Cross Cultural Communication

Virtual Teams

Today’s organizations rely on virtual teams to deliver critical work product.  Technology makes it possible to share resources across multiple teams and for talented people to join teams regardless of geography.

Applying yesterday’s models of teamwork to this new, and complicated, environment often leads to frustration, disappointment, and reduced productivity.

Successful virtual teams have learned how to overcome the barriers of time, culture, and geography.  They know how to transform apparent virtual limitations into opportunities for enriched collaboration.

We believe that all virtual teams can learn how to collaborate successfully by developing skills, agreements, communication plans, and trust early in their development.  Likewise, we believe it’s never too late to learn how to work together successfully, even if the team has been operational for some time.

Utilizing our proprietary assessments, we have been helping virtual teams to pinpoint their strengths and challenges since 1998.  With this unique understanding, we tailor our proven methodology and training to meet each virtual team’s specific needs.

We are optimistic about the future of virtual teams and believe that, with the right training, people and technology will come together to achieve unimaginable things.

How much of your day is spent working virtually?

Your Global Team

Your globally distributed team is simultaneously exciting and challenging.  Obvious challenges include working across time zones and languages, but other, more subtle differences, have a tremendous impact.

Understanding the differing cultures of the members of your global team is vital to your success as a team.  Around the world, different cultures operate with different work ethics, practices, habits, and expectations.  The larger, and more globally-distributed your team is, the greater these distances are.

When you stop to learn and consider each culture’s driving impetus to success, you are better equipped to minimize the cultural differences.  For example, in countries like Korea and India, individual contributors will rarely, if ever, directly oppose the manager’s opinion. By taking this into consideration, honest feedback can be solicited peer to peer, instead of from top down.  Without taking this into consideration, and trying to impose your model of work on others, your team is likely to waste precious time and resources just figuring out how to work together.

This is just one small piece of the challenges of working internationally.

Over the years, our top consultants have shared (now) funny stories about the confusion and unintended consequences generated by the different cultural meanings of the word “yes”.

To the Western world, “yes”, means “I agree”, “I’ll do that”; but in other cultures, it means something quite different.  For example, in risk averse countries like India, “yes” generally indicates that the person will confer with the his or her supervisor and get back to you later.  In Japan, “yes” means “I heard you”; in countries like Venezuela where meetings are not for agreement, but to exchange ideas, a “yes” often means “someday”.

What are your global distance challenges?  have an interesting / illuminating story to share?

Never Ignore the Basics

Despite years of helping organizations bridge the gap between people, we recently hit our own great divide.

It began innocently enough — as all misadventures do — in a simple quest to establish a virtual collaborative workspace for our own group.

It has been our great fortune to be geographically near each other, so that face to face meetings were possible and frequent.

Business is good, the partners are busy, and the frequency of these meetings has declined, even though we have more and more projects underway that require a collaborative effort.  I’ve contemplated installing “find my iPhone” on their mobiles just to  keep track of which part of the world they are in on any given day (Shh!).

But that’s okay, because, after all, we are the experts on working virtually.

And we do work well together.  Our roles are mostly independent, we each do our own thing, and come together as needed to keep the whole business rolling.  This limited need from each other allows us each to move forward with our tasks regardless of where the other people are and what they are doing.

It was a shock to embark on the task of choosing a collaborative workspace only to realize how very different our expectations were.  I (so very wrongly) assumed that my priorities and tolerances were shared by all, and that assumption led us down the proverbial rabbit hole.

Taking a step back to view ourselves through our own Distance Lens, we identified several gaps to bridge — we span 3 generations, 3 distinct cultural backgrounds, both genders, and a startling variety of technological gadgets we prefer to use at any given moment, not to mention an array of learning styles and tolerances for adopting new technologies.

Now that we’ve had the conversation around each person’s expectations, we are in a position to be as successful in this adventure as we are in so many others.

I’ll keep you posted, and in the meantime — remember that, no matter how small the project, and even if you are your own customer, don’t forget the basics!

What’s your favorite virtual collaborative workspace?  Why?

