In today’s globalized world, remote teams have become increasingly common, and with that comes the challenge of managing cross-cultural teams with members in different locations. Cross-cultural teams are made up of individuals from different cultural backgrounds, each with their own unique values, beliefs, and communication styles. Managing such teams can be challenging, but with the right approach, it can be done successfully.
Here are 20 tips for managing cross-cultural remote teams, gleaned from my experience doing this for the vast majority of my career:
- Understand and respect cultural differences. It’s important to recognize that people from different cultures may have different approaches to work, communication, and problem-solving. Take the time to learn about your team members’ cultural backgrounds. But remember, there is tremendous variation between individuals. Avoid stereotyping or boxing people into a limiting description of how their culture works. Seek to understand how cultural and individual differences might impact the way someone works and communicates. When I’m working with someone new, I like to ask them in what ways they exhibit traits that are typical in the culture they’re originally from, and in what ways they believe they are different. Most people are not a carbon copy of the description of what might be “typical” in their culture. This can really help you to understand them as individuals. For myself, I often share that while I’m American, my default communication style is far more direct than typical for my home culture, and is more typical in some parts of Northern and Eastern Europe. That said, I’m a pretty typical Midwesterner in that I smile at people and can’t resist waving goodbye, even on a weekly recurring Zoom call. 😉
- Establish clear communication channels. Communication is key when it comes to managing remote teams, and this is especially true when it comes to cross-cultural teams. Establish clear communication channels and make sure everyone on the team understands how to use them. That said, I also believe it’s important to offer people diverse options for how they use those channels. For example, if you use Slack, make it clear that people can communicate using not only text, but voice messages, files, videos, animated gifs, or whatever they like that is authentic for them.
- Foster a culture of inclusivity. Creating a culture of inclusivity is important for any team, but it’s especially important for cross-cultural teams. Encourage your team members to share their perspectives and ideas, and make sure everyone feels heard and valued. Be mindful of any unconscious biases you may have, and work to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves. Be sure to take cultural differences into account when communicating, such as using clear and concise language and avoiding idioms or slang that might not be understood by all team members.
- Set clear goals and expectations. Setting clear goals and expectations is important for any team, but it’s especially important for remote teams. Make sure everyone on the team understands their role and responsibilities, and set clear goals and deadlines for projects. Be mindful of any cultural differences that might impact the way people approach work, and be prepared to adjust your expectations accordingly. Some cultures prefer a more prescriptive management style, while some prefer more autonomy. Knowing your team members’ preferences can go a long way to ensure you adapt your management style as needed.
- Celebrate diversity. Celebrating diversity can be a great way to bring your team together and build a sense of community. Consider incorporating cultural celebrations and traditions into your team’s activities, such as sharing recipes or stories from different cultures. This can help your team members feel more connected and valued, and can create a more positive and inclusive work environment. One way my global team members have done this is to create a Slack channel where we shared, believe it or not, recipes and foods from our different countries. It’s a fun way to learn about different dishes and holiday traditions, religions, and so on, while making everyone aware that there is something unique and special about each of them.
- Be aware of time zones and work schedule preferences. When managing a remote team with members from different parts of the world, it’s important to be aware of time zone differences. Schedule meetings and deadlines that are convenient for everyone on the team, and be mindful of the fact that some team members may need to work outside of traditional business hours. But beyond that, make sure you ask individuals what their preferences are. Some are night owls, some are morning people, and some prefer a mix. When based on the East Coast of the US, I’ve worked a “split shift” at various points in my career, to ensure overlap with my teams both in Europe during my morning time and in Asia-Pacific during my evenings. While it might sound painful, it’s actually helpful for me sometimes, so I can get errands out of the way during the normal business day. Ask your team members what they prefer, and don’t assume!
- Use visual aids and share info in advance. Visual aids such as diagrams, charts, and videos can be useful for helping team members understand complex concepts, especially when working across language and cultural barriers. Use these aids when appropriate to ensure that everyone on the team is on the same page. Also, try to share them in advance of when you’re meeting. One cardinal rule I always try to follow with remote global teams, especially for those who will be participating in a second or third language, is to give them the slides and materials ahead of the session, so they can become familiar with the information in advance.
- Provide cultural training. Consider providing cultural training to your team members to help them better understand and appreciate different cultures. This can help to prevent misunderstandings and foster a more inclusive work environment. If you work for a US-based company, and are from the US yourself, it might seem overly obvious to train your team members in other countries on things like US work culture, for example. But remember, much of this information might be new to them! Make sure to log any questions about this topic that come up with each new hire, so you can weave them back into your onboarding materials.
