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Monday, July 23, 2018

Cultural Awareness: The Key to Dispersed Team Success

By Laura Smith, Vice President of Global HR, Digital Intelligence Systems LLC

A top concern for companies who have extended employment opportunities to global candidates is ensuring that all employees have a basic understanding of some vital cultural differences.

So far, this four-part series on managing geographically dispersed teams has tackled communication guidelines to keep channels open around the globeand the importance of total team inclusion with tips to make it easier. These two important goals—communication and inclusion—are integral parts of successfully executing on the third topic: understanding, respecting, and acting upon the cultural differences that an organization’s dispersed team members represent.

To understand culture, it is important to know exactly what the term means. Culture is a system of values, positions, behaviors, and attitudes that are shared collectively across an organization. In many companies, culture is an unwritten and unspoken “feeling” that fuels how people view coming to work, getting involved in business events, and team interaction. It often does not reflect on a stated set of core company values which define how employees should interact with each other. Ultimately, a company’s culture plays a direct role in new hire recruiting, workplace happiness and productivity, loyalty, and retention.

It is vital that a company’s culture is defined based on company values and that the tone is set from the very top of the leadership team. When done effectively, the desired culture can then permeate the entire organization and positively impact innovation and profitability. Conversely, a culture that doesn’t support transparency, respect, and a fair amount of risk-taking will eventually affect all aspects of work life with an end result of high turnover.

Below are a few points on how to establish a positive, productive culture among team members across all global locations:

Identify Core Company Values

This is where it begins. When a company articulates core values and reinforces them in a variety of ways across all locations, employees are better able to sense a common culture reflecting those values. Leaders must understand what it means to demonstrate behavior consistent with those values. When all employees are held accountable to their company’s values, that’s when magic occurs in the retention, productivity, and profitability arenas.

Practice Empathy

Empathy is the most important skill of an effective leader and is a key factor in how each interaction among team members is shaped. Empathy is a needed skill for global leaders because it plays into helping everyone understand culturally diverse employees. However, a study released in Februarydetailed that only about 40 percent of leaders are “proficient and/or strong” in the area of empathy.

The appropriate use of empathy doesn’t happen overnight. It is molded to the culture of an organization by the pace at which teams need to produce results. When teams are dispersed and in-person communication is rare, empathy can display itself in the simplest of things: understanding the specific workplace needs of employees in another country; checking in with them regularly about their work/life balance; understanding varying country’s holiday calendars and finding a way to share and relate; and being sensitive to time zone differences. All of these help establish and nurture an empathetic environment that touches employees on a personal level and spawns conversations that demonstrate the importance of individual experiences.

Understand Differences in Hierarchy

In the United States and other western countries, it is a predetermined fact that people are generally seen as equals, resulting in a horizontal society. Everyone is in charge of their own career success and also how they are viewed by those in their communities. Many HR experts and executives have dissolved old fashioned management policies and have led the shift into more “agile” workplaces that include open-door methods, constant dialog, and spur-of-the-moment decisions.

But in many other countries, hierarchy is a comfortable and accepted concept to which many are accustomed. Known as a vertical society, decisions come from the top and are more structured than an impromptu meeting held in a hallway outside a manager’s office. Decisions are made in an official capacity and then rolled out to everyone else.  

In this area specifically, it is important for managers to understand how dispersed team members view authority and then cater their style to that view.

Allow Formalities to Set the Stage for Success

How do other cultures greet each other? Are there any western mannerisms that could be seen as offensive or disrespectful in other cultures? What regional differences are there in the concept of “professional dress”?

Business deals have fallen apart because leaders did not study and understand the formalities of a country in which they were doing business. And when it comes to team dynamics, it is always best to understand if any phrases or gestures within American slang are offensive or if there are other aspects of daily culture that could be seen as globally insensitive. 

Paying attention to cultural workplace formalities and how they differ from the accustomed to standard is key to global teams working together efficiently and to their fullest potential.

Foster Collaboration Across the Globe

Collaboration is assumed in a lot of the interactions undertaken by western teams. Innovation, likewise, flows freely, whether it is by the water cooler or sitting in a boardroom. But in other countries, hierarchical norms could make it difficult for a global team member to participate in such discussions. That is why it is important for a leader to understand the norms in another country and to draw out the ideas of dispersed employees in a thoughtful and respectful way. Understanding these potential issues can help managers work with these employees to help them feel comfortable in collaborating with others.

There are so many additional attributes that help foster a positive culture among globally dispersed teams. And, as with most successful global endeavors, communication is key. Those companies that invest time in understanding the importance of corporate culture and, by extension, a culture of inclusion will see these efforts pay off not only with worldwide employees, but also with the bottom line. 



