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Cultural Difference Across Virtual Teams

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Addressing cultural differences across virtual teams

As a result of growing global competition, today's businesses are no longer confined by geographic borders. Globalization drives many businesses into emerging markets and low wage countries to take advantage of their intellectual capital, and lower cost of operation. These changes have given rise to the "virtual team"; a cross-cultural group of co-workers that span international borders and typically communicate by means of technology rather than face-to-face meetings. A recent study by the Garner Group, states that by the year 2008, 41 million corporate employees will work in a virtual workplace at least one day per week [4]. Teams geographically separated not only must work in separate time zones, but also overcome cultural norms and differences, which have been described as one of the major issues of project management when dealing with virtual teams [1]. In this paper we will look at the challenges of the virtual team communication across different cultures. Initially we will explore the communication problems associated with time differences and language barriers often magnified by the lack of face-to-face experience and cultural differences. Then we will move further to investigate cultural value differences between virtual team members, different power relationships and hierarchical arrangements, diverse communication styles and how are these enhanced in the virtual environments.

"Culture is an all inclusive system of communication which incorporates the biological and technical behavior of human beings with their verbal and non-verbal systems of expressive behavior. Culture is the sum of a way of life, including such things as expected behavior, beliefs, values, language, and living practices shared by members of a society" [2]. Team members with cultural differences can have vastly different communication styles [3] as well as different ways to covey information. Often times these cultural differences, can lead to tension between virtual team members as well as a make communication difficult. Without the recognition of cultural differences, and the variation in communication styles, virtual teams often do not perform to their full potential. In order to make cross-cultural communication more effective, each side must educate themselves about their teams' culture, and learn to adapt accordingly. Since communication in cross-cultural virtual teams often involve communication via email and conference calls team members also need to change the way they communicate with one another.

Communication misunderstandings are the number one complaint amongst virtual team members [4]. The language barrier can play a significant role, especially in electronic communication. Misunderstood idioms and culture specific phrases might undermine good relationship or even break the team apart. Team members must be aware of these potentially problematic points and be very careful when communication across different cultures. A virtual workplace typically leaves a lasting trail in the form of emails and logs. Some of the comments normally lost and discounted during face-to-face communications might pose dangerous problems to the virtual team dynamics when overanalyzed. Another problem with electronic media is difficulty in expressing emotions. A dry email exchange might be greatly enhanced by a phone call or a conference call, to reiterate and articulate most important issues. Such follow up should greatly improve the understanding of the task that team is faced with.

Another issue working in a virtual team is the difference in time zones. A virtual team spread out globally across differing time zones makes group collaboration difficult at best. Technology allows team members to communicate via email, text message, and voice; however, a time that may be convenient for one group may not be ideal for another. This becomes more of an issue when working to resolve emergency issues that arise when working on large projects. One possible solution to the time zone availability problem, one that was recently adopted at my place of employment, is to have all groups within the virtual team decide on an when each group will be available in both 'normal' and emergency circumstances. If at all possible we will work to find at least an hour each day that all teams are available for video conference calls. Video conference calling allows members to communicate quickly about the issues at hand, ask questions, and see each other and in my opinion feel a little more involved in the team effort. If time zone differences do not permit virtual teams to collaborate by a video conference call, we work to find an hour of time where everyone can call a central conference calling service. This allows people to 'call-in' from home, after hours rather than having to stay at work to join in a video conference. In lieu of virtual face to face meetings, I believe that voice communication is often times more efficient and effective in articulating thoughts and ideas when dealing with virtual teams than emails or text messaging. Email is fast, convenient, and necessary, but often times is not as effective at delivering a concept or idea and can be burdensome at times when teams need to brainstorm to find a solution to a problem. These novel and convenient forms of communication might however create some other problems on the ground of cultural differences, especially in the early life of the virtual team. For example if the person on the call is at home or driving the attendees at the conference can hear his young children in the background or some car noise. In some cultures it might be a good personal break, an interruption that may bring team members closer together, to have some non-work related conversation that would benefit better relationship. In other cultures however, it might be considered annoying, unprofessional and eventually might lead to deterioration of the team cohesiveness and in turn to lower efficiency.

Corporations save money by globalizing projects into virtual teams across different labor pools. It is important for a portion of the savings to be reinvested into technology that allows these teams to communicate efficiently and effectively. Working in virtual teams poses many problems; some of which have difficult solutions. Lack of the technology needed to communicate effectively is a problem with an easy solution and should be addressed in the early stages of the formation of a virtual team. In addition, some of these savings must be spent on physically brining the teams, or key members together for face to face meetings. Compensating for the lack of human interaction within the team by bringing members together can foster a sense of belonging, trust, as well as help bridge some cultural differences.

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