How Do Successful Culturally Diverse Virtual Teams Operate?

Topic(s): diversity, virtual teams
Publication: Small Group Research, 2016
Article: Framing the Effects of Multinational Cultural Diversity on Virtual Team Processes
Authors: S.J. Han, M. Beyerlein
Reviewed by: Beth Melillo

Successful virtual teams may already be difficult to achieve, but factors such as distance and cultural diversity can heighten challenges. Researchers (Han & Beyerlein, 2016) conducted a systematic literature review about multinational virtual teams (MNVTs) in order to understand and clarify the effects of cultural diversity on team processes and performance, and to propose a framework for navigating these environments.

RESEARCH CRITERIA

Virtual teams primarily use information technology (audio, video, or text) to communicate. Research about these teams began in 1998 and has since burgeoned as the prevalence of virtual teams increases. The researchers estimate that 60% of professional adults work in virtual teams.

Many teams that collaborate remotely are also culturally diverse, however far less research has focused on the impact this has on performance. Out of 268 articles, the authors focus on 60 empirical study articles published between 1998-2014 that explicitly examine cultural diversity factors in MNVTs that can be applied in a human resource setting. The researchers found that there are eight factors group leaders and participants should pay attention to in order to achieve a high level of team functioning.

FINDINGS AND FRAMEWORK

For MNVTs to be successful, they must attend both to task processes, which the researchers defined as “mechanisms for achieving goals,” as well as socioemotional processes, which they described as “how relationships are formed” and maintained.  Task processes include: communicating, coordinating, establishing expectations, and knowledge sharing. Socioemotional processes include: overcoming biases, building relationships, developing trust, and intercultural learning.

Ignoring either set of these processes can lead to work fraught with frustration, and they found that both sets of processes are affected by cultural diversity. In the proposed framework, the researchers pair together a task process with a corresponding socioemotional process for a total of four pairs. In the framework, as one pair is addressed, teams may then turn their focus to another pair. The researchers discuss tactics for handling the challenges associated with each pair.

USING THE FRAMEWORK FOR EFFECTIVE VIRTUAL TEAMS

While these task processes and socioemotional processes are linked together and build on one another, they are also circular. This means that at any point in the virtual team lifecycle, team members may have to re-address the challenges or a pair of processes.  The framework is not meant to be strictly linear. Factors such as changes in membership, successes and failures, and outside influences can set teams back or move them forward toward success.

Overcoming Biases and Task-Related Communicating. The researchers find that these two processes are foundational for effective MNVTs. Group members must overcome biases regarding cultural stereotypes in order to avoid creating a divide in the group. Providing time to share social information, which can set the stage for personal friendship, may help. At the early stage of team work, or in any transition, task related communication should be frequent and teams should be aware of the possibility for misinterpretation from lack of nuance or face-to-face communication.

Building Relationships and Coordinating. Coordinating across time zones and around cultural holidays can be particularly frustrating for those in MNVTs. The research review suggests added time should be spent on team building activities to help members understand these differences.

Developing Trust and Establishing Expectations. Developing trust within an MNVT setting is most likely to happen when responses to communication are timely and appropriate. This trust has been found to both develop more swiftly and be broken more readily as teams must suspend initial hesitation to focus on meeting deadlines.

Intercultural Learning and Knowledge Sharing. Most MNVT participants want their team members to understand their culture. Furthermore, the longer team members work together, the more members desire that others are aware of their culture. Knowledge sharing within the team must be curated to include forms of communication that are understandable and accessible to all. Obscure cultural references within communication that may alienate some group members must be carefully considered before sharing, if it is to be shared at all.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Culturally diverse teams often experience enhanced creativity, idea generation, and satisfaction. However, each of these paired processes must be revisited with any changes in group membership.

The researchers found that while over 60% of professional adults already work in virtual teams, fewer than 40% of all people working in virtual teams receive any training or guidance on how to work well in these contexts. For those practicing in an HR or OD setting, there is ample room to increase the availability to training in working in MNVT contexts, perhaps by using the framework provided by this article.  For leaders of MNVTs, this research can provide helpful guidance for avoiding pitfalls.

Han, S.J. & Beyerlein, M. (2016). Framing the effects of multinational cultural diversity on virtual team processes. Small Group Research. 47(4), 351-383.

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