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  • Writer's pictureValentina Zanetti

Working With Dispersed and Diverse Teams

How to handle remote work and geographically dispersed teams, break down language barriers and make cultural diversity work for you!



Dispersed and diverse teams

Alongside your every-day challenges of growing and developing high-performing agile teams, in today's day and age, there is also the added challenge of making geographically dispersed team work together.


This comes with quite a bit of new challenges and navigating through uncharted waters. But it does bring with it some amazing benefits as well. For the enterprise and for the team members.


Today we take a look at some of the main challenges one might face when working with a geographically dispersed and diverse team.


Remote Teams


In today's post-COVID era, when remote work has been tried and proven to work, a lot of people simply refuse to go back to the office. In order to retain this talent, and tap into the work-from-home talent pool, as well as reduce operational costs, it's prudent to explore the downsides and upsides of remote teams.


Firstly, it's important to emphasize that remote work is an acquired skill. It requires training and developing organizational, team and individual skillsets to enable it, and it's not as simple as just working from home. There are also challenges that come along with it.


Some of the things that pose challenges in remote teams, and how to go about mitigating these risks:


🔶 𝗦𝗹𝗼𝘄𝗲𝗿 𝗯𝗼𝗻𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗴

Due to the inability to have face-to-face conversation, building trust takes more time and bonds are slower to develop. This, in turn, directly affects the team ability to collaborate, which is also slower to develop.


What you can do:

🔸 Create unofficial channels of communication where the teams can share fun things and explore common interests

🔸 Organize remote meetups, gaming groups or interest groups where people can share common interests

🔸 Take a bit more time out of your regular events just to simply chat

🔸 Organize face-to-face meetups as frequently as possible, aim for at least once every quarter


🔶 𝗜𝗻𝗱𝗶𝘃𝗶𝗱𝘂𝗮𝗹 𝗜𝘀𝗼𝗹𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻

When working exclusively remotely, your team members might self-isolate, which can be detrimental not only to the team, but to the individuals' mental health.


What you can do:

🔸 Take more time out of your schedule for one-on-ones and one-on-one coaching

🔸 Invite and encourage sharing difficulties with remote work among your team members

🔸 Provide resources and facilitate adopting new hobbies and learning new knowledge

🔸 Provide mental health resources and coaching on coping mechanisms to alleviate the impact of isolation


🔶 𝗨𝗻𝘀𝗽𝗼𝗸𝗲𝗻 𝗴𝗿𝗶𝗲𝘃𝗮𝗻𝗰𝗲𝘀

In a remote setting, random grievances are oftentimes left unsaid because people don't feel as much urgency to resolve them as they would in face-to-face interactions. So they're left to accumulate and fester.


What you can do:

🔸 Provide a safe environment and invite sharing grievances in a safe setting, either one-on-one or as a group

🔸 Educate your team on the potential consequences of unaddressed issues

🔸 Facilitate discovering underlying team issues with retrospective exercises

🔸 Make sure your team members know their grievances are being heard and addressed


And although working in remote teams has its challenges, let's not forget that it has many rewards, such as:

💠 Better work-life balance for team members

💠 Fosters autonomy, self-organization and self-management

💠 Brings the focus away from busy-ness to getting results

💠 Is less expensive for the enterprise

💠 Allows for a wider and better quality talent pool


As described, remote work - like anything else - has its upsides and downsides. It's up to the enterprise to decide whether the sacrifices are worth the gains for their particular enterprise, and whether the benefits are something that outweigh the risks for each particular enterprise.


Our advice: go for it!


Geographically and Culturally Dispersed and Diverse Teams


In addition to the complexities of working remotely, when you're working with culturally diverse teams from different countries, there are additional challenges on top of that.


Here are just some of them, and how to address them:


🔶 𝗗𝗶𝗳𝗳𝗲𝗿𝗲𝗻𝘁 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗺𝘂𝗻𝗶𝗰𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝘀𝘁𝘆𝗹𝗲𝘀

When working with culturally diverse teams, you'll notice there are distinct differences in communication styles based on cultural upbringing. Some cultures value diplomacy more, some directness, and the people will oftentimes use different language patterns.


How to handle this:

🔸 Instill a sense of psychological safety where it's OK to speak up

🔸 Coach your individual team members on how to adapt their communication styles

🔸 Identify language that is culturally offensive and make sure the team avoids using it

🔸 Accept that there will be frustration here, acknowledge it, and have patience with team members while they find their common ground


🔶 𝗗𝗶𝗳𝗳𝗲𝗿𝗲𝗻𝘁 𝘄𝗼𝗿𝗸 𝗲𝘁𝗵𝗶𝗰

Different cultures have a different work ethic. Some team members will take long lunches or afternoon siestas, some are accustomed to working constantly, and this might cause friction because of unequal effort.


