Meet Stephen. He’s an engineer for a large software company and works out of the organization’s San Francisco office.
He’s tackling a challenging new project, and he knows the engineers in the company’s office in Sydney, Australia, have already done something similar. He schedules a video chat with some select members of the Sydney team hoping to rely on their insights and experience. He puts the call on everyone’s calendar for 1:00 p.m. his time.
His intentions are great. But there’s one thing Stephen failed to realize: The meeting time that works so perfectly with his schedule is 6 a.m. for his Sydney counterparts.
Groan, right? Conflicting time zones present a major headache—but they only scratch the surface of the different hurdles you’ll need to overcome when working with international teams.
Research from the U.S. Civil Engineering Research Foundation found their teams had a far greater chance of poor communication, a lack of clear direction, and less timely decision-making when they weren’t co-located.
Whether your team is distributed remotely or employees work in a few different offices across the globe, international collaboration brings language, cultural, and physical barriers along with it. These differences unintentionally breed miscommunication, confusion, and even offense.
What can you do to avoid those scenarios and work effectively with international teams? Whether you hail from India, Scotland, the U.S., or anywhere in between, here are some tips to make collaboration that much easier—despite being thousands of miles apart.
1. Dig into Cultural Norms
While having your team spread across the globe is definitely challenging, don’t look at this as a burden. Instead, it’s an opportunity to learn about other cultures, refresh your perspective, and gain a greater appreciation for your team (and the world!).
The best place to start is getting an understanding of the different cultures that make up your team. The cultures and norms we are raised with play a huge part in how we perceive the world around us—both in personal and professional relationships.
For example, people in the Netherlands value a leader who gets to the point. They don’t appreciate excessive communication and instead prefer a straight shooter in the driver’s seat. In contrast, people in Sweden expect leaders to communicate empathetically and to keep conversations friendly.
There are also some key differences between individualistic and collectivistic societies that can impact people’s approaches to their work and their colleagues.
“People in individualistic societies, such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and most of the northern and western European countries, tend to emphasize individual rights, such as freedom, privacy, and autonomy,” says Meina Liu in an Oxford Research Encyclopedias article about communication styles. “They tend to view themselves as unique and special, and are free to express their individual thoughts, opinions, and emotions.”
People in collectivistic societies—such as most of Latin American, African and Asian countries, and the Middle East—view themselves as far more interconnected. They feel accountable to other group members.
Understanding these differing perspectives may influence how you best communicate with others on international teams. So roll up your sleeves and dig into the research out there about various cultural differences. Where can you get your hands on this information? There are plenty of resources, including:
- Studies and research articles (such as ones cited in this article)
- Online forums and communities
- Travel guides (they often clue you in on cultural manners and norms)
- Your own team members
Insider Tip: One easy (and fun!) way to learn more about your cultural differences is to encourage your team members to share with each other. From photos to recipes to interesting facts, it’s a great way to learn about each other’s cultures while also fostering camaraderie.
2. Pay Attention to Timing
Managing multiple conflicting time zones is one of the biggest logistical challenges of working across the globe. Fortunately, all it takes is a little conscious effort to ensure your team is on the same page:
When You’re Scheduling Meetings...
Unless you’re some sort of prodigy who can successfully juggle eight different time zones bouncing around in your brain, you’ll want to use a tool like World Clock Meeting Planner to schedule conversations at mutually agreeable times.
This tool makes it simple to enter your own time zone and see what time it is for a member on your team who’s halfway across the world—no counting on your fingers required.
It’s also important to recognize a 40-hour workweek isn’t the standard in every part of the world. The government in France, for example, introduced a standard 35-hour workweek. Regardless of time zones, don’t make the mistake of thinking that everybody abides by your working hours.
Insider Tip: You also need to be conscious of holidays. You may not celebrate on a certain date in your corner of the world—but another team member might be unplugged and enjoying a national holiday on that day.
Create a master calendar for your entire team where you plot which holidays are observed in which regions—and as a result, which specific teams, offices, or employees will be out of touch those days.
When You’re Setting Deadlines...
There’s another wrinkle that can make time management that much trickier on international teams: Not every culture perceives time the same way.
In countries like India, China, and Kenya, time is viewed as flexible. People in these regions tend to believe there should be enough wiggle room in the schedule to accommodate any changes. The emphasis is on adaptability, as opposed to a rigid timeline and organization.
In countries including Germany, Switzerland, and Japan, time is far more linear. These people value sticking to a schedule and meeting deadlines—no matter what.
Do you sense a conflict brewing? This can inspire tension amongst colleagues.
It’s critical to set firm deadlines—but especially when your team members are international. Make it clear what the real end date is for a project (and add in a small buffer, just in case) to ensure everyone gets what they need when they need it.
This is one of the many reasons why using a project management solution (may we be so bold and recommend Wrike?) can be so beneficial. Everyone on your team will be able to see the exact deadlines for specific tasks.
3. Emphasize the Importance of Communication
International teams don't have the luxury of mentioning something in passing or having casual chats around the break room coffee pot, so effective communication should be at the top of your priority list.
Cultural norms and upbringings have a huge impact on how various sentiments are perceived, so you need to proceed with caution here.
Humor is a great example. One study found people in Eastern cultures (China, in particular) aren’t as tolerant or as fond of humor. In fact, they tend to regard it as something that should be saved for comedians. However, participants from Western cultures (the study looked specifically at Canada) think humor is a common and even admirable trait that enhances interpersonal relationships.
Feedback is another area where wires are easily crossed. “The Chinese manager learns never to criticize a colleague openly or in front of others, while the Dutch manager learns always to be honest and to give the message straight,” explains Erin Meyer in an article for the Harvard Business Review. “Americans are trained to wrap positive messages around negative ones, while the French are trained to criticize passionately and provide positive feedback sparingly.”
Take a look at the below chart from the Harvard Business Review highlighting differences between British and Dutch communicators to see how even seemingly innocent phrases can be misconstrued when cultural differences are at play:
Set the precedent that your team should communicate as clearly as possible and eliminate jargon, acronyms, or other nuanced or easily misconstrued language.
It also helps to incorporate plenty of visual aids (charts, infographics, or even video demonstrations) when communicating with international team members. Visual information gets your point across more efficiently and effectively. Even a well-placed emoji helps share your message in the way you want it to be perceived! 😉
You won’t be perfect at communicating (none of us are), but making the effort will show each and every team member they’re heard, valued, and respected.
Insider Tip: When you onboard a new hire, ask them to fill out a survey indicating how they like to receive feedback and their preferred methods for communicating with team members. Save those in a document that’s accessible to your whole team, and everyone will have a “user guide” to help them collaborate successfully with everyone on the team.
Teamwork Knows No Boundaries: Focus on What Unites You
Celebrating the diversity on your team is awesome. However, with team members all across the globe, it’s also easy to fall into an “us vs. them” mentality. Naturally, the employees in your London office will be more bonded to each other than they are to their counterparts in Hong Kong, and vice versa.
Constantly emphasize the things that unite you to combat this. Despite where you’re located, you all have common goals you want to achieve and challenges you need to overcome.
Highlighting these shared points fosters a team-centered mentality across your entire organization. Global or not, you’re all in this together.
Looking for a way to unite and do better work with international teams? Download our free ebook: The Route to Excellence: The Wrike Way.