Archives for June 2008

The New Language of Teamwork

Globalization means HR/OD professionals are facing a new job requirement – learning to work in diverse and virtual teams, says Wynne Chisholm, a Queen’s IRC Facilitator on Organizational Design. Wynne, who worked abroad for several years as principal of her own Alberta-based management consultancy, tells tales from the field in the following Q&A.

Are HR and OD leaders being asked to work internationally more often?

I think so – the world is becoming smaller every day. Most companies have products being commoditized globally, so you can’t just stay in your own little niche of the world. Everybody, including OD and HR professionals, needs a better understanding of the global implications for their organizations. And working abroad with diverse people is a wonderful learning experience – both professionally and personally.

What global projects have you been involved in?

In 1997 I worked with a group of 17 different subsidiaries of a senior oil and gas firm. Then from 1999-2003 I was consulting for a specialty chemical company based in the UK. It was operating in about 55 countries and had more than 40,000 staff. I worked with the global Chief Information Officer and the business CIOs to facilitate a functional capability review and implement a series of projects to bring the function to world class.

I dealt with people in Europe mainly – in England, Ireland, the Netherlands – and in the U.S. But there were team members in Australia, Hong Kong, and Canada as well. It was really interesting being able to work with clients who are not all located together.

How did your global teams typically work?

We’d meet quarterly unless there was some special project, in which case we would come together more often. We often worked in teams where we weren’t physically together.

We relied on technology to get our work done. We connected by Internet and did a lot of conference calls. Not only were people in different countries, and in different time zones, but they were often traveling, making it complicated to round everyone up. Usually there were between six and 20 team members, depending on the project.

We also did a fair amount of video-conferencing, which meant you could have some face-to-face time even if you were across the ocean from one other.

I found that people were further ahead in the use of technology than their Canadian counterparts. You’d show up a meeting and everyone would have their laptops out – that’s only now starting to happen with all my clients. Everyone was readily accessible through cell phones and email too – whereas here, it depends on whether that’s a cultural norm in the organization.

What was different about working in a global team?

Technology that worked in sync became really important. One of our first decisions was to get similar systems for the team – similar laptops with sign-ins so we could get into shared databases, for example, and didn’t have to email documents all over the place.

Meeting software was useful. If I did a presentation and the other people were in four or five different locations, or even countries, I could have control of their laptops. Otherwise it was confusing, with everyone asking, ‘Am I on the right slide?’

It was wonderful for decision-making too. A little hand would come up on your screen, so you knew who had voted, and how. This gave a sense of how important it was to move something forward, or what level of commitment there was. It was much faster than always polling people on the phone.

Aside from the right technology, what do you need for an effective global team?

The same foundations as for a regular team apply – but they get magnified in a virtual team, or in teams where there’s a core group that can get together and other people in far-flung locations.

Basic teamwork management practices need to be done way ahead of time with a virtual team. Conflict-handling protocols are essential so you can avoid having someone literally thousands of miles away from you sitting and stewing later on.

Virtual teams should meet early so people can see each other face-to-face, even if it’s just a video-conference, or by web cam. This builds trust, making it easier to work together when issues arise down the road.

Can you talk about issues around communicating?

In a team where people are all geographically together, sitting at a boardroom table, they’re looking around the room and can see each other’s body language. They know who’s paying attention, who’s bought in, whether someone is really engaged. You can see if they’re shuffling or rolling their eyes or doing their email – it’s really visible.

In a virtual team, you don’t have the benefit of being able to see the individual’s reactions, so you end up having to rely much more heavily on verbal communication and checking back with people and clarifying things.

It’s very easy to have communication glitches, to misunderstand each other. I think people can feel emotionally hurt much more quickly, or angered more quickly, or feel fearful more quickly, because they’re always trying to read between the lines. They don’t have that face-to-face connection, and can’t just walk down the hallway and ask for clarification.

Are cultural misunderstandings an issue working in global teams?

They are. One of the things I found culturally was that you needed to be able to learn what a “yes” means, and whether it means you have a commitment to move forward or not.

I would talk to people about our deadlines and what we were trying to achieve; discuss the outcomes and benefits; find out what issues people had. Then at the action planning phase, where you’re trying to agree on who’s going to do what, people would be nodding or saying yes.

But I soon found that it didn’t mean that they had agreed, or accepted any responsibility for anything in that action plan. They were just saying they had heard me! So you really have to keep checking that kind of thing, have to start asking better questions.

What else is different working in global and virtual teams?

You have to be aware of legal issues – in China it was against the law to have open wireless Internet, for example, and in many places, your phone calls would be monitored. There may be rules you don’t know about.

There are social and cultural differences too. Even though we all spoke English, we weren’t necessarily using words in the same way. Once I told someone that dress was casual, so he could wear pants to a meeting. In the UK, ‘pants’ means underwear! You will often find yourself doing things differently – once we had to schedule a meeting around a rugby match.

But these kinds of cultural issues weren’t as big as things like making sure everyone knew what time zone everyone else was on; who might be jet lagged; who we were we calling at a particularly bizarre hour of the day.

In a global team, you really need to learn to be more tolerant if people are tired and starting to zone out because they are 13 hours ahead of you.

The Health and Safety Revolution

Legal and societal trends are transforming our organizations, says Vic Pakalnis, Amethyst Fellow at Queen’s University School of Policy Studies. In this Q&A, Vic, a senior leader with 30 years’ experience in the Ontario Public Service, says HR professionals have a key role in facing these challenges..

What are the top trends around safe and healthy workplaces?