- Encourage feedback. Encourage your team members to provide feedback on their experiences working in a cross-cultural remote team. Use this feedback to make adjustments and improvements to the way you manage the team. One thing I often do after team meetings is send out a quick poll, to ask people to weigh in with any suggestions for improvement. In some cultures, it’s not appropriate to speak up during meetings, while in others, it’s a basic expectation that if people have feedback, they’ll share it without being prompted. So, on cross-cultural teams, it’s best to give people multiple ways to share feedback about how your team is working.
- Be flexible. Be prepared to be flexible in your management approach. Cross-cultural remote teams may require different approaches to communication, problem-solving, and project management. Be open to new ideas and be willing to make adjustments as needed to ensure the success of your team. If someone gives you a suggestion that seems off the wall, give it some thought, and perhaps run the idea by someone else from the same culture to understand if it might be a culturally-driven suggestion, or an individual preference.
- Encourage open dialogue, but provide alternate methods to share feedback. Encourage team members to share their thoughts and ideas openly, especially when working across cultural boundaries. This can help prevent misunderstandings and promote a more collaborative and inclusive work environment. In many cultures, especially ones that have more formal and hierarchical work styles, open dialogue is frowned upon. So, if someone isn’t participating, try to find alternate ways for them to communicate.
- Use video and audio options for meetings. Video conferencing is a powerful tool for building rapport and facilitating effective communication in cross-cultural remote teams. Make sure everyone on the team has access to reliable video conferencing technology and encourage its use. Internet connections are not equally dependable in all parts of the world. Make sure you create a team culture in which folks know they are welcome to turn their camera off, or on, as they see fit, so they can participate the way that suits them and their environment best.
- Be mindful of people working in a second language. Language barriers can be a significant challenge in cross-cultural remote teams. The more you can avoid jargon and slang when speaking, or at least pause to define it for others, the better. One thing you can do is assign someone on the team to take notes of unfamiliar terms during meetings. If any come up, have that person send them to you and you can follow up later. Better yet, encourage people to type questions into the chat during a Zoom meeting, so you can clarify on the spot.
- Set team norms and routines, but evaluate them often. Establishing clear team norms can help ensure that everyone on the team understands how to communicate and collaborate effectively. Encourage team members to contribute to the development of these norms to ensure buy-in and commitment. Just make sure you’re not being inflexible. Chances are you’ll need to reevaluate your team’s operational cadence, as your team grows and evolves, and possibly, every time you add someone in a new time zone!
- Foster a sense of belonging. Foster a sense of belonging among team members by creating opportunities for social interaction and relationship-building. Encourage team members to share personal stories and experiences to help build rapport and trust. A couple of things I’ve done on my teams are an AMA (ask me anything) session during an all-hands meeting to enable us to get to know one person better. For those who don’t like to be on the spot, we’ve also done an About Me deck, in which folks contribute some slides, pictures, and info about them as individuals, so we can get to know everyone and learn more about them.
- Use humor appropriately. Humor can be a powerful tool for building relationships and reducing tension, but it can also be easily misunderstood across cultures. Use humor appropriately and be mindful of cultural differences in humor and sarcasm. While you have to be sensitive with humor, I find that the mix of cultures on a team actually can lead to some hilarious and fun moments. It’s amazing to me how much most of us like to make fun of our own cultures, for example. I certainly make fun of US culture plenty, since I’m a native. What I avoid is making jokes about other places, no matter how well I might think I know those cultures.
- Remember to give people time and space. The notions of time and space can vary from one culture to another. In American culture, people tend to jump in with questions, and might even interrupt someone giving a presentation. In many cultures, that’s seen as incredibly rude. As a result, some Americans are surprised when on a cross-cultural team, only the Americans seem “engaged.” Make sure to give people options to engage in different ways, including before and after a given meeting, to acknowledge differences across cultures.
- Recognize cultural biases. Recognize and address any cultural biases that may exist within the team or within your own management approach. This can help ensure that everyone on the team is treated fairly and equitably. Without even realizing it, we tend to broadcast our own culture onto others. We tend to not even be aware of cultural differences unless someone points them out. The more trust you can develop with individuals on your team, the more likely you’ll be to get valuable feedback on this topic when you make an inevitable mistake sometime on this front.
- Develop intercultural competence. Don’t learn everything the hard way. You’ll learn a ton “on the job” when you manage a remote cross-cultural team. But you can also develop your own intercultural competence by reading, attending workshops, and seeking out opportunities to learn about different cultures. This can help you better understand and manage cross-cultural remote teams.
