How do we deal with company culture on our virtual teams? Understanding culture is about understanding each other’s behavior and why we do things. It’s also about learning each other’s preferences for working together. So regardless of the countries we’re from, defining culture on our team should be about defining what is normal behavior for our team.
How do we define normal behavior?
CREATE A TEAM AGREEMENT. This is a basic set of guidelines that will set the expectations we have when working together. We can make broad assumptions and stereotypes when we talk about other cultures. But in the end, every person is different. Creating a team agreement helps define what normal behavior for your team is.
How to learn about each other’s cultures
- ASK QUESTIONS! Don’t make assumptions and be curious. Easier said than done, of course.
- CREATE A PERSONAL MAP. This is a map of yourself that you hold up for other people to see so they can as questions about you, rather than you telling them. Doing it this way makes it an engaging, two-way conversation instead of just a presentation about you.
- CREATE A HOLIDAY CALENDAR TOGETHER. Holidays are all about culture and tradition. This not only lets you know when people are going to be taking time off, but it’s also a great way to learn more about each other’s culture.
- USE VISUALS. Sharing a picture (taken or drawn) together can be a very powerful way of communicating that transcends language.
- USE VIDEO. Turning our webcams on is especially useful when we’re speaking to people with different native languages. When we can see each other, we can read each other’s facial expressions and lips, which helps us to understand each other better.
- USE GREAT EQUIPMENT. We want to create the most high bandwidth situation that we can possibly can by having clear communication online. Anything that you can do to simulate being in the same room together will go a long way to create a bonding experience online regardless of country or language.
- ASK ICEBREAKER QUESTIONS. Short questions about favorite foods, drinks, and vacation spots helps you learn new things about your colleagues.
- Remember to slow down and ask about context.
- Remember your teammates are sitting as far from you as you are from them.
- Everyone has their own ‘user manual’, regardless of where they come from.
More cultural resources
- How to Work With Virtual Teams Across the World – by Lisette Sutherland on the Culture Matters podcast
- How to be agile on distributed teams – by Hugo Messer
Podcast production by Podcast Monster
Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Welcome to the Collaboration Superpowers podcast. My name is Lisette and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. Welcome to episode 88, everyone. Today I want to spend some time talking about how do we deal with culture on virtual teams. This is a question I get asked during every workshop and every presentation that I give, so it’s given me some time to really think about it. And I’ve gone through the interviews and pulled out some of my best tips. To me, understanding culture is about understanding each other’s behavior and why we do things. And it’s also about learning each other’s preferences for working together. So regardless of the countries that we’re coming from, defining culture on our team should be about defining what is normal behavior for our team. The first place that I would start is by creating a team agreement together. And we’ve talked about this on previous podcast. But a team agreement is essentially about just setting the expectations that we have when we’re going to be working together. So what kind of response times do we expect? Where are we going to store the files? Is there going to be a shared calendar? How are we going to communicate with each other? Will it be with instant messaging or email? What are the different ways that we’re going to share information? Having the basics set aside and outlined will really help your team go a long way. There will be enough miscommunications that getting the basics out of the way can save you a lot of headache. We spend a whole session in the Work Together Anywhere workshop talking about how to create a team agreement and how do we do that online. So I encourage you to visit the website to learn more about that. It’s collaborationsuperpowers.com/anywhere workshop. You can also download a meeting template that I created for lucid meetings. So just go to lucidmeetings.com and look for the team agreement template. The team agreement process is useful, but there are some other things to keep in mind as well. I interviewed Vanessa Shaw in episode 54. She’s an intercultural trainer. And she said, “Remember, slow down and enquire about context and ask yourselves what else do we not know.” Bart Van Loon runs an offshoring company where he connects companies in Europe with companies in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. I interview him in episode 28. His advice is remember, they are sitting as far from you as you are from them. And in episode 24, I interview [Ralph Von Rozmolen – 02:50], and he says every person has their own user manual. And I agree. Regardless of the countries that we come from and the backgrounds that we have, we each have our own user manual. And I’m remembering in my interview with Vanessa. She also said when you ask people how many of you identify with a stereotypical [inaudible – 03:14] your country. So for example, how many identify with being a stereotypical American or a stereotypical German. It’s very rare that people will raise their hand.
So when Ralph says every person has their own user manual, I think that’s very correct. We can make broad assumptions when we talk about other cultures. But in the end, every person is different, which is why creating a team agreement really does help define what is normal behavior for your team.
Okay, but I won’t go back to that. I want to move on with some great tips that I have for learning about each other and cultures. The first tip that I have is have everybody create a personal map, and this is the personal maps exercised by Jurgen Appelo. It’s a very basic exercise. You start with a piece of paper or you can do it online, however you want to do it. The person will write their name in the middle of the map, and then around it you write words like education, hobbies, families, friends, goals, anything you want. And you essentially mind-map yourself. The key with personal maps though is that you don’t give up and give a presentation about yourself. You hold up your personal map for the team to see and let the team ask questions. That makes it an engaging, two-way conversation instead of just a presentation about yourself. To learn more about personal maps, you can always just Google Jurgen Appelo personal maps. You’ll find it right away.
Another great exercise that I can recommend is creating a holiday calendar together. This not only lets you know when people are going to be taking time off, but it’s also a great way to learn more about each other’s culture because holidays are all about culture and tradition. So there’s a lot to be learned here.
Okay, a couple of other tips that I want to give, one tip is bring visuals in whenever possible. Sharing a picture together can be a very powerful way of communicating. That transcends language. And while we’re talking about visuals, I will highly recommend bringing in video whenever possible, especially when we’re speaking with different languages because when we can see each other, we can read each other’s lips better, which helps us to communicate. Sometimes if all we have is the auditory part of the sound, it’s more difficult to understand what’s going on. Also, using instant messaging during meeting so that people can ask questions or type links or other things. So having a back channel is very important with different cultures in different languages.
And the last thing that I’ll recommend is using great equipment. Communication is going to be hard enough. We want to create the most high bandwidth situation that we can possibly can by having clear communication online. So get a fast Internet connection whenever possible using noise-cancelling headsets, using great video-conferencing tools like Zoom. Anything that you can do to simulate being in the same room together will be useful. So minimize the background noise, all that kind of stuff. Really put a focus on that if you’re working with cross-cultural teams. Trust on remote teams is based on reliability, consistency, and responsiveness. So if we can build that into all of our actions, it will go a long way to create a bonding experience online regardless of country or language.
If you’ve got any great tips or stories to share, I would love to hear them. Please get in touch through collaborationsuperpowers.com. And if you want to learn how to create a team agreement and to build trust and culture on your team, then consider a Work Together Anywhere workshop available online, in person, or a hybrid version. You could do both, the best of both worlds. Stay tuned next week for a great interview with Fernando Garrido Vaz. He goes by Garrido and he is a freelance product manager with experience managing distributed teams, multiple nationalities, and different time zones. So we’ll stay in this culture thing for a while. He has some great tips for freelancers who are doing remote work, so I won’t give too much away now. Stay tuned next week. A huge thanks to Nick, the podcast monster for making this podcast awesome. You can hire him to make you a star at podcastmonster.com.
All right, everybody, until next week, let’s define what normal behavior means for our teams and be powerful.