By Elisabeth Goodman, 13th January 2020
Working in geographically dispersed teams is a challenge for line and project managers
The issue of how to best to manage geographically dispersed, remote or virtual teams was a hot topic at our recent Introduction to Management course.
It seems that all the challenges of how to properly support, involve and engage team members become even more acute if you are not able to see and work with people on a day-to-day basis.
A few years ago, I facilitated a seminar for the APM (Association for Project Management) on “Working in far flung teams” (You can read my write-up of it here: https://elisabethgoodman.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/working-in-far-flung-teams-notes-from-an-apm-east-of-england-apmeoe-event/).
I included an illustration inspired by the HBR article “10 Rules for managing global innovation” (October 2012) which I updated for our Introduction to Management course.
Global teams bring cultural challenges too
The Winter issue of Project (the APM’s journal) carries a very good article by Alexander Garrett on this same topic, entitled “Working beyond borders”. The article has some great tips on avoiding “cultural gaffes” and “unconscious expectations”.
As the author points out, behavioural norms can differ significantly from one country to another. They can affect expectations for how people participate in team meetings in such ways as:
- How much material should be prepared for review and reflection in advance vs. more open-ended approaches to discussion
- How much people put themselves forward and are comfortable about expressing their ideas and opinions vs. waiting to be asked or preferring to do so in private
- How comfortable people are about making decisions without consulting others outside the meeting
Global team meetings are generally conducted by phone or video conferences which bring added challenges, assuming the technology is working correctly, for:
- Ensuring that everyone is engaged
- Picking up cues for when people want to say something
- Interpreting tone and body language and any associated emotions
Additional tips to bear in mind
So the additional tips from this latest article include:
- Learn as much as you can about the cultural norms for the countries that your team members come from
- Take time to build an understanding of each team member on a one-to-one basis (they won’t necessarily conform to their country’s norms)
- Establish team working practices that will optimise the ability of each member of the team to fully participate outside and within team meetings, such as:
- Varying meeting times to fit in with different time zones
- Agreeing norms to ensure everyone can have their say during meetings
- Make these as explicit as necessary – either individually, or with the team as a whole.
- Find other ways to facilitate informal communication if face-to-face meetings are really not an option. The author suggests Google Hangouts or Slack and the use of emojis.
There’s a very apt closing comment to the Project article:
“Only when you understand your team members as individuals, create the structure to facilitate communication and decision-making, and build a genuine sense of team spirit will you be ready to surmount the challenges ahead.”
Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.) Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis. RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus.
Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals) and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.