Around the World in One Virtual Workday: Developing Strong Global Team Leaders (i4cp login required)


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The study, The Talent Imperative, based on survey data collected this spring from approximately 1,200 HR and business leaders in 77 countries, found that 83% of global and 89% of multinational organizations experienced increased attrition the past 12 months, compared to the 71% of organizations located within a single country.

The COVID era has increased the number of globally distributed workforces as organizations have become increasingly friendly to remote work. As i4cp’s ongoing research on leadership shows, leading globally distributed teams in a flexible work environment requires the same evolving set of skills important to support co-located teams that have more control over when and where they work. But they have added challenges, such as coordinating schedules and approaches across not only time zones, but sometimes drastically different cultures and socioeconomic conditions.

Building and maintaining strong networks for distributed teams can also be a struggle; our research on network analysis has found that the vast majority of connectedness happens within organizational networks in the same country.

But leading geographically distributed teams in flexible work environments has advantages. HR structures with centralized HR functions can actually benefit from leaders working remotely, outside of headquarter countries, and in specific regions to provide scale, supporting smaller sites within various nearby countries.

Moreover, in a tight labor market, the world is the talent pool.

“Opportunity is pretty unevenly distributed around the planet, but human potential isn’t. So, we should be able to go out and tap into that from anywhere,” said Jeetu Patel, executive vice president, security and collaboration, at Cisco.

“It’s not just about access to talent. It’s also about making sure we can avail every human being on the planet the ability to access opportunity anywhere in the world, where geography doesn’t become this barrier.”

To reap these benefits, global organizations should focus on:

  • Developing a global-minded workforce
  • Flexing communication super-powers, and
  • Building inter- and intra-department networks.

Develop a global mindset

A global mindset can bring competitive advantage to the organization, as adept leaders are able to synthesize multiple cultural and strategic realities at global and local levels. While they don’t have to become expert on every cultural nuance and custom, or speak multiple languages, they must be curious about the different values, worldviews, traditions, and norms of their teams. They must practice listening for contextual clues underlying direct messages and identify when seemingly normative phrases or practices aren’t translating or when certain cultural cues don’t prompt the same behavioral or emotive responses they do at headquarters.

At Manulife Financial Corporation, which is based in Canada and has 11 regional sites throughout Asia, cultural intelligence is viewed as a continuously adapting, agile, and learned set of skills and experiences—a critical competency to develop.

“Asking leaders to be part of teams outside their core areas of expertise—and not always as the leader—is an approach to stretch and grow that we have found successful,” said Mike Dallas, SVP, employee experience at Manulife.

Dallas, who has worked with teams in Latin America, Europe, and across Asia, and has worked in over 20 countries for more than two decades, oversees a dispersed team in 10 countries, and the employee experience for more than 35,000 employees across the globe.

To help leaders manage globally distributed teams, he stressed the importance of strengthening relatability competencies.

“The ability to convey empathy and to be understood while knowing that you are culturally different takes intent and commitment to listening, being candid, and appreciating that there will be discomfort and concerns from individuals you may not get to meet directly. Working to accept the limitations of time zones by not always doing meetings in the other teams’ evenings and to find humor where there are known stressors, like reaction to organizational hierarchy, go a long way toward relatability.” 

Identifying and sharing common areas of interest in food, music, and family traditions, even when very different, create foundations that relationships can be built upon, Dallas stressed. Being able to make common organization values and team objectives relevant is also important. Accepting that all relationships take work and having the confidence as a leader to eschew large egos, to stay interested, and convey willingness to learn are the attributes of the best leaders at Manulife.

Develop face-to-face and e-communication skills

Hybrid Work Meeting

Virtual communication technologies have come a long way in the past decade. Unfortunately, the capability to use them to build social capital has evolved less quickly. Communications research has documented the added challenge of developing relationships virtually. So, while leaders of globally disbursed virtual teams must lean heavily on virtual communication strategies, they shouldn’t ignore the importance of in-person interactions.

Having the right digital communication platform is fundamental for any virtual team, but it’s how organizations use the technology that matters most. i4cp’s study, The Talent Imperative, found a strong connection between market performance and adopting guidelines or norms regarding when communications go out and meetings are scheduled.

However, enterprise-wide parameters on these intercommunications are not practical for global teams. Instead, effective leaders co-create communication norms specific to their teams and model those to foster healthier organizational culture.

Maria Strid, Americas head of HR consultancy with HSBC Bank, recommends that leaders of global virtual teams cater their communication strategies to suit cultural characteristics and individual employee preferences where possible. Setting clear expectations among the team about when meetings should take place and how quickly emails outside of local working hours are expected to be responded to is also important.

