Insights on Cross Cultural Virtual Work Teams

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I recently came back from a cross cultural experience called the Winter School hosted by the University of Valencia, Spain. As part of the intensive learning program, I had to virtually work, for a period of 3 months, together with four other students on a variety of projects.  My team was formed of a (1) Spanish student who studied abroad in Greece, (2) an Albanian student studying in Italy, (3) a Serbian student studying in Portugal, (4) a Mexican student studying in Spain, and (4) myself a Lebanese student studying in the States.  Talk about a multicultural team!

Now that this experience is over, I can reflect back on the effectiveness of the team as well as the advantages and disadvantages of such a composition of individuals. First and foremost, I believe that we did accomplish a lot during out virtual collaboration both in terms of the projects we were assigned and in terms of building a cohesive and friendly environment for all of us.

As you can expect, most of our communication was done through email. However, we did meet every week for 1-2 hours on Skype to update each other on the progress of the projects as well as to tackle different phases in the project. I have to admit that we really “hit it off” during our first Skype meeting. Even as the time progressed, we joked a lot during our meetings and were able to see eye to eye for the most part of our work. Nothing is perfect, however. The difference in time zones, personal schedules, personalities and work styles, led to some disagreements and long discussion meetings (our personal record was 4hrs on Skype on a Sunday!).

From left to right, Elizabeth (Mexico), Rana (Lebanon), Miquel (Spain), Anjeza (Albania), and Snezana (Serbia)

So what’s my take-home from this experience? Although I know through research that virtual teams suffer from lack of trust between members which obviously affects the team’s performance and interaction, I don’t believe that my team suffered from this during this phase. I guess we were able to effectively build a relational approach during the first couple of meetings; we would always update each other on what’s going on in our life, share some frustrations, and celebrate successes.

 

Thinking back, I realize that one major reason for why this happened was a match in cultural background. Although we represented 5 different cultures, we all came in with the assumption that building ties and commonalities were important for the dynamic of our team. In fact, looking back at the composition of the team, we could pass for a homogenous team in the sense that we all came from cultures (Latin and Mediterranean) which were to some extent really similar. Thus, I see this as a clear advantage of the team in general as well as compared to other teams in the Winter School. The other teams included a broader variety of nationalities and cultural backgrounds which clashed more with one another.

 

What came as an advantage did have some drawbacks, however. Because of the high focus on relational interactions rather than being task focused most of the time, the team had to rush through completing some tasks as deadlines approached. To be honest, having lived in the USA for the past 3 years and being highly conscientious, I found myself being the one monitoring our conversation and, at some point, applying the more “American” style of work by getting everybody back on track and on task. Although welcomed and supported by the rest of the team, my approach was sometimes faced with some opposition reflected in social loafing.

 

Nevertheless, if given the opportunity, I would go through this experience again but this time with a wealth of information and expectations of how things will and should work.  What are some of the lessons I’ve learned?

1-     Teams are teams whether they are virtual, cross cultural, face-to-face, or homogenous. Make sure you start off by having all team members be clear about their expectations about the team, the project, and their own performance.

2-     Take some time to really know who you are working with. Although, some cultures prefer to get down to business directly, others like Latin and Mediterranean cultures prefer to build relationships through which work will get done effectively.

3-     Be aware of yourself, your culture, and your assumptions; they play a big role in defining who you are and how you behave around others. Remember that you bring these into the dynamic of the group as well and they affect others.

4-     Make sure you keep things into perspective. You can get pretty heated up about small things when the larger picture is important- for example, misunderstandings due to language can be remedied by having others provide examples of what they are talking about.

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