Modern technology—and a recent, widespread adoption of remote work—has made it easier than ever to build teams that span the entire globe. This provides an enormous advantage, as intercultural teams often equate to a more diverse group of employees who can better serve customers.
But intercultural teams spread around the world can come with some unique challenges as well. Cultural differences in values, beliefs, and behaviors may lead to misunderstandings. For instance, in some cultures it’s common to address your manager by her first name, but doing so would be a sign of disrespect in other cultures. While such oversights could be easily diffused during a face-to-face interaction through body language or clarification, the same can’t always be said for employees in different locations. Minimize these misunderstandings by proactively building strong intercultural teams.
It all begins with an inclusive company culture
Build a company culture that makes every employee feel welcome and valued, and acknowledges and celebrates their differences. Talk about the importance of inclusion and what it means at your company throughout employer branding materials, your recruitment process, and employee onboarding. Every employee should share this value and understand what it means.
An inclusive company culture should manifest in every area of your company. Offer inclusive benefits, from floating holidays and paid parental leave, to mental health care and fertility care. Encourage and sponsor employee resource groups to gather and provide recommendations back to the company. Create space for employees to talk about their cultures, bring in speakers to add to the conversation, and celebrate different cultural events. Offer cultural orientation sessions and cross-cultural sensitivity training. And implement a zero-tolerance policy for cultural insensitivity.
With the foundation of an inclusive company culture, employees can give each other the benefit of the doubt when discrepancies occur and have healthy dialogues to solve them.
The importance of effective communication cannot be overstated
When employees are spread out in offices around the globe, effective communication is essential to building a cohesive team. This holds particularly true when you can’t rely on expressions and mannerisms that exist in face-to-face communication. For instance, if you use slang in your everyday language, you may see when someone doesn’t understand by their facial expression. Without that cue, however, you may never know whether employees in other offices comprehend your message. It’s so important to be intentional about the language you use, the speed at which you speak, and the delivery of information. Video can be a great way to provide asynchronous communication to your global workforce, especially when followed up with written documentation and an open forum for discussion.
It’s also crucial to remember that communication should always be two-way—especially within intercultural teams. Encourage each employee to provide feedback, no matter how disruptive or seemingly insignificant, to company leaders, their managers, and colleagues. For instance, if you’re planning a company event during a major religious holiday, employees should feel welcome to chime in and suggest another date or a way to tie in some cultural aspects. Make sure each employee knows your People Ops team is always available to help resolve cultural conflicts whenever the employee doesn’t feel comfortable going directly to a company leader, manager, or colleague.
Finally, make sure your workforce has access to the tools it needs to communicate effectively. This may include project management solutions, an instant messaging tool, a video conferencing tool, a cloud storage solution, and people operations platform. Ensure your workforce understands when and how to use each tool. The right technology can help enable better communication across your team.
Help team members get to know each other outside of work
Informal interactions can help team members understand each other better and build stronger connections. When employees can focus on their similarities and learn more about their differences, they can collaborate better at work.
These interactions are best done in-person, though the current pandemic largely precludes that from happening. When you can, try to get your teams together at least once a year for a retreat. Consider changing up the locations so one geographic area isn’t seen as more important than others. You should also reserve a budget for smaller in-person meetings throughout the year so team members from different parts of the world can meet face-to-face and forge stronger connections. This can be particularly helpful as you kick off large projects, or after you’ve hired new team members.
Virtual connection can help people connect around their commonalities as well. Create some Slack channels around sports, children, or music, and use the Donut app to connect different team members at random to get to know one another better. Plan events to enhance the employee experience virtually, including game nights, a book club, or even a virtual “take your family to work” day. And encourage video communications wherever possible.
Final thoughts on building stronger intercultural teams
Bringing people together from different parts of the world can be a competitive advantage, but it does take some extra foresight to ensure intercultural alignment among team members. The most important thing is to ensure that all team members feel safe to be themselves and raise concerns or misunderstandings with others. From there, great communication and personal connection can help overcome geographical and cultural barriers and contribute to a stronger workforce.