Top Ten Tips for Telecommuters

Work from home?  Worried about the current backlash against telecommuters?  Here are top ten tips to help project your image as a trustworthy telecommuter.

1.  Always deliver as promised. Whatever work product you are expected to deliver — deliver it!  And if you can’t, communicate and renegotiate a new deadline as quickly as possible.  It will build your credibility and project you as dependable.

2.  Make promises you can keep. Even little ones. Especially little ones.  If you are asked if you can do something by Friday, and you know you’re swamped, speak up.  It increases confidence when you demonstrate a healthy respect for your workload.

3.  Communicate, communicate, communicate. Working from home provides great flexibility.  Keep consistent “work hours” and communicate this information to your team.  Let people know If you know about significant interruptions to this schedule.  If you are constantly unavailable, you will damage the trust your team has in you.

4.  Set Expectations. Take ownership of reaching out and establishing expectations around work product, tasks, meeting attendance, or other communications.  Having clear expectations, yours and others, lays the foundation for building trust and projecting your trustworthiness across your virtual workspace.

5.  Establish the HOW of communications. Establish a chat room and online newsgroups to encourage the free exchange of ideas and generate the “buzz” of those important informal conversations.  Discussing the how of communications divides the burden of inclusion, and ensures you and your colleagues benefit from each other’s input.

6.  Know yourself. How much people contact do you need?  Do you feel energized or drained at the end of a period of time in which you interact a lot with others?  If energized then, incorporate more “face time” into your work week to keep you connected and feeling like a part of the group.

7.  Know your team. How much your team needs to see your smiling face is important to your continued success as a virtual team member.  Discuss and establish which meetings require your presence.  “Out of sight, out of mind”, is not the place that you want to be.

8.  Know who your go-to people are. These are the people who either provide you with invaluable information or connect you to those that can.  They make it possible for you to continue to add value to the team, regardless of where you are connecting from.  Acknowledging and thanking them is a great way to keep them active and helping you.

9.  Follow up. After you’ve virtually delivered your work product, ensure that it was received.  Whatever your method of transmitting files, no system is perfect.  It doesn’t matter if you did the work if the people who needed it never got it.

10.  Communicate, communicate, communicate. This cannot be stressed enough.  You always want people to view you as an integral part of your team.  You do not want to be viewed as “that guy (male or female) who works from home”.

Projecting an image of credibility and productivity is critical to keeping your status as a virtual worker.  It is not enough to be credible and productive.  Your colleagues have to feel and believe that this is true of you.

Stay tuned for a deeper dive into each tip for successful telecommuting.

What’s your best virtual working tip?

What is your "Electronic Body Language" saying about You?

For years, office combat was waged in the open: man-to-man, woman-to-woman, woman-to-man. A boss’s crossed arms, raised hand, head nod, or arched back spoke to us in an unwritten language. Body mechanics that immediately relayed whether we were going to praised or buried.

But the rules of engagement are changing. More often, our main contact with peers and colleagues occurs through virtual communication channels — by email, telephone, chat, or text messages. The cause-and-effect of these changes has been a gradual realization among senior management that the footprints left behind in “electronic body language” are significantly deeper and more impressive than originally realized.

At its core, an office that relies on virtual communications poses an overall but false assumption — that we all share the same email standards of etiquette. But still waters run deep, and the currents that flow below today’s email-based communication have an undertow that can test important management assumptions and skills.

Routine “email body language” decisions we make every day — response time, length of e-mail, spelling and grammar, tone (whether perceived or intended), initial greeting, fonts, send time, participation on teleconference meetings — have significant (and often conflicting) effects in the office, especially on productivity.

Traditionally, work relationships developed in a meeting environment. Visual cues helped fill gaps between words and intended meaning. But in the virtual arena, communications often take on added importance, and subliminal messages and inferences about competence as well as clues about style preferences, gender, even nationality, convey differently from person to person. In they end, they often fall prey to significant cross-interpretation.

Understanding and appreciating the office’s attitudes around the use of technology is an important first step to deflect misunderstandings. For some managers, staff members who receive a significant number of emails or are frequently interrupted in meetings are unconsciously seen as important “go-to” colleagues.

