woman at home working remotely on laptop
From varying time zones to differences in work culture formalities, there are several aspects business owners need to consider when employing virtual teams. — Getty Images/Geber86

During the pandemic, the shift to remote work opened the door for more businesses than ever to hire employees and contractors outside of their geographic region and culture. This has been a great opportunity to expand teams and introduce new perspectives, but communication across these diverse teams is not always smooth and seamless.

Cross-cultural communication has become a mandatory skill for many leaders in the age of virtual meetings, and it's important to consider how your workforce's various cultures may impact their communication style and interpretation of your communication with them.

The challenges of remote cross-cultural communication

According to Sanjyot P. Dunung, CEO and founder of global learning solutions provider Atma Global, there are a few common challenges many businesses face when communicating virtually across cultures:

Time zone differences and working hours

If your team is working within different time zones, you have to be aware of their working hours when setting meetings and anticipating responses. Let your employees know your expectations for their working hours and response time while being mindful of the time zone differences.

“As managers, because we’re always on, we assume our global teams are on,” Dunung told CO—. “If we send an email or Slack note off-hours, they may feel obliged to respond. Write it, prepare it — but put it in draft form or schedule it to send during working hours.”

[Read: 6 Tips to Improve Your Team’s Remote Communication]

Broadband connectivity issues

Not all of your team members are going to have equal and consistent access to high-speed internet connections, said Dunung. As a manager, do everything in your capacity to get them the tools they need for proper connection while being flexible when it comes to their own geographical and regional broadband limitations.

Differences in work culture formalities

As a whole, Americans tend to be more casual in their approach to workplace interactions, but U.S.-based companies can’t assume their global employees and customers will follow suit. Take the time to learn about the differences in workplace culture your employees may expect and ensure you’re meeting them where they are.

“People may expect a level of respect and are accustomed to niceties that are part of their work world,” Dunung said. “Understand that formalities such as using Mr. or Ms. are expected in some cultures unless you know each other.”

We’re starting to see the concept of a global mindset, and cross-cultural communication is a piece of that.

Sanjyot P. Dunung, founder and CEO, Atma Global

Verbal and nonverbal communication expectations

Verbal and nonverbal cues are often difficult to interpret through video conferencing. It can be even more challenging when working with employees who have different cultural expectations around body language.

Simple things like eye contact and hand gestures that may be considered natural and common in one country may be viewed as inappropriate or even offensive in other countries. Even the language used in business communications (e.g., not including a formal salutation in an email or providing blunt, direct feedback) may be construed as rude or unprofessional, so it’s important to be aware of these differences when communicating with your wider global team.

[Read: Practical Ways to Stay Connected to Coworkers While Working Remotely]

Tips for effectively communicating with virtual teams

Don't make every call a mandatory video call

Dunung advised employers not to make every call a video call for their remote teams. Allowing your employees to call in using their phone can minimize broadband lag and provide a much-needed break from being “on,” especially if they’re dialing in from a time zone where it’s much earlier or later than your own.

Set a clear agenda and ask for input prior to the meeting

As you plan virtual meetings with global employees, be mindful of how different cultures behave in group settings. Some cultural backgrounds don't feel comfortable speaking up in a large group and wait to be asked for their input, while others have no problem raising their hand and sharing their thoughts.

To accommodate for these differences, Dunung recommended having attendees submit their questions and comments beforehand, as well as rotating the meeting host so everyone can be heard.

“If you’re in a virtual meeting, remember that people from more direct, independent cultures such as the U.S., U.K. and Australia aren’t the only ones with an opinion — but they might voice it sooner than those from group-oriented cultures that are less vocal,” Dunung said.

[Read: 7 Ways to Improve Company Culture Remotely]

Integrate an understanding of culture into your everyday operations

Dunung advised every company to look at the way culture (and cultural differences) can impact their business operations.

“We’re starting to see the concept of a global mindset, and cross-cultural communication is a piece of that,” said Dunung. “Really integrate this understanding of the impact of culture on business practices and processes— not just making it arm's-length and transactional, but making it an integral part of how you interact with customers and employees.”

To that end, it’s wise to have an open conversation with all your employees about their work preferences and expectations. Learn what work environments they most thrive in, then develop a workflow that makes everyone feel comfortable and productive.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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