By Keith Warburton, founder of Global Business Culture, partner of ACCULTURA
Keith Warburton, CEO of Global Business Culture, is ACCULTURA’s partner in the UK. As an expert in cross-cultural awareness training for business, he has been running global virtual team training for over 15 years for major corporations worldwide. Given the fast rise in virtual team experience, he provided a few tips for organizations seeking training on managing global virtual teams. Keith graciously shared his wisdom with ACCULTURA’s readers.
Ensuring global virtual teams can work as effectively as co-located teams is one of the great business challenges of the 21st century. Virtual teams will become the norm and not the exception, and teams that straddle cultures, geographies, and languages will also become the norm rather than the exception.
Without fully functioning global virtual teams, productivity will drop, as will profits. Employees will become disengaged and leave the organization, which will be disastrous for companies as the war for talent intensifies.
My experience has helped multicultural, multi-country teams work together more effectively across the barriers of culture, geography, language, and technology. Many participants in my training programs have shared that most of the learning also applied to working with remote colleagues within their own country. I hope this article will add some structure to thoughts that people might already have about global virtual team training but find difficult to articulate. Here goes: 5 key elements in global virtual team training clients should focus on (not in any particular order of importance.)
Cultural fluency is essential.
There is no getting away from the fact that global virtual teams will include members from diverse cultural backgrounds. There will inevitably be cultural challenges that arise during team interactions. As this is an undeniable fact relating to multicultural virtual teams, any global virtual team training should contain a significant cultural awareness development element.
If your training program does not explore cultural nuances in some depth, culture becomes ‘the elephant in the room.’ Any viable training program on this topic should look at the cross-cultural impacts on such areas as:
- How meetings are run
- Decision-making processes
- The impact of hierarchical thinking
- Leadership expectations
- Differing communication styles
- Cultural bias in mentoring and review processes
A global virtual team training program without a significant cultural element is not fit for purpose because it misses one of the crucial challenges of successful cross-border working.
Ditch the Theory
Theories about remote working and research on this topic abound. I expect there will be even more as we move out of the current global pandemic. Although this work has merit, my experience is that employees in international organizations facing global virtual working challenges are much more interested in exploring the real day-to-day areas impacted by virtuality and looking at practical solutions to these challenges.
Businesspeople need concrete examples which relate directly to their own experiences and day-to-day activities. Therefore, a valuable global virtual training program should address those issues directly.
What are the challenges of working in a global virtual environment?
- Dependence on technology
- Lack of spontaneity
- The need to plan much more meticulously
- Difficulties in creating real, meaningful relationships
- Leading people with different expectations on what ‘good’ leadership is
- Trying to understand the cultural differences within the team
- Running virtual meetings
- Mentoring people at a distance
- Evaluating performance issues
- Effective cross-border communication using a common language
The list is long, but these challenges are rooted in day-to-day activities, and participants react positively when confronted with reality rather than theory. Course design needs to be anchored to these practicalities – ditch the theory and focus on real issues!
Trainer Experience Needed
If you are going to run training programs on such a business-critical issue, choosing the right trainer is key. What skills and experience do a good trainer for a global virtual team training program need? Experience has led me to realize that there are really 3 attributes:
- Global experience, including having lived and worked in other countries and with teams of various cultural backgrounds. The trainer needs to have a deep understanding of how global cultural differences can impact the dynamics of a global remote team.
- Hands-on experience managing people in remote teams. Managing people locally is difficult enough, but the additional complexities of culture, distance and language introduce even more challenges.
- Experience running a training course. Running an effective training program is an art so it is best to select a trainer with such experience.
Team Operating Agreements
A global virtual team training program’s objective should be to improve how effectively your global teams can interact to achieve their goals. Practice and research show that the most productive tool for achieving better cross-border team cohesion is developing and actively using team operating agreements (TOA).
TOAs should not be confused with project plans – they definitely are not a Gantt chart or a Pert chart. TOAs define how a cross-border team agrees to operate together and provides the structure and systems needed in an otherwise potentially chaotic situation.
TOAs should be specific to each team’s goals and make-up, but that does not mean that each TOA needs to be developed from scratch. Organizations can create templates that can be easily adapted to meet the exact needs of each team. Global virtual team training programs should be structured to develop a TOA as the endpoint of the program. This gives individual team members and the team as a collective a concrete conclusion and a road map of how to proceed after the training program has ended.
Deciding who should attend the training
One of the trickiest parts of running a successful series of global virtual team training programs for international clients has been for the client to select who should attend the training and how the training should be structured, whether face-to-face or virtual delivery. There are three ways to see this:
- Run programs for leaders of virtual teams which focus exclusively on the skills and knowledge needed to run global virtual teams
- Run programs for existing virtual teams which all current team members attend
- Run programs for anybody who works in a global virtual team environment from any team regardless of whether they are team leaders or team members
The least effective way to run these programs is to choose the last of these 3 options – but budget and logistics often dictate this option. The first 2 options yield better training results because they allow a more focused approach.
However, that does not mean that the 3rd option cannot work, but the program needs to be adapted to meet the participants’ requirements. When selecting a provider, make sure they address this issue and adapt program suggestions accordingly.
The topic of effective cross-border virtual team collaboration is complex and multi-faceted. This article cannot address all of the aspects to consider when setting up global virtual team training. But it hopefully serves as a starting point for companies looking to upskill staff in this area.
If you have any questions and would like to know more about global virtual team training programs or our partner’s organization, ACCULTURA can help!