In other situations, employees who are constantly available and quick to respond to emails are viewed as highly productive. In these office settings, high performance is inadvertently based on communication habits, not necessarily standard metrics. Yet few companies are explicitly aligning these habits with desired outcomes. A supervisor, for example, who asks to be “cc’d” on all emails potentially conveys conflicting messages to his staff relative to work flow and trust.

When used properly, electronic body language can motivate people to work effectively, instill creativity, and to inspire confidence. The key is adopting policies that are universally understood and which genuinely reflect the company culture. Often this means developing explicit rules of engagement for interactions and communications, understanding the unintended consequences of email or a meeting invite, and making sure that the right information gets to the right people at the right time.

By identifying what we find acceptable, rude, professional, and effective, good managers can improve team interaction and can manage the diverse standards applied inconsistently across individuals, functions, organizations, geographies, and cultures. Electronic body language will expose the unintended consequences of information overload and pose a visible and real deterrent to organizational fatigue.

Email Rules of the Road

Few people remember the workplace prior to email.  How, exactly, did we communicate with each other — does anyone remember?  And yet, even after all this time, new people coming into the workplace are left on their own to figure out the “rules of the road” with regard to company email.  It’s akin to handing someone a car without explaining how to drive.

Imagine, if you will, that your company provided each of its employees with a car, and expected those employees to do most, if not all of their communications using that car.  To keep all the cars in working order, the company had its own technology department.  They ensured that windows opened and closed properly, that the engine and steering column functioned, and that they were available to help out whenever cars crashed or stalled.

As a new hire, a technician gave you a car, noted the serial numbers, asked you to sign for it, and then showed you how to turn the car on. As the engine purred, you were told you that you were now ready to do your job. If you had questions, there was an owner’s manual in the glove box, or you could call the help desk.

So, off you go with excitement and enthusiasm for your new job. You hop in and start driving to visit the people you believe you need to get to know. You quickly realize that this driving isn’t like the driving you’ve done before with your friends.  Here, there are no lines on the road, no street signs, and no warning lights to indicate danger ahead.

After a few near misses and some minor fender benders, the reality dawns on you that many of your colleagues are working with different rules for driving, different assumptions of what is acceptable, and some clearly have a completely different map.

It is truly amazing that many companies, teams, and organizations still don’t have clear email guidelines.  And yet, everyone is expected to become productive and to figure out the company culture surrounding email — the often unspoken, undiscussed, ways of working and communicating within your unique organization.     Through establishing clear and concise expectations surrounding email usage, any… every… organization can reduce communication snafus and get people up and running and faster.

Book Your Email Vacation Now!

Email ‘vacations’ decrease stress, increase concentration

UCI findings could boost on-the-job productivity

— Irvine, Calif., May 03, 2012 —

Being cut off from work email significantly reduces stress and allows employees to focus far better, according to a new study by UC Irvine and U.S. Army researchers.

Heart rate monitors were attached to computer users in a suburban office setting, while software sensors detected how often they switched windows. People who read email changed screens twice as often and were in a steady “high alert” state, with more constant heart rates. Those removed from email for five days experienced more natural, variable heart rates.

“We found that when you remove email from workers’ lives, they multitask less and experience less stress,” said UCI informatics professor Gloria Mark. She co-authored the study, “A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons,” with UCI assistant project scientist Stephen Voida and Army senior research scientist Armand Cardello. The UCI team will present the work Monday, May 7, at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Computer-Human Interaction Conference in Austin, Texas.

The study was funded by the Army and the National Science Foundation. Participants were computer-dependent civilian employees at the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center outside Boston. Those with no email reported feeling better able to do their jobs and stay on task, with fewer stressful and time-wasting interruptions.  Measurements bore that out, Mark said. People with email switched windows an average of 37 times per hour. Those without changed screens half as often – about 18 times in an hour.

She said the findings could be useful for boosting productivity and suggested that controlling email login times, batching messages or other strategies might be helpful. “Email vacations on the job may be a good idea,” she noted. “We need to experiment with that.”

Mark said it was hard to recruit volunteers for the study, but “participants loved being without email, especially if their manager said it was OK. In general, they were much happier to interact in person.”