There’s a huge sea change underway, akin to the revolution around driving under the influence of alcohol. Our culture has changed radically; people do not drink and drive anymore. In Occupational Health and Safety, it is no longer acceptable to injure workers. Accidents are not accidents. Every injury, every fatality, is preventable.

That is revolutionary thinking: in the past, lost-time injuries, fatalities even, were considered ‘the price of doing business.’ This is no longer the case: it’s considered outrageous, preventable, and organizations and supervisors are being held to account.

How is accountability for employee health and safety changing?

If you look at the legal framework, governments are tightening the requirements for people in direct responsibility roles. For example, the federal government passed Bill C-45, amendments to the Criminal Code. The first prosecution under that occurred earlier this year in Quebec, and it’s going to spread. Employers have to take preventative measures or they will be held accountable if a fatality or incident happens in the workplace.

In Ontario, the Ministry of Labour hired 200 new inspectors, who have been in the field since last year. The Ministry is targeting high-risk workplaces. The accident rates in the province right now are 1.8 per hundred workers. If a firm has an accident rate that is above that, they’re above the provincial average, and have to bring it down. There are certain sectors, such as mining, that are considerably lower than the provincial average. Underground mining is at .07 per hundred workers.

So what’s considered ‘normal’ has completely changed?

It’s revolutionary – and people don’t realize what’s happened, how much expectations have changed. In mining 30 years ago when I started at the Ministry of Labour, the accident rates were about 8.3 per hundred workers. And now they’re at .07 per hundred workers.

Mining got its act together. It put technology to work, has mandatory training for all – not only workers, but supervisors too. If mining could get it together, and created a safety culture that demands that kind of performance, it puts everyone else under the gun to improve.

HR and IR professionals need to search out best practices and make sure that they’re applied to their sector and their organizations.

What other health and safety trends do leaders need to know about?

There’s another huge revolution around the new Healthy Workplaces movement.

Healthy Workplaces has three aspects. The first is conventional Occupational Health and Safety, covered by the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Workers Safety Insurance Act.

Healthy Habits is aspect two. These things aren’t legislated but affect a workplace, and include smoking, obesity, fitness, drug use – that sort of thing. Partially they are a personal responsibility, but employers can encourage healthy behaviours to create a healthy workplace – one that will attract the best and brightest. It’s a retention issue as well, because in the current situation, people walk very quickly, they vote with their feet.

The third aspect is the safety culture. Some refer to it as the ‘psycho-social’ side of this. It’s about how you treat people who are not coping well, who are stressed. I heard a quote from a Minister of Labour some years ago that said 3,000 nurses are off on stress leave every day in Canada. Think of the waste in terms of productivity. Organizations have to create atmospheres and create expectations that people don’t work 24/7, burning themselves out, causing all sorts of unsustainable family-work issues.

We need to change workplace culture; we need to support people. Twenty-five percent of our workers have mental health issues. That’s diagnosed mental health issues. There are many others that are undiagnosed.

That’s an alarmingly high number.

Yes, and most employers don’t realize it, don’t accept it, and don’t do anything about it. If you don’t create a supportive environment, if you don’t accommodate people, you’ll lose productivity. You’ll lose some of the brightest and the best because they just won’t be able to cope – they’ll be off on long-term disability and be a drain. But if you do support them, if you do deal with reality and deal with the issue, they’ll be exceptional workers that just need some help once in a while.

So, the revolution is coming in terms of the legal side of things; and in terms of society – the cultural expectations. Young workers of today, for example, won’t put up with what used to be considered ‘normal’. They have better knowledge: it’s mandatory in Ontario to have Occupational Health and Safety in high schools. Expectations of the workplace have changed.

For HR and IR leaders, what challenges flow out of new laws and societal attitudes?

Healthy Workplaces and Occupational Health and Safety should be every HR/IR professional’s radar screen. The website of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (, for example, is one great resource. Another is sponsored by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board sponsored (

The big challenges are attraction and retention. If your accident rates are high, word gets out – in the United States they actually post this information on the web. If you’re not a good employer, if you don’t provide healthy workplace practices, you won’t attract and retain the brightest and the best. So it’s a competitive problem in the end.

The second thing is the business case. One injury costs on average $75,000. One injury! That includes compensation costs, retraining costs for people that take on the injured worker’s job – all of the various costs involved. That’s for injury and illness. But for lung cancer, it’s around $200,000.

You can’t sustain injuries and illnesses and stay in business. You have to manage them and create a preventative environment. And most provinces now have fines in the order of $500,000 for each charge against you, and a fatality might involve two or three charges.

Human resource professionals also need to recognize that if you don’t have a healthy workplace, you don’t have engaged employees. If you don’t have engaged employees, you don’t have quality services. If you don’t have quality services, you start losing customers. There are huge downsides to ignoring these new trends.

Healthy Workplaces involves cultural change in the workplace, which is never easy. What is the role of HR here?

HR is usually the conscience of a firm. The department can provide Operations people with the necessary tools to change culture. I think Operations has to internalize it – you can’t do that from the outside – but HR professionals can gather up information, package it, give it to the Operations people, make it real for their particular industry. This is important because a healthy workplace won’t look the same for different organizations.

HR can also help with policies related to accommodating people with disabilities; with mental health issues; with family issues; policies that recognize that we all have lives outside of the workplace. Those HR policies help create a healthy workplaces, and Occupational Health and Safety is part of that framework.

Society’s new expectation that no fatalities in the workplace are acceptable is going to mean there’ll be far more pressure on organizations – and their leaders – to support healthy and safe workplaces in the coming years.

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