Navigating the challenges of managing a cross-cultural remote team

by Carlo Borja
Cross cultural teams

In today’s globally connected economy very few businesses of a certain size restrict themselves to just a single country. In fact, even small ‘mom-and-pop’ businesses sell their products online all over the world.

Employers of all kinds are tapping into talent and expertise from all around the world, and not just those with subsidiaries in multiple countries. Almost all businesses, organizations, and even governments are under pressure to reduce costs and do more with less. Hiring offshore remote workers is a proven way to do this.

This means it’s increasingly common for teams to be composed of individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds who are working in different locations. This has become a crucial part of operating a profitable company. However, managing these multicultural teams comes with its own unique set of challenges and opportunities.

Challenges of managing a cross-cultural remote team

If your organization is operating cross-cultural teams from multiple locations, your biggest challenge is to get them to work together as a team. They should have shared goals, follow the same operational processes, maintain the same quality and compliance standards, and so on.

1. Building a structure

Which means that your first task, as a head office, is to create that structure, define those standard operating procedures, and instill the culture that you expect everyone to follow. But your contact center in India, for example, is not going to do everything in exactly the same way as your plant in Indiana, or your remote workers in the Philippines. Nor should you expect them to.

Considerations have to be made for different cultural customs, business practices, and laws in different countries and regions. What you will put in place is more of a super-structure that guides all your team members to the desired outcome while giving them leeway to get there in their own way.

2. Language barrier

One of the biggest challenges of managing a cross-cultural remote team is, of course, the language barrier. With team members hailing from different countries, language differences can potentially lead to miscommunication which can easily result in confusion, delays, or errors.

3. Time zones

Time zone differences present another challenge. Scheduling meetings or deadlines that suit everyone can be a complex task when your team is spread across the globe. This can impact collaboration, as team members may struggle to find overlapping working hours.

4. Cultural differences

It’s important that each member of a cross-cultural team has an appreciation of the different cultural values, norms, and expectations of their co-workers. These differences can lead to misunderstandings if not properly managed. Awareness of these differences will help all team members understand how work styles, communication methods, and team dynamics may vary from country to country.

At the same time, none of this should be so time-consuming as to get in the way of getting work done. That would be counter-productive and negate the benefits of hiring offshore or remote workers in the first place. Before we look at some of the solutions let’s remind ourselves of some of the benefits of employing cross-cultural remote teams.

The benefits of cross-cultural remote teams

While managing a multicultural remote team comes with challenges, it also offers incredible benefits. Think of it this way: when tackling problems, it is useful to attack them from several different viewpoints. That way, you have more chance of discovering the right solution or some innovative approach that might give you a jump on the competition.

1. Multiple perspectives

Diverse teams bring together a variety of perspectives which when melded together can increase creativity and lead to new innovations.

It can also be useful if your business is catering to a global market. Usually most global companies don’t sell exactly the same product in each market – they tailor it to local preferences. Think of how McDonalds’ menu is slightly different in each country.

Understanding how your product is perceived, who the competition is, and how you can best succeed in each local market is much easier to do if you have diverse teams who are representative of many of those markets.

2. Broaden your talent pool

If you only hire from your local market, you are limiting your pool of available talent to only those people who happen to live close to your office. Unless you are a huge brand and a global employer of choice, talented people are unlikely to move across the country or from abroad to come work for you. If instead you don’t insist that all your employees work from your office, and you build the ability to manage and integrate remote workers, you can fish in a talent pool that covers the whole world.

3. Cost benefits

Finally, organizations that employ remote and offshore workers are able to access many cost benefits. Depending on where your business is located, offshore workers are often much less expensive to hire. You can also save on real estate costs by hiring remote workers in your own country or offshore.

Managing a multicultural remote team can certainly be a challenge, but with the right strategies and an open mind it can bring huge benefits. The diversity of a multicultural team can be its greatest strength, bringing innovative ideas, rich insights, and a wider range of skills to the table.

The key is to foster an environment of respect, inclusivity, and open communication, so that you can truly harness the power of diversity to drive your team towards success. There are also some practical challenges to overcome to put the appropriate infrastructure in place, as we shall see.