Getting up and walking to someone’s desk offered physical relief too, she said. Other research has shown that people with steady “high alert” heart rates have more cortisol, a hormone linked to stress. Stress on the job, in turn, has been linked to a variety of health problems.

Study subjects worked in a variety of positions and were evenly split between women and men. The only downside to the experience was that the individuals without email reported feeling somewhat isolated. But they were able to garner critical information from colleagues who did have email.

The Army is examining use of smartphones and such applications as email for soldiers on battlefields, said David Accetta, spokesman for the Natick facility’s research and development section. “This data may very well prove helpful,” he said.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is a top-ranked university dedicated to research, scholarship and community service. Led by Chancellor Michael Drake since 2005, UCI is among the most dynamic campuses in the University of California system, with nearly 28,000 undergraduate and graduate students, 1,100 faculty and 9,000 staff. Orange County’s second-largest employer, UCI contributes an annual economic impact of $4 billion. For more UCI news,

Email Overload

What’s going on here?

Our research, completed in 2010, revealed that the average person spends 30 minutes PER DAY deleting, or thinking about deleting, email!!

When did email become our work product and why do we have so much?!  It’s getting out of hand.

No one expects you to be a drone and tap away at your computer endlessly, tied to your machine for every minute of every day, but 3o minutes deleting email?  Over the course of a standard work-week, that’s 2 1/2 hours.  In a month, 10 hours; in a year 120 (15 eight-hour workdays).  That’s a lot of time you’ll never get back.  And that’s just you.  Multiply that over your project team, department, or company, and you just might feel a little ill.

Why?  Why do we get so much email that we don’t read?  I’m not talking about email lists that you sign up for giving you the latest sales from your favorite store.  Those aren’t counted in this research.  This research focused specifically on work-related email messages that were sent by real people to real people.

Does this mean that, even after all this time, many people still don’t understand how to use email effectively?  Yes, indeed it does.

What can you do?  They answers are not as simple as they appear on the surface (as is true for our most persistent problems).  For the sake of this article, we’re going to take a look at how a simple shift in your attitude toward email can help reduce the number of unwanted messages that you send and receive.

First, understand the purpose of the “TO” and “CC” fields. “TO” requires action.  “CC” requires none, it is a “for your information only” indicator.

Second, use “CC” sparingly.  Sending your manager or team leader multiple messages every week in which no action is required from them is just an annoying way to say, “look, Boss, I’m doing my job!”; “look at me!  look at me!”; “still here, working away!”  like some yappy little dog.  If you don’t feel trusted to get your work done, then that’s a different conversation you need to have face to face with your team lead.

Finally, resist the temptation to “CC” your team lead / manager whenever you feel a dispute is in the works and you want an “official” record of your position. This culture of “CYA” – “cover your … ahem, derriere” leads to unnecessary email messages and wasted time.  Take your dispute off-line and work it out in person.  It will be infintely better, trust me.

We get too much email.  We send too much email.  We delete too much email.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Start taking control through the judicious use of the “CC” field.

This article is the first in a series designed to help reduce your email overload.  Please share with us any comments / stories you have about your own email situation.

Review: The Power of Reputation

The Power of Reputation by Chris Komisarjevksy, Amazon, 224 pages, $16.50

Here is a book review by Brianna Snyder of Women@Work.

Reputation Matters

How to manage your most important brand – you!

By Brianna Snyder/Women@Work

We’ve all been in the business of reputation management since middle and high school. Back when we were concerned with popularity and how we were received at the dance, at gym, at the cafeteria, we were all — some more clumsily than others — learning how to navigate the choppy and awkward waters of social interaction and public persona. We know now how crucial those lessons were to how we became grownups.

What Chris Komisarjevsky explores in his book The Power of Reputation is the importance of reputation to your business and your career. Reputation, he says, is trickily personal andprofessional — “One thing is for sure: there really isn’t any distinction between our personal and our professional reputations,” he says — which brings the challenge of figuring out what’s sharable in the workplace and what’s best kept at home.

