With the advent of cloud services and the widespread availability of high-speed internet around the world, it’s becoming more and more common for organizations to have teams made up of people in different countries, working remotely from one another, using technology to collaborate efficiently despite the distance.
But with this rise in remote teams comes the challenge of dealing with different cultures within one workforce. To a certain extent, these differences tend to be smaller issues when compared with overarching project goals and clearly stated deadlines. But what happens when there is difficulty understanding one another’s speech? And how do you coax teamwork from every member when some cultures tend to be more aggressive and vocal than others?
Cultures are based on unseen values and assumptions created by shared experiences and events. When exposed to the same situation, different cultures might react in different ways. All of this underscores the need for cultural awareness in order to avoid, or at least limit, misunderstandings and miscommunication.
From the very start, Wrike has functioned as a cross-cultural team, and we’ve found ways to work efficiently with colleagues in different countries and cultures. We like to think we’ve made it work, though there is always room to grow. So we’ve put together our five strategies for managing cross-cultural teams:
1. Learn About One Another
One of the easiest ways to learn about the cultural diversity of your team is to flat out ask them. A perfect icebreaker is to ask about office holidays: Why do your colleagues in the Philippines and Russia get a week off after Christmas? What festivals are your Indian colleagues observing? What exactly is Boxing Day in Canada? Why is Thanksgiving such a big deal in the U.S.?
Dedicate a section of your onboarding process to reading up on the different cultures in your organization. After all, there’s no better time to drill the importance of cultural awareness than at the start.
Another fantastic way to learn about your international teammates is to visit or invite them over. Here at Wrike HQ, we often host our remote team members, their visits timed for important conferences or seminars. This allows us to interact with colleagues on a day-to-day basis away from the computer screen and has given us the chance to get to know them better.
2. Allow for Different Learning Styles
Any elementary teacher can tell you that every student learns in a different way. But stepping further back, different countries also typically educate students in various ways. So on an individual level, there are people who are more studious and bookish overall, learning new material by consuming technical documents and manuals. Others among us learn better go by experiencing things hands-on, or watching demonstrations.
Allow for these different learning styles when collaborating together. If you’re all trying to absorb new material, have downloadable/printable PDFs for those who learn best by reading, audiobooks for those who need to hear concepts aloud, and webinars or video tutorials for those who need to see it done in front of them.
3. Make the Recap a Part of the Meeting
Don’t forget that English is not a common first language outside of some countries in Europe and North America. In many places, it’s a second or third language. You should never assume that what you say is understood — even if you speak slowly and use shorter words.
Instead of asking if your team understood next steps (that’s a yes or no answer that can easily be fibbed) make it a habit to ask the team to recap their assignments before ending a call or meeting. This has the added bonus of clarifying everyone's priority tasks and giving the team a last-minute chance to ask questions.
4. Involve the Quiet
Some cultures are more vocal, more aggressive, more able to express themselves in a meeting. And in that way, they might seem to dominate discussions. Conversely, some cultures are more quiet, comparatively passive, willing to sit out a meeting without saying anything while the more vocal members debate.
In a situation like this, make sure to circle back to the quiet people after a meeting and get their input on the discussions, apart from the larger group. Make use of a collaboration tool such as Wrike that can capture everyone’s comments and feedback — something that balances the scales and gives the quieter people an equal chance to be heard.
5. Incorporate Humor
Humor is an easy way to break the ice — just be aware that it’ll take time to learn what each culture finds funny. One of our team members shared that she had a little difficulty comprehending American humor. But because she brought it up, we were able to explain some aspects of it and give her relevant links to YouTube clips showcasing examples of what we found funny.
So definitely, incorporate humor into your teamwork with virtual icebreakers for large groups. One of our favorite tips is to designate a virtual water cooler channel in your instant messaging app and make it a place where the team can hang out and NOT talk about work at all but about the stuff they find interesting, funny, or entertaining.
In all these tips, the basic underlying premise that’s always worked for Wrike has been one of respect. If you respect the different cultures and ask the right questions in order to understand what you don’t know, you’ll have much more successful interactions.
If you have any tips of your own, we’d love to hear them. Share your experiences of working with a cross-cultural team in the comments below!