By Maya Hu-Chan
With more and more companies working seamlessly across cultures and time zones I am often asked by clients what the secret is to building an effective virtual team.
The answer is simple: fresh bagels.
OK, it’s really building trust, but we’ll get to the bagels in a minute.
The challenge of course is that it is much tougher to build trust when your team is split across time zones and continents than it is when you’re able to have a friendly chat across the water cooler every day.
So perhaps a second step needs to be added to help trust develop: getting together.
I appreciate that there may be logistical and financial challenges for some organisations in getting together, but it is almost certainly a cost less painful than the missing financial targets due to a poorly functioning global team.
Here’s a perfect example. A client of mine, a team leader in a global IT company, asked me to help improve the performance of his project team. He told me: “My team members are all respected experts in their fields and perform to an outstanding level individually; but I don’t understand why they miss their targets as a team by some 75%?”
My client was British and based in Singapore; his team members were based in China, South Korea, South Africa, Japan and Holland. We talked about team-building and he added: “But that’s a lot of culture and time zones to navigate just to build a team!”
We went back to basics. I interviewed every member of his team. It quickly became apparent that they didn’t trust each other and, as a result, were holding back from sharing information and collaborating with each other.
What I found was that, right from the beginning, a few cultural miscues and misunderstandings had spiralled out of control and resulted in a very fractured and dysfunctional team.
At the first few team conference calls, the Dutch and South African members had led most of the discussions. Hearing no questions or objections from the rest of the group, it was assumed that everyone was in agreement with their proposed plan.
As time w