Expert tips for overcoming the cultural, logistical, and strategic challenges of working with a geographically dispersed project group and harnessing the full potential of a global team.
If your organization is global, in the process of globalizing or exploring a move in this direction, you have almost certainly experienced some of the unique challenges of working on a global team, whether for an individual project or more long-term management issues. These global teams rarely develop through solid line organizational reporting relationships. Instead, most are spawned in the realm of cross-regional, cross-functional ad hoc project teams. The formation of many of these teams is a bit like the birth of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, who apparently emerged from the primordial sea on an oyster shell – somewhat messy and a bit of a mystery, but packed with future potential and power. Instead of lamenting the difficult nature of global teams, have confidence that there are ways to ensure your global project team effectively navigates the choppy waters, harnesses the potential of its diverse members and successfully accomplishes its key deliverables.
The awkward nature of the global team
Leaders and team members alike feel the impact of the complexities and challenges of the global team environment. When talking to global team members around the world, initial answers to the question “how is your team doing?” often focus on negative aspects rather than the positives. Tales of the difficulties overcoming language differences during an international teleconference call are cited in response to queries about the team’s productivity. The discomfort that arises from trying to reply to a question you did not fully understand on a WebEx is relayed during discussions about team progress.
Consider this virtual teleconference scenario, which one global team member described recently: “The US and Canadian team members are barely out of bed and attempting to consume enough caffeine to sound coherent about key issues as each of them dials into a conference call slightly before 6:30 am central Standard Time. Meanwhile, their Japanese teammates are just back at the office for a call that begins in a few minutes at 9:30 pm, following dinner and coffee with colleagues in Tokyo. These team members are hoping that their European colleagues are able to get through the lunch line and eat a quick bite so they are not starving while on the call. The t-cons regularly take place at 12:30 pm GMT and the canteen opens at noon – giving them barely enough time to get through the lunch queue, eat something downstairs (hot meals aren’t allowed outside the canteen) and make it back to their offices to dial into the call. They are great sports about this inconvenience and always manage to dial in on time, but the team jokes that the Europeans have it harder than other members even though they are the ones in the middle of their day – especially since all the team members are hearty eaters! This difficulty is just one of many challenges global project teams face – and the meeting hasn’t even started.”
A matter of perspective
The messy and circuitous nature of the global project team becomes clearer when considering the experience of an executive asked to join an international team meeting. This senior executive’s daily work focuses solely on the Americas. She joined a global call to provide information about work happening in the US to a global team exploring similar issues. her comment, following the call, shed light on perceptions and expectations around global teamwork. She summarized her experience by saying: “Wow! That was an agonizing meeting. We just went back and forth with each region explaining its perspectives and didn’t get anything done. If I had been in the room with my regional team, we would have discussed the issue for 25 minutes, made a decision, drawn up an action plan and moved forward.”
But her experience was diametrically opposed to her american colleague’s perspective of the call. This colleague – a long-standing global team member and the person who had invited her to take part in the call – commented that a great deal of progress had been made as each region had been able to express its perspective, and greater mutual understanding was achieved. This team member added that “two steps forward, one step back, one step side- ways” was the norm for a global team. in this case, perception is reality when it comes to a global project team.
The implication for you as an executive and global team member is that changing expectations, not simply skill sets, is necessary to function effectively in this environment. Progress will be slower, but global understanding can, and must, increase. And while comments from colleagues may be “negative”, team members often speak of the satisfaction they feel as their team learns to navigate the global terrain and, as they begin to collaborate effectively, to progress toward a goal.
Stories shared with pride about over- coming cross-cultural challenges and achieving an important objective for an organization often follow tales of awkward moments. Whether team members view global team difficulties as draining problems or energizing challenges may depend on an individual’s ability to shift his or her lens and see circumstances from a different vantage point.
It seems that global teams are tricky entities that must be finessed into a high-functioning mode. They are delicate and require extra attention and effort to ensure they success- fully progress along what appears to be a disorganized, slow-moving and zigzagging path. however, if this is managed well, the power generated can be quite substantial.
The global hybrid team
Your global team may be a global virtual team – with members working together to accomplish objectives who will never have a face-to-face, in-person meeting over the life of the team. Or your team might be a global hybrid team, using a hybrid approach of virtual working to a great degree, plus in-person working to a smaller degree. Most global hybrid teams use virtual interaction for the majority of their work together, but have intermittent face-to-face meetings. according to Maznevski and chudoba (2000), global hybrid teams are groups that meet the following criteria:
1. They are identified by their organization and members as a team – they are not just an ad hoc collection of individuals solving a problem.