- Be patient and persistent. Finally, be patient and persistent in your management approach. Cross-cultural remote teams can take longer to establish trust and rapport, but with persistence and patience, you can build a successful and productive team. It’s generally easier to build a high-functioning team if you do it little by little, so you can get to know the uniqueness of each person as the team grows over time. If you’re at a company that is on a hiring spree, consider hiring “batches” of new hires together, as this can really help ensure that people form relationships with each other as they join your team, together.
Challenges of Managing Cross-Cultural Remote Teams
Managing cross-cultural remote teams can be challenging, and managers can make mistakes along the way. Here are some common mistakes to watch out for when managing cross-cultural remote teams:
- Assuming a one-size-fits-all approach. Managers may assume that the same management approach that works in their home country will work in other countries. This is not always the case, as different cultures have different communication styles, work ethics, and expectations.
- Lack of cultural awareness. Managers may lack cultural awareness and fail to appreciate the importance of cultural differences. This can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication, and can damage relationships within the team.
- Ignoring time zone differences. Managers may schedule meetings or deadlines without considering the time zone differences of their team members. This can lead to team members feeling excluded or overburdened.
- Insufficient communication. Managers may not communicate clearly and frequently enough with their remote team members, leading to misunderstandings and missed deadlines.
- Poor technology infrastructure. Managers may not provide their team members with the necessary technology infrastructure and tools to effectively work remotely. This can lead to frustration and reduced productivity.
- Not recognizing and valuing diversity. Managers may fail to recognize and value the diversity of their team members, leading to a lack of inclusivity and a negative team culture.
- Lack of trust. Managers may not build trust with their team members, which can lead to a lack of engagement and commitment from team members.
- Failure to adapt. Managers may fail to adapt their management style to suit the needs of their remote team members, which can lead to a lack of engagement and reduced productivity.
- Micromanaging. Managers may micromanage their remote team members, which can lead to a lack of autonomy and a negative team culture.
- Not addressing conflicts. Managers may not address conflicts within the team in a timely and effective manner, leading to tension and reduced productivity.
Managing Remotely + Cross-Culturally Is Especially Hard for Less Experienced Managers
Think twice about having a brand new manager manage a remote, cross-cultural team! Managing cross-cultural remote teams can be a challenging task even for very experienced managers. For that reason, inexperienced managers may have a harder time managing these teams due to their lack of exposure to cultural diversity, limited management experience, and lack of communication skills.
Inexperienced managers may have limited exposure to cultural diversity. They may have grown up and worked in environments that are not as diverse, which can make it difficult for them to understand and appreciate the nuances of different cultures. Without this understanding, inexperienced managers may struggle to communicate effectively with team members from different cultures, leading to misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
Also, inexperienced managers may have limited management experience. They may not have had the opportunity to manage diverse teams or lead teams remotely. As a result, they may not be aware of the unique challenges that come with managing cross-cultural remote teams, such as time zone differences, cultural differences, and communication barriers.
Finally, inexperienced managers may lack the necessary communication skills to effectively manage cross-cultural remote teams. Effective communication is essential for building trust, establishing relationships, and resolving conflicts within the team. Without these skills, inexperienced managers may struggle to establish rapport with team members from different cultures, leading to a negative team culture and reduced productivity.
In summary, inexperienced managers may have a harder time managing cross-cultural remote teams due to their limited exposure to cultural diversity, lack of management experience, and insufficient communication skills. However, with the right training and support, inexperienced managers can develop the skills they need to effectively manage these teams and promote a positive team culture.
Resources You Can Use to Learn More about Cross-Cultural Remote Team Management
There are various resources, associations, books, articles, and training materials that managers can use to support them in managing cross-cultural remote teams. Here are some suggestions:
- The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business by Erin Meyer – This book provides a framework for understanding different cultural communication styles and how to adapt to them. One of my absolute favorites!
- Managing Virtual Teams: Getting The Most From Wikis, Blogs, And Other Collaborative Tools by Brenda Huettner – This book provides practical tips and advice for managing virtual teams, including cross-cultural teams. While this book is older, the advice is timeless.
- The Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) Research Project – This project is a collaborative effort among international researchers to study cross-cultural leadership behaviors and organizational practices, and offers many books and resources.
- Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research (SIETAR) – This global association provides resources, training, and networking opportunities for professionals involved in intercultural education, training, and research.