The key, says Komisarjevsky, is to be genuine. In other words, be your engaged, interested, competent and sincere self. The writer shares anecdotes throughout the book (both personal and from colleagues and friends) to reinforce the idea that a reputation is the soul of a career. The writer breaks down what a reputation is and means, how it’s built on caring and respect, values and good communication. He incorporates the still-new challenges of social media and managing your online reputation and emphasizes the need to be mindful of the consequences of Facebook and blogs. He calls this “the double-edged sword of the digital world” — you can use these digital places to enhance an already-good reputation or watch in disbelief as these same places dismantle it.

We all know what makes our mechanic the best mechanic, our dentist or lawyer the best dentists and lawyers — these are the people we trust not just to be honest with us (though that’s infinitely valuable) but to do a good job. We trust that they know how to do their work, that they’re well-practiced and careful, and that they care about their jobs and us, whether they’re mending a tooth or a flat tire. They value our time and they do their jobs well. That alone is enough of a foundation for a great reputation.

Notable Quote:

“We are in an era in which the demand for candor, understanding and clarity of purpose is greater than ever before. Transparency creates confidence and underscores authenticity.”

Instant Recall:

  • Research what you’re selling — whether it’s you or your product — “to the point at which you believe there is nothing better out there.”
  • Talk to people. Let them know you care about them and their needs. Listen to them.
  • Respect your clients and your colleagues. The more you give, the more you get.
  • Be personal and personable at work; share your interests, passions and ideas.

Read this book if…

You’re just starting a new job or business, or even if you’re beginning to think about who you are in your career, what your personal “brand” might be.

Making the Matrix Work for You!

People skills, huh?  Developing trust?  Sounds like another topic designed to waste your precious time instead of giving you something you can actually use.  I get it.  I really, really do.

But here’s the thing — when you have resources delegated to you without traditional authority over them, how are you supposed to ensure that they are doing their part?!

Do you rant and rave?  Cross your fingers and hope?  What?!

I can tell you that the people who find the matrix to be a comfortable and effective work environment are the people who have spent the time and effort to develop their people skills.  Specifically, the skills that will create trust between you and your team members, regardless of who is their direct supervisor.

The core of success within the matrix is in understanding that things only get done through networks and through patterns of relationships.  And relationships built on trust are the only relationships that work.  Ever.

That’s all well and good, and easy to understand, but how do you do it? How do you develop these skills, especially in the virtual world?

Over the years, Bridging Distance has been coaching, consulting and training people in matrix management.  We’ve helped companies and organizations — large and small — succeed within the matrix by placing the focus on the “softer” set of people skills.

Allow me to introduce Carlos.  Carlos was the lead on a food product team chartered to bring a food product in-line with upcoming government nutritional standards.  His team’s objective was to modify the existing product and get it to market ahead of regulations and competitors.

His timeframe was extremely short – 4 months – and the marketing department was depending on him to deliver so they could claim that they were the “first to get healthy” and demonstrate that the company cared more about the health of its customers than the competition.

The challenge:  nutrition experts in one city working with chefs in various cities to create one single recipe which would be used by the manufacturing facility in another part of the world.  Few of these people reported directly to Carlos.

The process:  Carlos, a corporate manager in the food industry, began his career as a trained chef and, over the years, he kept in touch with his former colleagues, asking opinions and sharing information.  Additionally, he reached out to understand the everyday ups and downs of people in the Nutrition, Procurement, and Regulatory spaces of his product.  Further, he took the time to learn about the culture of the manufacturing plant, as well as the culture of the country in which it was located.

The end of the story:  Success!  Carlos had the contacts, the credibility, and the relationships to draw upon for this tight time-frame.  He was able to tap into his network to inquire about critical information — things to consider and pitfalls to avoid.  His connections responded in droves, wanting to be a part of the success in his new endeavor.

Question:  How much time did establishing these relationships take?  Not that much — Carlos took a few minutes here and there to capitalize on opportunities and ask questions, learn more, and share information.

Through our workshops, training, and coaching services, we help people like Carlos implement a skill set that has proven time and time again to help individuals, teams, and corporations succeed in today’s virtual work environment.