Contact theory tells us that people from different groups build trust when they spend more time together. Unfortunately, working virtually makes it all too easy for us to avoid social contact with colleagues from other regions. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to facilitate cross-cultural teamworking:
Cultivate awareness. There are many reasons to increase your workforce’s cultural competence. Developing cultural competency not only involves uncovering bias, but also communication skills like active listening, open-mindedness, flexibility, curiosity, and empathy.
Create your own culture - virtually. What’s lost in translation in virtual interactions leaves a space for us to define our values, priorities and expectations as an organization. Define your company’s values, and structure virtual events in such a way that these are upheld.
In the face-to-face workplace, everyone gets more visibility with chats by the water cooler, office lunches and conversations happening out in the open. In a virtual environment, these accidental encounters are reduced, making it harder for remote workers to be seen by leadership and other teams. Most colleagues will hesitate to blow their own horn, but you can take the initiative for them. “Everyone, I just want to point out that Julia did an amazing job with that project!”
Have you ever noticed that on a Teams meeting with ten or more colleagues, it’s usually the same five people blowing up the chat? Cultural differences may mean that some colleagues are less likely to chat before a meeting, add to the discussion in the chatbox, or interject with a question during a discussion. This doesn’t mean they have nothing to contribute.
Ensure visibility for everyone by structuring the pre-meeting chat – for example, instead of a free-for-all, go around the virtual room and ask each person to share one thing they did over the weekend. Tools like Mentimeter.com can be great for getting larger numbers of participants to engage.
Kickstart the chat. Some colleagues might not be used to using virtual meeting features like the chat box, hand-raising, or emoticons. Start large meetings by asking everyone to type their favorite food into the chat-box, or express their mood with the emoticon function, or practice raising their hand. This will “break the ice” and make attendees more likely to contribute throughout the meeting.
Embrace the silence. When inviting questions, don’t be afraid to stretch the pause out a little bit longer. Some colleagues may need more time than others to formulate a question. This could be because they are working in a second language, or maybe they need more time to process what they’ve heard. Of course, they could also just be looking for the “unmute” button!
The business language will be a second language for many on virtual meetings. There will also be a variety of accents, which can sometimes make comprehension a challenge. How can we address these?
Use Global language. Even if the business language is English, an international meeting is probably not the best setting to quote Shakespeare. Similarly, if the business language is German, Goethe may not be the way to go. By keeping sentences short, using familiar words, and avoiding idioms, your message becomes accessible to more colleagues, and more inclusive.
Invest in scalable language solutions. There are many reasons why companies invest in language training, and in the post-pandemic world, language skills are more important than ever. For employees working in a second language, having access to language training support will have a direct impact on performance as well as confidence and wellbeing. For those working closely with them, learning another language increases cognitive ability, encourages cross-team communication, and gives an insight into the additional challenge their international colleagues are taking on.
As someone with a phonetically misleading name, this one hits home. Back in the days of face-to-face, you would usually hear someone’s name before seeing it spelled – meaning, the awkward moment came later, trying to spell their name correctly in the follow up email. On virtual calls, you usually see names written before you hear them. Don’t be shy about asking for clarification on how to pronounce someone’s name – your consideration will be appreciated!
Ironically, the pandemic has made the workplace more inclusive for certain groups. In 2017, before the pandemic, Andrea Loubier argued in an editorial for Forbes that in the tech industry, remote working was helping women narrow the gender gap. In one study cited by Loubier, 76% of women surveyed said that if companies want to retain long term staff, the option of working from home is a requirement. Thanks to the pandemic, a dream has come true for many women and other office workers who may have been denied permission to work from home before 2020. Now that restrictions in some countries have lifted, this progress is under threat. There are advantages to being in the office which remote workers miss out on. For example, an office-based graduate who continually bumps into a manager at the coffee machine is more likely to come to mind for a promotion than an equally competent remote worker who remains just a name in the manager’s inbox.
As offices reopen, some remote workers may feel under pressure to return to the office because those who do are more likely to be noticed by upper management and leadership. How can we achieve an inclusive workplace for both face-to-face and remote workers? Here are some ideas:
Spotlight remote workers. We need to find virtual ways to get in front of leadership, too. Why not get leadership involved in monthly professional development workshops? These could be:
- Professional development talks. These would be led by colleagues with specific expertise and attended by leaders who could also give their perspective, opening a group discussion.
- Soft skills development programs delivered by an expert facilitator to small groups, including colleagues from across the business, from graduate level to leadership. This gives colleagues and management/ leadership the chance to interact with each other in a safe environment, while also upskilling.
- Prep the office for online. Do face-to-face workers have all they need to participate in online meetings? Is it quiet enough? Is the background suitable? Consider virtual working when setting up and decorating the workspace.
- Avoid hybrid meetings. In a meeting room with four colleagues attending in person and one dialing in remotely, the colleague dialing in almost always struggles to hear, be heard, see and be seen. If one or more member of your team is remote, you can level the playing field by having everyone dial in virtually from their own desk.
If your team has just returned to the office after a year of working from home, there may be some culture shock. Stripped of the option of switching off our camera, we have no choice to communicate for every moment of a meeting, just by our posture, facial expression, active listening responses. Some of us will struggle to make a meaningful contribution without access to gifs!
Thea Jaffe joined the Learnlight client management team in January 2019, where she loves working closely with clients on language and soft skills solutions, in addition to writing on various topics. A native New Yorker now based in London, she is passionate about learning, cultural awareness and building inclusive organisations.
Learn more by visiting learnlight.com