2. They are responsible for making and/or implementing decisions important to the organization’s global strategy.
3. They regularly use a combination of technology-supported communication allowing face- to-face, in-person contact for a minimum of two-to-three days consecutively, once every three to 12 months.
4. They work and live in different countries, and often span multiple continents
Both global virtual teams and global hybrid teams are valid modes of global teamworking, so the issue is not which is the better option. instead, the critical issue is making a sound decision about when to move from the less expensive global virtual team model to the more expensive global, hybrid team model. it appears that, in a cost-conscious age, some executives are making the wrong call and keeping too many teams in virtual mode. This may save money up front, but cause greater, indirect costs later.
Accelerating global hybrid team effectiveness
In 2013, Schroeder, Sorensen and Yaeger published a model for accelerating global hybrid team effectiveness in Research in Organizational Change and Development (see figure 1). This model describes the ideal conditions for utilizing a global, hybrid team and the need for global working behaviours to support effective team functioning. A hybrid team approach is best when the team is tasked with a major deliverable, critical to the success of the organization.
A purely virtual team is better suited to short-term projects (under 18 months) with deliverables that are less critical to the organization’s core business strategy. That is not to say that the deliverables are not important – rather that they are not as critical to the essence of the organization’s future wellbeing. Due to these conditions, the cost of investing in a face- to-face is not worth the time, energy and effort it will take a purely virtual team to overcome the barrier of never meeting face to face.
It is important that leaders do a true cost-benefit analysis of the extra investment of time, energy and money needed to conduct a global face-to- face meeting against the importance and the urgency of the team’s deliver- able. One way to determine whether the deliverable is critical is to envision how the organization would carry on if this objective were not achieved. if accomplishing this project is considered core to the organization’s future success, investment in some face-to-face activities should be strongly considered. another key criterion is the length of the global project team’s existence. if the team will exist for a minimum of 18 months to three years, the global hybrid team model should be considered.
The bottom line is that if your global project team meets these two criteria, and you are not supporting them to have some face-to-face, in-person sessions, you may be jeopardizing the success of the project and, possibly, the future of your organization.
Global working behaviours
The study proposed a fresh set of behaviours – global working behaviours – that help accelerate global hybrid team effectiveness. These global working behaviours do not drive the skill level of team members, but accelerate global hybrid team effectiveness by impacting each of the McKinsey 7-S areas: strategy, structure, systems, shared values, leadership style, skills and staff. in the model, a final area has been added to the seven: global team interaction.
To accelerate your global team, you should look at all eight areas. You will not need to take corrective action in each area, but you should be strategic in considering which levers need to be adjusted to steer your team towards greater effectiveness.
Perhaps you “score” high in the strategy area because you have done well in all sub areas. You have a clear message for the senior leadership team, alignment around team objectives and have conducted face-to- face meetings to align strategy within the first few months of the team’s life. however, you find your team does not have healthy conflict, but rather destructive conflict and that a cohesive team has not yet been formed.
An intervention to help the team understand healthy conflict may be in order. no team can work on all global working behaviours at once, but by assessing where the team is doing well and where it may need more input, you can provide focused support.
Global hybrid teams are more complex than their traditional team counterparts. Yet, they are also packed with power and potential; it is through these global teams that organizations will solve complex problems, innovate global solutions and take organizations into the future. as more organizations globalize, the importance of well-functioning global teams will become even more critical to achieving key objectives.
Taking time to step back and help your global team assess the areas in which it exhibits strong global working behaviours, and those in which more work is needed, will go a long way to ensuring your team is on the path to success.
The impact of the face-to-face meeting
Carefully positioned face-to-face meetings appear to be effective, not only due to the output of the meeting itself and the progress made during these in-person sessions, but because of how these meetings impact the ongoing virtual working of the team. Our research indicates that the most critical value of a face-to- face meeting is the way in which this interaction transforms the team in the months that follow. Take a look at just a few of these important effects.
Team members become real people to one another Face-to-face meetings lead to better virtual working because team members become “real people.” This indicates that our concept of the value of face-to-face meetings may be outdated, even antiquated: face-to-face is not sought simply to fulfil the basic human need of contact with others, but actually leads to a sense that “i know this person”. While team members know their counterparts across the ocean are real people, until the first face-to-face meeting, they have not yet experienced their colleagues as “real people”. interactions during a face-to-face meeting help team members begin the process of de- objectifying far-away team members from, for example “the Chinese operations director” to “my colleague, Ling, who is based in guanzhou”. These shifts may be unconscious, but the impact on virtual interactions is clear.
