Virtual Teams and Multiculturalism

Introduction

In this changing world, the traditional ways of doing things are being replaced with new and exciting ideas. The growth in the information technology has particularly changed many business practices.

Virtual workplaces are now possible and are increasingly becoming popular due to the preference by people to work at home and also the need for companies to outsource their work so as to minimize costs. However, managing virtual workplaces can prove to be hectic and several problems arise especially when one is dealing with a multicultural staff. As a Nike manager, I shall attempt to unlock the multicultural setup so as to achieve success in this virtual team project.

While most managers know the importance of the process of facilitation, Kimball (1997) states that very few have grappled with the realities of managing a team separated by time and distance. Nevertheless, through the available technology such as intranet, internet and groupware (referred to as distributed communication systems) innovative leaders will need to learn how to integrate their team building strategies into the virtual setting to achieve success.

Differences between virtual and collocated teams

Using Bruce Tuckman’s 1965 model of ‘Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing’ stages in team development, we can clearly ascertain the differences between these two teams (Chapman, n.d). At the forming stage where groups are being built and synchronized, there is often too much uncertainty over ‘who, what and why’ and the leader is usually called upon to exercise his authority.

In collocated teams, the process of settling down is likely to take longer since all teams must meet first, get to know each other, assess each other and finally begin debate on the issues. In virtual teams, once teams get to know each other, they immediately jump into debate and are less likely to last in the forming stage for long.

At the storming stage where team members attempt to assert themselves, collocated teams spend too much time on relationship issues and emotive issues such as occupying positions and contributing to debate. This is unlike virtual teams which settle immediately and more often than not, issues that are dealt with are substantive since members of virtual teams feel a need to be professional rather than personal. At the norming stage where the teams are largely settled and there is more consensus and social activity between members, collocated teams settle well since they will have effectively ironed out their issues at the storming stage.

However, the virtual team is more likely to dwell on this stage longer since people are yet to fully know each other and there is too much caution. In addition, the team is hindered by the overreliance on one leader.

Finally, the collocated teams are highly likely to reach the performing stage faster since they are more likely to become autonomous having gotten to know each other well and forming strong bonds which accrue from the ‘personal feel’ of face-to-face communication and physical presence. Virtual teams are less likely to reach the performing stage since the leader continues playing a pivotal role.

Challenges facing the multicultural virtual team

The problems that face cross-cultural virtual teams are related to the lack of face-to-face communication and the differences in culture. The main problems that these teams face include; communication delay where the mode of communication adapted requires feedback at a later time, fixing meetings is difficult due to different time zones and also cultural holidays, cross-cultural teams take too long before acquiring synergy mainly due to caution or sometimes cultural ‘clashes’, lack of efficient conflict resolution mechanisms, miscommunication, communication breakdown and finally, managerial problems.

How to resolve these problems

Since most of the problems are associated to culture and communication, addressing these two issues may resolve almost all problems (Buono, 2004). First, there must be mutual respect for people’s culture and there should be no attempt to force one’s culture on another person.

All members should avoid stereotyping and engaging in acts that amount to prejudice. When it comes to communication, members must first of all agree on one system of communication. There is no preferred mode since communication depends on many factors such as deadlines (would require more urgent communication methods e.g. videoconferencing or calling), time zones, members work schedule, holidays e.t.c.

When it comes to the communication itself, speakers should keep it simple, brief and concise. They should avoid colloquialisms, humor, metaphors, slang, acronyms and jargon. For writers, they should ensure that they are more descriptive, write in point/list form, consider the receiver’s understanding and alternate between formal and informal language. Generally, the team should attempt to socialize more e.g. through social networking sites, online games e.t.c (Grazier, 2004).

To promote development of a good team spirit. It should also be conscious of each other’s differences to avoid conflicts arising from misunderstanding or ignorance of cultural practices. Finally, the team leader should acquire the necessary skills to run a multicultural group such as tolerance, listening, understanding, empathy and persuasion. With the above in consideration, virtual teams are just as good as collocated ones if not better.

References

Buono, A. F. (2004). Leadership Challenges in Global Virtual Teams: Lessons from the Field. SAM Advanced Management Journal (69)4, pp. 4-11.

Chapman, A. (nd). Tuckman’s 1965 “Forming Storming Norming Performing” Team-Development Model. Retrieved on April 6, 2010, from: http://www.businessballs.com/tuckmanformingstormingnormingperforming.htm

Grazier, P. (2004). Team motivation. Retrieved on April 6, 2010, from: http://www.teambuildinginc.com/article_teammotivation.htm

Kimball, L. (1997). Managing Virtual Teams. Toronto: Federated Press