The world is changing and technology is improving. Nowadays, you find more and more people working from home or being a part of global virtual teams that rarely meet in person. This naturally brings new challenges as well. Can you feel part of a team when you’re not in the same location? When do you feel a part of a team when logistically you’re a part of several teams? Creating team spirit in a virtual team, especially a global one, is a challenge. But it is still entirely possible. In this article you will find some of our best advice for creating team spirit in a Global Virtual Team.
Know who you're dealing with
Especially in a global virtual team, everything starts from knowing who’s in the team. In a global team this means you should pay extra attention to the background(s) and the culture(s) of the team members. While culture doesn’t define a person, and personality always plays a huge role, culture can indicate what to expect. More importantly, culture gives a good idea what the team members are likely to expect from different situations.
For example, if you’re managing someone from a culture where it’s completely fine to disagree with the manager, it’s very likely that that’s precisely what they consider normal in a global team as well. This can immediately cause issues in a team where others do not think it’s ok to speak against your superiors. It’s easy for people to start attributing the behaviour to the personality, when really it can be the cultural norm for that person.
Another example of how cultures differ is how they rank their colleagues and superiors within the organisation. Therefore, you should also have an idea of the titles of the people in your team, as well as other teams they may be part of and others they may report to. It is possible that from someone’s point of view, they mainly report to someone else and are in your team merely to observe or advise. You should be aware of this type of dynamic and take it into account.
You can compare broad cultural preferences with our Country Comparison tool. If you want to look deeper and gain more personalised insights and detailed feedback, we recommend using the Culture Compass.
Agree on common rules
People in different cultures communicate and work very differently. In one culture it can be expected to pick up your (work) phone outside office hours. In other cultures even trying to contact someone outside office hours might be seen as breach of personal space and thus even offensive. In a global virtual team, you might need to make compromises with this but, for team spirit, it’s essential that these kinds of things are agreed in advance, preferably at the beginning of the project. How to do this in practice depends on the cultures present in your team, but if the team is very diverse you don’t want to make the decision for your team but rather discuss it together. Telling team members to pick up the phone at any hour is not going to work with a person coming from a culture where titles don't give you any special privileges. Instead, for example, you might decide to agree that communication outside office hours should be avoided but can be done via text messages if absolutely necessary.
You should also agree on the tools you use in general. Is it ever ok to call directly on someone’s phone or do you only use email, virtual meetings and a group chat? If these sorts of practices are not agreed in advance, it will cause misinterpretations, miscommunications and might ruin the team spirit.
Find a way to accommodate casual conversations
In a co-located office, you have short chats with your co-workers all the time. You might have coffee breaks together, chat at the watercooler or just have short chats with your neighbour during work as well. What’s even more important is that these casual conversations are found to be necessary for productivity. They will also give important information about how everyone is doing in general. Therefore, you should find a way to accommodate them even in a global virtual team.
Once again, how you want to do this in practice will depend on your team. With some cultures it might work better to dedicate the beginning of each virtual meeting for a round of casual news and conversations. For some cultures this might already feel too structured and serious so, instead, you could have informal virtual coffees where you have a video chat with the team and specifically focus on more casual chat, even if the topics discussed would be work related. You could also randomly select pairs that have casual one on one calls, which allows people to have less formal conversations and also enables them to build personal relationships with the others. Also consider using group chats to not only support the more strictly work-related communication but also allow a certain amount of casual chatting.
Communicate and be clear with your communication
Clarity is key in global virtual teams. If you ask someone to send you the minutes of the meeting in a couple of days, you should make sure they know what kind of minutes of the meeting you’re expecting and whether a couple of days means one or maximum of two days or 4-5. Not being clear with processes, responsibilities and decisions results in broken down communication and distrust in the team. In order to further clarify communication, you should write down all decisions you make. If you make a decision during a conference call, make sure to send a follow up email to ensure people understood correctly what was decided.
In order to build team spirit, you should also communicate actively and regularly. Agree on a schedule for a recurring meeting. Whether this meeting takes place one or twice a month, every week or every day depends a lot on the team, its goals and its processes but gives a very good backbone for the communication. Communication around these meetings should then be built up accordingly.
In addition to the team meetings, make sure you as the manager work to develop personal relationships with each of the team members. In a global virtual team you will need to allocate more time to this but it’s worth even more than in a face-to-face setting. You might have a good idea of the cultural background and the job description of the people but you can’t find out their personality without personal relationships.
Consider sharing some of your managing tasks with the team members
Sharing some of your own responsibilities not only helps with your own burden but is a good way to increase interaction in the team for others. For example, you might ask one of the team members to be in charge of the meeting agenda or have them run the more casual meetings. Or you might ask the team members to one by one follow up progress and send a weekly summary via email. The key here is to have your team members interact more with each other and allow them to build those personal relationships that are so important for creating a good team spirit.
However, you should be aware that cultural differences are likely to have an effect on this practice as well. You should especially pay attention to how you implement this practice. With some cultures the idea of getting some leadership tasks might feel like a great thing but in others it might seem inappropriate. Also, in some cultures it might be completely normal to share tasks like this but in others it might be confusing to work outside their own field of expertise.
Consider cultural training for the whole team
As you can probably guess, the best way to avoid cultural misunderstandings is increasing the cultural understanding of everyone in your team. Especially for longer projects, or a more permanent virtual team setting, it’s worthwhile to offer cultural training for the whole team, and each new team member who joins. In our years of experience we’ve discovered that it’s very likely that even the people who have experience working across cultures are often not aware of many of the challenges that have been caused by cultural misunderstandings. Only when they participate in a cultural awareness training do they discover how much culture actually affects our behaviour and how there really isn’t one culture that is better than the other but simply different ways of approaching a given situation.