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.