Solutions for effective cross-cultural remote team management

While at first glance the challenges of managing cross-cultural remote teams might seem insurmountable, there are actually numerous strategies you can put in place to make it easily manageable. Here are the most important considerations.

1. Establishing a common language for communication

This point might seem too obvious to even mention, but it really is crucial. English is often used as the lingua franca in international business, of course, however it’s essential to ensure all team members are comfortable using whichever language you choose. If necessary, you should provide language support, which could include language tuition for your team members who don’t speak it natively. This goes beyond spoken communication in intra-team meetings. All documents should be written in your lingua franca including your standard operating procedures, your employee manuals, brand guidelines, and so on. It should even go as far as the file naming system you use for shared drives. None of this means you don’t have localized versions of important documents, however the original in your lingua franca should always be the master reference point.

2. Managing time zone differences effectively

When you’re trying to ensure that team members in different countries can work together effectively, time zones become a major difficulty to manage. If you think about it, having team members that come online at different this can be a point of strength, as your organization can keep working 24 hours a day – as long as they can effectively communicate and share work between one another, the work is always getting done and projects are always progressing.

To alleviate the problems, you need to think about where it is more advantageous for your remote workers to be based. For example, if you need them to work closely with onshore staff then it’s best to stick to nearby time zones. If you want 24-hour coverage, then hiring workers half a world away could be your best bet. Tools like online calendars and meeting schedulers that adjust for time zones are an absolute must. Additionally, maintaining some flexibility in work hours can allow for more overlap between team members.

3. Building cultural sensitivity in remote teams

For cross-cultural team members to work effectively together it’s important that they understand some of the nuances of their colleagues’ cultures. These can be small things, like how you present a business card in Japan, or how French workers have a maximum numbers of hours per week they can legally work – but they are important to know to prevent misunderstandings.  This can be achieved in several ways. Firstly, you should promote cultural sensitivity at all times across your business. It should be one of your cultural values, and you should demonstrate it by, for example, holding events that celebrate different cultures or allow team members to present their cultures.

You could also include cultural sensitivity training as part of your team members’ learning and development, where they learn about each other’s cultures and how to respect and appreciate differences. This fosters a culture of inclusivity and understanding, which can significantly enhance team collaboration. Where possible you should also encourage team members to visit one another’s locations. Nothing aids comprehension of cultural differences quite like the visceral experience of actually travelling and experiencing your colleague’s home culture first-hand.

4. The importance of regular communication

One of the major complaints we are hearing from leaders about remote working in general is that it hinders communication and collaboration between team members. This is certainly true if you don’t put in place ways to enable team members to share ideas and work both formally at regular touch meetings and informally throughout their working day. For example, tools like Slack are great for enabling the regular exchange of information and ideas and replicating that back-and-forth that you might get when everyone is in the same office space.

Regular updates, feedback sessions, and one-on-one discussions can help keep everyone on the same page, reducing the chance of misunderstandings or feelings of isolation. Face-to-face interaction is also important. While technology has made remote work possible, nothing can replace the value of face-to-face interaction. Regular team meetups, whether virtual or in-person, can help build stronger relationships and foster a sense of team unity. If possible, encourage team members to visit each other’s locations to better understand and appreciate their respective cultures.

Regular Communication

5. Visibility of work

When your workers can all see what everyone else is doing it helps keep everyone motivated to perform their best. When everyone is together in the same office, they can see one another’s screens and give updates on their tasks quite informally. Managers can also see that each person is working and know how long they spend on different tasks. It means that productivity can be managed quite easily.

In remote work settings with cross-cultural teams, management needs some way to replicate these capabilities. Time tracking software, like Time Doctor, can not only give information on attendance and the activities remote staff are working on, this can also be shared on dashboards so the whole team understands who is working on what. Everyone is motivated to give their best. The danger, however, is that some workers in some cultures might not take kindly to having tracking software installed on their PC monitor their work.

Time Doctor overcomes any issues by enabling each remote worker to control their own experience and to turn off tracking when they take a break or finish work. For example, workers can control whether or not Time Doctor takes screenshots, and if they choose to use this feature sensitive information is automatically blurred out. It’s important that whatever you choose to use for tracking is able to be configured to take into account the sensitivities of different cultures.

To unleash the potential of your cross-cultural remote teams, start your trial with Time Doctor today.

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