Learn more about dispersed team management in the following upcoming blog post:
  • Topic 4: Structure.Showing consistency and structure by holding weekly meetings individual check-ins and conveying clear expectations and objectives 



Laura Smith is the vice president of global human resources for Digital Intelligence Systems, LLC—a global services and staffing firm based in McLean, Va., with more than 33 offices worldwide. Smith has more than 25 years of human resources experience and maintains the HR certifications SPHR and SHRM-SCP. She has also been named to Staffing Industry Analysts’ Global Power Women in StaffingList for the last two years.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Importance of Total Team Inclusion and Tips to Make it Easier

By Laura Smith, Vice President of Global HR, Digital Intelligence Systems, LLC

Creating a team environment in which everyone feels included and valued is a moment by moment task for today’s managers. And when team members who work from home or in globally dispersed offices are added into the mix, team inclusion can look quite different than it did even five years ago.

The previous post in this blog series,Dispersed Teams: Communication Guidelines to Keep Channels Open Around the Globe,” discussed ramping up a company-wide communication strategy to support on-site and off-site teams.

Once this strategy is established, managers can focus on building total team inclusion. If a manager is sensitive to the needs of each team member and pays special attention to employee dynamics and cohesiveness, success will follow. But a few things should be understood: inclusion begins locally, is customized nationally, and is adapted to meet the needs of those dispersed globally.

Here are a few strategies for managers to consider when figuring out how to make sure team members, no matter where they are located, feel valued, included, and poised for personal growth and team-wide success:

Create Networking Opportunities

Whenever possible, teams should be brought together so they can get to know each other on a personal level. Remote employees can sometimes feel like they are floating about in the corporate culture. Occasional all-hands events create vast opportunities to put a face to a name and to develop positive team dynamics. Where in-person gatherings are not possible, video conferencing tools can be utilized to great effect.

Networking opportunities also give managers the opportunity to observe the various communication styles of their employees and how they interact during group conversations.

Know the Audience

Seasoned managers understand the importance of discovering how to effectively communicate with each employee on the team. While this is more difficult if an employee is remote, there are non-visual cues that can give insight into successful communication, whether the employee is an introvert or an extrovert.

For instance, an introverted remote employee might not actively chime in during a video or conference call—but when spoken to one-on-one or consulted via email, freely contributes ideas and input. Extraverts tend to express themselves regardless of the communication medium and engagement isn’t as difficult. If an extraverted manager is working with an introvert, they should try to listen more and talk less.

While understanding a remote employee’s communication profile is time consuming, the benefits of creating cohesive team communication have a direct impact on morale, productivity, and overall success.

Understand Communication Nuances

Communication nuances displayed by remote employees are difficult to ascertain when they can’t be directly observed. Everyone’s demeanor, tone, and mannerisms play into how their communication is perceived, but these may be lost when employees are only heard and not seen.

To more accurately understand the nuances of dispersed team members, managers should set up individual calls with remote workers after team calls to get a read on their perception of the discussion. Drawing this information out of an off-site team member shows them that the manager values their opinions and improves engagement during full team video or conference meetings.

Promote Sensitivity to Cultural Communication Differences

It isn’t uncommon for team members in one country to throw around a well-known, culturally acceptable phrase and have its meaning entirely lost on members sitting across the globe. This can be awkward and can cause apprehension among those remote workers when it comes to participation.

Taking the time to understand some of the communication norms of employees based in another country, as well as being sensitive to time differences and holidays that differ from a U.S. schedule, shows sensitivity and a step towards making a globally-placed employee feel understood.

It is also helpful to conduct ongoing training to promote the understanding of diverse backgrounds and the acceptance of diverse thought.

Corporate culture will continue to further embrace the reality of globally dispersed, diverse teams, and managers who take the extra time to master inclusion will jump to the front of the line when it comes to career advancement. 



Learn more about dispersed team management in the following upcoming blog posts:
  • Topic 3: Culture. For teams dispersed globally, understanding cultural nuances, time differences, and holiday schedules is important.
  • Topic 4: Structure. Showing consistency and structure by holding weekly meetings, individual check-ins, and conveying clear expectations and objectives. 


Laura Smith is the vice president of global human resources for Digital Intelligence Systems, LLC—a global services and staffing firm based in McLean, Va., with more than 33 offices worldwide. Smith has more than 25 years of human resources experience and maintains the HR certifications SPHR and SHRM-SCP. She has also been named to Staffing Industry Analysts’ Global Power Women in StaffingList for the last two years.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Dispersed Teams: Communication Guidelines to Keep Channels Open Around the Globe

By Laura Smith, Vice President of Global HR, Digital Intelligence Systems, LLC

Today, technology enables team members to be placed anywhere in the world more easily than ever—meaning companies can secure top talent regardless of location.

In many ways, managing dispersed teams is the same as single-location management— performance is still evaluated, goals are still set, and work still gets done. The magic is in building a winning dynamic amongst the team, and that requires collaboration, cohesiveness, and trust. Effective communication lies at the center of it all.

