Myth and reality
“It’s the worst thing. Sometimes we have to connect at 11pm for a meeting that goes nowhere, it’s frustrating,” sighs a French engineer who works remotely with Japanese engineers. “On top of the language barrier, they don’t say anything, or not enough, it’s very difficult. But, on the other hand, we have the latest video conferencing technology.”
The emergence of NICT hasn’t solved humanity’s problems, and much less those of virtual multicultural teams. In a study of 1,372 managers of different nationalities conducted in 2017, 85% of managers had already worked in a virtual multicultural team and had experienced significant challenges, or even deadlock. 51% had experienced problems understanding the context of other cultures, 48% had problems resolving conflicts and 45% had difficulties creating trust within teams.
It helps to define some simple rules before holding virtual team meetings. If you are in charge of the meeting, start by assuming the role of organiser. This involves anticipating the human and technical uncertainties of remote collaboration, which goes beyond ensuring that all team members have the right technology or setting an email response time that takes into account different time zones. But, believe it or not, these pre-conditions are not always confirmed. Ensure that you specify “rules of conduct” that advocate direct communication so that participants can get to the point without being afraid to say what needs to be said. In some cultures, for example in China, Japan or Latin America, people generally communicate indirectly and implicitly. When communicating remotely, it is essential to make the team understand that they are working in an international environment and that the objectives can only be achieved by respecting these rules. Team members need to move outside their comfort zone. Ideally, set up an initial face-to-face meeting to jointly define the way the team will work and to enable participants to meet each other. Studies have shown that virtual teams that have met at least once are more effective.
Plan your meeting in three stages
Prepare the agenda as this will make it easier to determine the list of participants. Encourage participants to share information before the meeting by sending instructions for searching, sharing and reading information on a dedicated platform. A manager who receives instructions and information about the participants (job description, country of origin and goals to be achieved by the end of the meeting) before the meeting will be better prepared for the actual meeting.No-shows are a frequent problem for virtual meetings. Attendance and punctuality rules should be communicated to participants when they accept the invitation, as a “checkbox” option. Also remember to put in place a control system for reporting absences and delays to organisers.
As the manager organising the meeting, start be ensuring that everyone is present, before reminding attendees of the meeting’s objectives and rules of interaction (length of the meeting, speaking time, respecting each participant’s contribution). Appoint a colleague or ask for a volunteer to draw up the minutes of the meeting. Play the role of coordinator throughout the meeting and don’t hesitate to remind attendees of the rules if required. It is up to you to summarise each item discussed before moving on to the next item and to conclude by detailing the next steps. “I use active listening and make sure that each participant has been able to properly express him- or herself by rephrasing each contribution before I hand the floor to the next person. Each participant’s speaking time is respected” relates an English manager who works remotely with French and American colleagues. “It took a while to adapt because the French are accustomed to ‘cutting other people off’ and this cultural trait, which is already awkward in a face-to-face context, becomes unworkable in a remote meeting.”
Optimising a team meeting depends, to a large extent, on following-up after the fact. Ensure that the post-meeting discussion platform is customised in accordance with the objectives to be achieved. Feedback from participants on the meeting process and the objectives achieved is very important: was the meeting productive? You should also ensure that everyone is committed to the next stages of the project.
Although these operating rules might appear obvious, they are rarely put into practice. In many cases, they could help to avoid misunderstandings and failures caused by differences in communication style, time management or conflicts.