- Harvard Business Review – Harvard Business Review is a fantastic resource, with articles and case studies on cross-cultural management topics, including remote teams. (I’ve been writing for them for a very long time, so I’m a bit biased, but I read HBR articles almost daily, and always learn something from them.)
- International Journal of Intercultural Relations – This academic journal publishes research on cross-cultural communication and intercultural relations. I sometimes search for very specific topics here, and am often pleasantly surprised to find research on whatever I’m looking for.
- Cross-Cultural Management: Essential Concepts by David C. Thomas and Mark F. Peterson – This book provides an overview of cross-cultural management concepts and practical strategies for managing cross-cultural teams. What I like is that it doesn’t take a “recipe book” approach but uses perspectives from organizational psychology.
- Global Workforce Analytics – This organization provides research, data, and consulting services related to remote work and virtual teams. They have a library of 6,000 papers here, and I like that many of them are from different government bodies around the world.
- International Association of Facilitators (IAF) – This global association (based in Canada) provides resources, training, and networking opportunities for facilitators who work with diverse groups, including remote teams. Their trainings also cover cultural mediation.
- LinkedIn Learning – You can find quite a few courses on cross-cultural communication (like this one), remote team management, and other related topics available right on LinkedIn Learning.
Examples of Companies with Experience Managing Cross-Cultural Remote Teams
There are several companies that are known for doing a great job with cross-cultural remote team management. Here are a few examples:
- Automattic – Automattic is the company behind WordPress.com, which is used by millions of people around the world. Automattic is also known for having a fully distributed workforce, with employees working remotely from all over the world. They have a strong culture of transparency and communication, and they use tools like Slack, Zoom, and P2 (an internal communication platform) to stay connected.
- Buffer – Buffer is a social media management tool that has a remote team of over 80 employees located in more than 15 countries. They have a strong focus on transparency and communication, with regular team meetings and a commitment to documenting processes and decisions. They also prioritize creating a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- GitLab – GitLab is a web-based Git repository manager that has a fully remote team of more than 1,300 employees located in more than 65 countries. They have a culture of collaboration and inclusivity, with a focus on asynchronous communication and documentation. They also have a strong commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive workforce.
- InVision – InVision is a digital product design platform that has a remote team of over 1,100 employees located in more than 20 countries. They have a culture of trust and autonomy, with a focus on results rather than hours worked. They use a variety of tools to stay connected, including Slack, Zoom, and Donut (a tool for virtual coffee chats).
- Zapier – Zapier is a web automation platform that has a fully remote team of more than 300 employees located in more than 30 countries. They have a culture of transparency and communication, with regular all-hands meetings and a commitment to documenting everything. They also prioritize work-life balance and have a flexible approach to scheduling.
- Toptal – Toptal is a global network of freelance software developers, designers, and finance experts. They have a fully remote team of more than 1,000 employees located in more than 100 countries. They use a rigorous screening process to ensure that they hire only the best talent and have a strong focus on communication and collaboration.
- Trello – Trello (part of Atlassian) is a project management tool that has a remote team of more than 100 employees located in more than 20 countries. They have a culture of autonomy and trust, with a focus on results rather than hours worked. They also prioritize work-life balance and have a flexible approach to scheduling.
- Help Scout – Help Scout is a customer service software company that has a remote team of more than 140 employees located in more than 20 countries. They have a culture of transparency and communication, with regular team meetings and a commitment to documenting everything. They also prioritize creating a diverse and inclusive workforce.
- InnoGames – InnoGames is a German video game developer that has a remote team of more than 400 employees located in more than 30 countries. They have a culture of collaboration and inclusivity, with a focus on asynchronous communication and documentation. They also have a strong commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive workforce.
- Shopify – Shopify is an e-commerce platform that has a remote team of more than 6,000 employees located in more than 30 countries. They have a culture of transparency and communication, with regular town hall meetings and a commitment to documenting everything. They also prioritize creating a diverse and inclusive workforce and have a strong focus on employee development and growth.
These companies are just a small set of examples of organizations that have been successful in managing cross-cultural remote teams. Check them out to learn more about their own best practices in this area, because many of them write about these topics too. By prioritizing communication, transparency, and inclusivity, these companies have been able to create strong cultures and deliver high-quality work despite their distributed workforces.
In summary, managing cross-cultural remote teams can be challenging, but with the right approach, it can be done successfully. By taking the time to understand and respect cultural differences, establishing clear communication channels, fostering a culture of inclusivity, setting clear goals and expectations, and celebrating diversity, you can build a strong and effective cross-cultural remote team. Good luck, and have fun!