There is no doubt that emulating water-cooler chats among dispersed coworkers is difficult, but strong communication is modeled from the top down. If executives choose to expand their talent searches to remote workers globally, serious consideration should be given to how the organization will communicate and train its leaders to maximize remote employee productivity. This is most successfully done by establishing clear communication guidelines for dispersed teams.

These guidelines should detail management tips to promote agile communication within dispersed teams and foster an environment of ongoing inclusion. While acknowledging that there may be stumbling blocks at the outset—and acknowledging that every cultural nuance will not immediately be recognized—the guidelines will serve as a starting point towards achieving fluid communication among geographically dispersed employees.

The creation of the dispersed teams communication guidelines should pull in stakeholders from multiple teams, including those locally based and key stakeholders from other areas.

Portions of these guidelines are unique to every company based on culture, industry, and other factors, but there are a few things that every effective plan should take into consideration:

Kick dispersed team management off right. 

Before chats and emails become the main mode of communication within a team, whenever possible, companies should encourage managers to bring dispersed teammates together in one centralized location upon a project kick off or when a new team member is brought on board.

These initial meetings allow teammates to put faces to names before they become screen names, email addresses, and cell phone numbers. The ability for these team members to engage in face-to-face conversation—even for a few days—aids ongoing communication long after the gathering. Team managers should be encouraged to schedule a few of these throughout the year, including out-of-the-office activities to further build comradery.

Define approved forms of communication. 

Each company has communication preferences—whether it’s a specific video conferencing program or a messaging tool. These should be clearly outlined in the communication guidelines, and conference rooms equipped with these capabilities should be listed. This encourages regular meetings and reduces the risk of skipping important interactions due to external barriers.

Set an established default time zone. 

While difficult for those who might be on the early (or late) end of an established time zone, it is important that a team set a default time zone for operations—especially when deadlines are looming. This doesn’t mean that every single person has to work the same hours within that time zone, but it does help to keep mandatory meetings and check-ins consistent.

Don’t rely on digital communication. 

We all fall into the trap of back and forth emails and chains that end up going on and on. The risk with this is that decisions aren’t clearly made or interim decisions get lost in a sea of “reply alls.” To avoid these issues, managers should set guidelines and provide some scenario examples for when team members should simply pick up the phone rather than go back and forth via email.

It is easy to overlook that digital communication platforms are often overused and don’t allow for team-building relationships. Digital communication affords the opportunity for quick, precise, and to-the-point communication—but it is often misinterpreted and doesn’t expand far beyond work communication. It can also discourage some from picking up the phone to clear up misunderstandings or to simply just hear a voice on the other end of the conversation.

Establish a quick view calendar. 

Depending on what countries are reflected on a project team, it is a good idea to have the standard holidays of all countries listed in the communication guidelines and available to team members. Many countries have holidays that are not on the U.S. calendar; so, it is good to be prepared and staffed accordingly.

Provide brief culture tips. 

There is absolutely no way to write out every single cultural nuance for team members based in other countries. But there are a few from each country that could be helpful. For instance, in China, gift giving is frowned upon in business settings. Or, when at dinner, guests should wait to be seated as there is a seating protocol based on hierarchy. The inclusion of a few commonly accepted tips on the dispersed teams communication guidelines can go a long way.

Appoint a team facilitator. 

It has been reported that nearly 55 percent of employees do not feel 100 percent confident participating fully in remote meetings—but appointing a team facilitator can help. The facilitator is involved in the team at every level, helps create meaningful discussions in meetings, and keeps conversations flowing during video and digital meetings.

The facilitator also makes sure that all team members are prepared by creating easily-understandable documentation before each meeting, providing a well-defined agenda, and answering any pre-meeting questions.

He or she also ensures all digital aids are online and ready for the meeting, and that all communication channels are operational. If a team is dispersed globally, the facilitator will also make sure there is a comfortable mode of translation should additional language assistance be needed.

These are just a few important suggestions to foster open communication among dispersed teams. What is important for managers to remember is that “out of sight, out of mind” has no place in dispersed team management. Instead, managers should work towards transparent, inclusive, and constant communication, because when it comes to dispersed teams, over-communication is rarely possible.


Learn more about dispersed team management in the following upcoming blog posts:
  • Topic 2: Inclusion. The importance of total team inclusion and tips to make it easier.
  • Topic 3: Culture. For teams dispersed globally, understanding cultural nuances, time differences & holiday schedules important.
  • Topic 4: Structure. Showing consistency and structure by holding weekly meetings, individual check-ins, and conveying clear expectations and objectives. 


Laura Smith is the vice president of global human resources for Digital Intelligence Systems, LLC—a global services and staffing firm based in McLean, Va., with more than 33 offices worldwide. Smith has more than 25 years of human resources experience and maintains the SPHR certification. She has also been named to Staffing Industry Analysts' Global Power Women in Staffing List for the last two years.