Team members develop empathy for one another
In 2006, Lewis proposed that “we can widen our horizons not only by learning foreign tongues, but also by cultivating empathy with the views of others; standing in their shoes in their geographical, historical and philosophical location; seeing ourselves from that perspective”.
Espinosa et al (2007) found that team familiarity, developing perceived proximity, despite geographical distance, benefits team performance when team co-ordination is more challenging; that is, when teams are larger, or geographically-dispersed. There is a mistaken belief in organizations that face-to-face meetings for global teams are primarily for meeting the social needs of members and do not add true value to the organization
A team member of one global hybrid team from Japan summarized the effect of a face-to-face meeting on subsequent virtual team working as “barriers disappearing”. The effect of a productive face-to-face meeting is significant. it was also described as “a trickle effect”. The experience of barriers disappearing is rooted in stronger inclination, between team members from varying regions, functions and backgrounds, to work through the awkwardness that exists.
Better team conflict communication
In the study, one team member described the impact of the face-to- face meeting on members’ ability to speak their minds following a series of in-person meetings. This team member said: “it sounds completely original, but we were really outspoken with each other and that’s what we still do even when we are not agreeing… if there is an issue, we always inform each other and we know each other very well. and that’s purely because we really meet [face-to-face]. And that is something I really want to emphasize. But you can do everything by WebEx [later in the team’s life]. I would really recommend other project teams to start at least one or two years with face-to-face meetings if there’s a big international product and then move onto WebEx meetings.”
The business case for the face-to-face global meeting in an age of budget constraints, travel restrictions and misperceptions that global team members wish to meet face-to-face simply for ease and a selfish desire for social interaction, it is easy to understand why many executives are quick to put the kybosh on in-person global team meetings. But this short-term focus on budget savings may be the wrong decision for the greater organizational good. That is not to say global teams should run amok with face-to-face meetings, driving up expenses, to avoid the awkwardness of virtual working. in fact, this research demonstrates that a well-planned face-to-face global team meeting only need to take place only once every three to 12 months, with more teams stating that a nine- to 12-month interval is sufficient. Jet-setting on a bi-monthly basis is not recommended. Some team members interviewed in our study felt senior leaders were concerned that if they sanctioned any global travel for meetings, a snowball effect would lead to teams travelling “all the time”. Some senior leaders pre-empted this by saying “no” altogether, rather than negotiating the appropriate frequency for each team.
As an executive with decision- making authority, consider this: if your global team is driving a major deliverable that is critical to your continued success as an organization, can you afford not to fund their travel? Also, if this team’s working life together is greater than 18 months, investing in just one up-front team meeting will provide pay-back in buckets along the line. it is important to consider potential payouts from such investments over the life of the team, instead of simply thinking in terms of this quarter’s travel budget.
If you are still not convinced, think back to the beginning of this article and how you were chuckling – or frowning – in knowing recognition of the messy, unpredictable, awkward, challenging nature of global teams, which are, nevertheless, key to the success of your organization. global project teams have a high degree of difficulty – a threshold much higher than a regional team with a more homogeneous makeup and cohesion.
One global project team member effectively summed up the importance of the face-to-face meeting on team effectiveness, while simultaneously acknowledging that it is difficult to quantify this positive impact. he explained: “There’s something about looking across the table at somebody and knowing they’re engaged with you and they’re listening to you, that you just don’t get from a teleconference. You don’t know where they are [on the teleconference]. There’s that whole body language issue, there’s the whole issue of how they react to other team members, side- bar conversations, that you don’t get a sense for and I don’t know if you can quantify it or reproduce it, short of goal-meeting. But there’s soft, intangible stuff that goes on that I think makes the team more effective coming out of it. You go out to dinner together. it’s a whole different thing. I don’t like travel – another guy might just be a travel junkie, but that’s not it for me. I do think it’s expensive for the company to have these global “face- to-faces”, but there’s this common efficiency, intangible synergies that come out of this, that you just can’t put your finger on, but are real. if I could quantify it, I could probably make money from that.”
Katherine Schroeder is an adjunct faculty at Benedictine University and also senior director, organization development at Astellas.
An adapted version of this article appeared on the Dialogue Review website.