Emily Marsh September 3 2019

How to keep your global workforce connected

Building a connected team isn't easy, especially when your team come from different cultural backgrounds and don't often get time together in-person. As a leader, here's how you can help your global workforce to feel connected.

What does it mean to be an effective leader today? Think about the process of globalisation we've been through. This shift has brought new challenges that weren't there before. And the challenges of leading a global team go beyond language barriers and different time zones. 

Your British employees become irritated when their French colleagues don’t start a meeting on time. While your Indian colleagues, who are even more relaxed with their timekeeping, complain the French are too rigid and strict with their timings. How do you keep everyone happy?

Your Japanese colleagues find giving feedback incredibly uncomfortable, but your German and Dutch colleagues get straight to the point. How do you navigate these differences?

Danish leaders are seen as “one of the guys” whereas in more hierarchical countries like Japan and Korea, the leader is expected to stand well above the crowd. How do you, as a leader, traverse these differing expectations?

How do you create a global company culture where everyone feels connected, supported, and functions as one cohesive team?

Build awareness of cultural differences

If you pull together any group of people you can’t necessarily expect them to gel and interact in the way you would like. When you imagine that group of people come from very different cultural backgrounds, the situation becomes exaggerated.

This is what led Erin Meyer to come up with The Culture Map, a tool for international managers to better understand and manage cultural differences.

Meyer’s eight-scale model represents how cultures can vary from one extreme to another. The eight scales are:

  • Communicating: low-context vs. high context
  • Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
  • Persuading: principles-first vs. applications-first
  • Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
  • Deciding: consensual vs. top-down
  • Trusting: task-based vs. relationship-based
  • Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoids confrontation
  • Scheduling: linear-time vs. flexible-time

The relative position of different cultures determines how people view each other. For example, on the Evaluating scale, the Japanese may find the British very direct, while the British may have the same opinion of the Russians or the Dutch. On the Deciding scale, cultures such as Sweden and the Netherlands may be more ‘consensual’, while Thailand, Russia and China are more synonymous with a ‘top-down’ structure.

While Meyer offers strategies for navigating these differences, the most basic solution is to simply be aware.

So make cultural awareness training available to your employees. Don’t leave them muddling through their relationships with co-workers from different cultures.

If you haven't seen it, you might find the video below interesting. Erin Meyer talks about The Culture Map and highlights some of the challenges she's found in working with people from different cultures.

Reduce ‘social distance’ with technology

Leadership and organisational behaviour expert Tsedal Neeley argues that “the difference between global teams that work and those that don’t lies in the level of social distance - the degree of emotional connection among team members.”

She explains that colleagues who are geographically separated experience high levels of social distance because they aren’t able to easily connect and form the bonds they would if they worked in the same physical space.

Luckily, we have a handy solution for this: technology.

Skype, Slack, Gotomeeting. These kinds of tools are fundamental for bridging the gap between colleagues in different corners of the globe. As a leader, you should be ensuring these systems are in place so that people can connect with each other without being face-to-face.

Or, take the lead from companies like Tata Consultancy Services, who created their own internal social network called Knome. The idea was for Knome to act as a “digital spine” to help foster a global company culture. The network supports colleagues to communicate and collaborate, thereby enabling them to build stronger working relationships.

Foster a culture where everyone feels valued - no matter where they are

One of the biggest leadership challenges is making sure everyone is on the same page and aligned to the goals and values of the business. This is a challenge for any leader, let alone one leading a global team.

It might be easy for the people you share an office with to absorb the business goals and your enthusiasm for the work the company does. But what about those sitting in a different country, or even continent, from you? How can you ensure they are on the same page and feel inspired to do the best job they can? How do you make sure the people who don’t see you face-to-face everyday feel as important and as valued as those who do? How do you ensure they don't harbour resentment for their 'closer' colleagues?

The answer is to do everything you can to enforce the message that you are one single team with a common purpose - regardless of where people are based. This relies on you being able to communicate the purpose and vision for the company in a way that makes people inspired and excited. Also key is showing people that you are available to everyone in your team - whether it's on the phone, via email or video call - and not just those you work in an office with.

Don't underestimate the importance of the occasional site visit either. If there's an opportunity for your team to get out and visit those they work closely with, it will only help to strengthen their relationship. Technology may be making it easier for global teams to work cohesively, but there's something about in-person contact that just can't be replicated in any other way.

Create a more connected team now

When people feel connected to their manager and their colleagues, they are more productive and more fulfilled at work. And this has a direct impact on the success of your organisation.

Building a connected team isn't easy, especially when your team come from different cultural backgrounds and don't often get time together in-person. That's why being aware of cultural differences, leveraging technology to bring people together, and training leaders in how to connect with a diverse team are so important.

What do you think? We'd love to hear what tips you have for making your global team feel connected.

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