How to handle this:

🔸 Make sure everyone has a common understanding of their obligations

🔸 Make sure your team is focused on meeting outcomes, rather than time spent working

🔸 Create and keep refining team working agreements

🔸 Provide one-on-one coaching for team members that are having difficulty adapting

🔸 Provide coaching for the whole team to better compromise and focus on taking advantage of their differences


🔶 𝗕𝗶𝗮𝘀, 𝗽𝗿𝗲𝗷𝘂𝗱𝗶𝗰𝗲 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝘀𝘁𝗲𝗿𝗲𝗼𝘁𝘆𝗽𝗲𝘀

Whenever there is a culturally diverse team, there will always be some type of bias or stereotype present at the beginning. Human minds tend to fill in the gaps in their own knowledge with preconceptions, and sometimes these preconceptions are negative.


How to address this:

🔸 𝗦𝗲𝘁 𝗮 𝘁𝗼𝗹𝗲𝗿𝗮𝗻𝗰𝗲 𝗶𝗺𝗽𝗲𝗿𝗮𝘁𝗶𝘃𝗲! There must be a zero tolerance policy for intolerance of any kind towards anyone based on any kind of differences

🔸 Always focus on the person rather than the culture

🔸 Coach the team to 𝗮𝗰𝗰𝗲𝗽𝘁 𝗲𝗮𝗰𝗵 𝗼𝘁𝗵𝗲𝗿'𝘀 𝗯𝗼𝘂𝗻𝗱𝗮𝗿𝗶𝗲𝘀. One team member's boundaries are the whole team's boundaries

🔸 Invite sharing about cultural differences and customs and use the diversity as a learning opportunity


When working with culturally diverse teams, there will always be a longer period of adjustment and some bias and resentment. It is the job of the team coach to teach the team how to rise above the differences and petty resentments for the team's benefit and for their own personal growth.


But diversity also brings different perspectives and new ways to look at this. Once the initial adjustment period it over and done with, diversity can bring so much benefit to an enterprise, its and its products.


Working in Different Time Zones


If you've worked with teams whose team members are working in different time zones, you're all to familiar with the challenges:

🔻 Scheduling team sessions is difficult

🔻 The flow of work is oftentimes disrupted and lagged

🔻 Lack of opportunity for team bonding


This is particularly troublesome for agile teams. Agile teams cannot reach their full potential working purely asynchronously. It inhibits creating a collaborative mindset and team commitments. But there are ways to go facilitate collaboration even in different time zones.


How?


These are some of the ways how we've tackled this issue:

🔸 Have everyone overlap for at least a 4 hours each day

🔸 Have at least two team members working in the same time zones

🔸 Have sessions for collaborative work scheduled during the overlaps

🔸 Demonstrate flexibility when scheduling longer collaborative sessions such as planning

🔸 Allow time blocks for pure team bonding, creative exercises and brainstorming


And to not forget, allowing team members to self organize their working times around the 4 hour overlap. This will let them organize their personal lives better, have more focus when working and be able to contribute more to the team and the work at hand.


Flexibility is key here!


Breaking Down Language Barriers


For anyone working in a multinational environment and having colleagues that speak various different languages, the risk of misunderstandings need not be especially mentioned.


Information gets lost in conversation in one language, mistranslations are frequent, as well as the resulting misunderstandings, the assumption of clarity and transparency is not questioned enough, and so on...


In these environments, it's important to keep your focus on:

🔺 Improving communication, with visual aids and clear workflows

🔺 Building better understanding and checking everyone's assumptions

🔺 Increasing transparency through any means necessary


Here's what's worked for us in such situations:

🔸 Decide on an official company language

🔸 Have all documentation in that language

🔸 Use #visualizations whenever possible

🔸 Provide language lessons for non-native speakers

🔸 Use the official language and official language only in all business communication


Also, did you know that only 7-10% of all communication is verbal? Using visual and audio aids in communication (such as music, flow-charts, diagrams, images), reading facial expressions and body language and communicating through gestures are all effective ways to improve understanding and increase transparency. There's more ways to communicate than via language alone, and it's valuable to tap into them.


And always focus on promoting understanding and transparency!


Conclusions on Dispersed and Diverse Teams


While there are challenges in navigating these brave new global waters and ways of working, it is our opinion that the risk is well worth the prize at the end of the road.


Adopting diversity and flexibility in your ways of working is never a bad idea, and it can always come in handy if the market changes abruptly again. Plus, it also might just be the new way of working altogether, so being able to accommodate remote work and cultural and geographic diversity can only yield benefits in the long run.


We would highly recommend adopting these skills and adding them to your toolbox, even if you don't think you'll need them. You never know, as we've all witnessed in the last few years.


For more tips on how to work with teams in difficult environments, feel free to reach out! And don't forget to subscribe to our weekly blog!


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