitate the sharing of knowledge expertise among team members. These tools are also valuable to bringing new team members up to speed on a project. Trust and team relationship building is also strengthened through information sharing and group discussions.
What multinationals are doing to remain relevant
Shell International Exploration and Production has a dedicated intranet for discussion groups consisting of “communities of expertise.” A challenge for shared, web-based discussion groups is having disciplined team members who are willing to keep the information fresh and relevant. According to one of Shell’s human resource professionals, Arjan van Unnik, each community has approximately 25 global members who make daily postings and encourage local participation. As a result, colleagues in Australia and Malaysia benefited from a gas compressor issue in the U.S. Van Unnik estimates that at least 15,000 employees exist in each global community.
The importance of effective leadership and human resources management should not be underestimated. Both are a vital part of the infrastructure for a successful global company. Human resources must adapt some of its traditional practices and policies to the global environment by respecting local differences. Line managers and team leaders must build a sense of unity within GVTs through trust and open communication. Leaders must articulate the vision and purpose of the team with the guidelines for how the project will be executed.
Team leaders are responsible for motivating global team members through mentoring, enforcing norms and rewarding members individually and collectively. Leaders must learn a different management approach that fully appreciates the benefits and challenges of GVTs. BT director of people networks Caroline Winters notes how BT’s managers had to change from a command-and-control approach to a style that was based on coaching, outputs and timelines. The results were more cooperative work between international colleagues. Human resources is responsible for ensuring that line managers receive the proper training to lead successful global teams. Often, this requires changing complicated management structures and eliminating multiple lines of reporting. Otherwise, team members will experience conflicts with work priorities, loss of accountability, and very little knowledge sharing opportunities.
One way multinational companies are meeting the challenge of GVTs is by recruiting and hiring globally minded staff. Nokia’s global marketing and product development teams are successful for this very reason. Nokia’s human resources department selects people who are willing to collaborate on teams with a broad range of ages, nationalities and education. Ongoing training is necessary to keep globally minded staff motivated. Accenture spent $700 million in 2006 to provide collaboration training for 38,000 consultants. Additionally, Accenture has a special leadership development program where it trains managers for 10 months in areas such as finance, marketing and technology. The teams meet in different locations throughout the program to collaborate on completing a project.
It takes a village
Multinational companies must have local human resource representatives within each country or region where they conduct business. Local laws, hiring, terminating and training practices will differ based on what is culturally and legally acceptable. There is no one-size-fits-all model where, for example, HR can use U.S. policies and practices in China. In particular, HR compensation practices must align with local expectations. The cost of living is different for each location; therefore, salary structures must be regionally competitive. HR also shares the responsibility of motivating team members through the types of training and benefits packages that are offered. Standardized benefits no longer exist to retain top talent.
GVTs are drastically different from local teams in terms of time zones, geography and culture norms. Creating a seamless workforce is challenging under most circumstances, not to mention a global workforce. However, a collective commitment from line managers, HR and employees can bring harmony and success.
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