“Understand the cultural nuances and norms between teams in different countries or cities. Know your people and put yourself in their shoes. It seems basic but easy for leaders to forget. Would you be at your best on a Zoom call at 5 a.m. Monday morning or 9 p.m. on a Friday evening when your family is having dinner without you? Probably not,” Strid said.   

“Flexibility is a two-way street, but as a leader, you set the tone. For some type of virtual engagements holding two meetings to accommodate different time zones is actually more effective. Also, leaders can create more goodwill and engagement with the added session” Strid said.

The pandemic has served to increase the awareness of leaders of the impact of time zone differences on workers’ mental health, said Mike Smith, SVP of global benefits and well-being at IQVIA, a Fortune 500 international research firm that conducts clinical trials and other activities for the healthcare industry.

“That has softened a bit as people try to manage the different time zones and not expect people to be on super early or super late,” he said.

Dallas stressed that at Manulife, aspiring leaders of global teams prepare and embrace the digital elements of work. Leaders can use them to increase the amount of asynchronous work that team members can complete on their own time or enable concurrent collaboration. Asynchronous work puts more trust in employees but also requires more documentation and transparency. This may mean using workflow platforms or other technology to create processes that allow employees to better work autonomously.

Defining how to best communicate, especially when it comes to pivotal touchpoints in an employee’s experience, can be a challenge for organizations with flexible work models, and there are some occasions for which, ideally, in-person interaction matters most. While not always possible, face-to-face conversations can sometimes provide higher-quality connection and communication, which is valuable when discussing complicated or stressful topics and connectivity for building relationships.

 “Last time I met up with one of my teams, we probably spent about two hours in the office. Of course, everyone is keen to meet and catch up so we said rather than scheduling all these individual meetings, we’re just going have a walk and talk outside,” HSBC’s Maria Strid said. “There is something about walking together: you connect differently and share things than if you just had 30 minutes in a meeting room. It’s being mindful, planful, and present; it goes a long way.”

Leaders can maximize in-person time by getting to know employees individually, and by attending virtual team meetings from their location to better understand their perspectives. This strategy can be effective in countering proximity bias; i4cp’s bias audit toolkit for flexible and hybrid work models includes check lists and other strategies to identify and prevent inequities from impacting disparate workforces.

“Making the time to ensure that those who are not co-located get the personal attention needed is a critical factor in retention of top talent,” Dallas said. “Manulife relies not only on leadership but peer-to-peer connections to make the environment come to life.”

Build inter- and intra-team networks

Connected People on a Chalkboard

Spontaneous interactions among employees from different functions have long been correlated to the creation of innovation and breakthrough discoveries. Leaders of remote teams must work to create virtual watercooler moments and opportunities for those interactions to occur. This can be achieved this through leveraging technology such as platforms that randomly connect employees, but strong organizational culture, structure, and workflow processes can also encourage team-members to work with each other and those in other departments.

For example, cross-functional councils or cohorts that lead the implementation of enterprise-wide initiatives such as environmental, social, and governance programs (ESG), or the rollout of new leadership behaviors, can bring disparate perspectives together.

Special projects teams that combine individuals with other permanent roles to tackle temporary and unexpected challenges also bring workers together from across the organization. Making sure to rotate the individuals participating on these temporary projects is important so that the same high-performers, or those located in the headquarter country aren’t always selected.

If centralized leaders don’t have good relationships or communications with their geographically disbursed team members, they may also struggle to understand the impact of local laws, regulations, and cultures on business objectives.

“One of the roles of the COE is to develop those relationships with people in country and or with consultants to fill those gaps in knowledge about local laws or expectations. Is it always going to be perfect? No, but that’s the COE’s role to navigate that in a global organization,” Smith said. “I don’t know 90 countries’ tax laws. I go to a tax advisor. I know the questions to ask and they can help me ensure I haven’t forgotten any to ask.”

Conducting organizational network analysis (ONA) can help leaders both identify strong internal connections and troubleshoot weak connections before problems arise. Doing so ensures that innovation-inducing opportunities are maximized, among other benefits. An organization can also identify people enterprise wide who are influencers and energizers through the ONA process, and utilize those individuals more effectively.

At the end of what can be a very long day for leaders, they too need space and time to recover from stress and should seek to model exemplary work-life balance behaviors for their teams. That can be challenging for those who receive value from the altruistic act of helping others or work in always-on cultures.

This can take place through strategically scheduled breaks in the day or through the use of vacation and personal days. “It’s not uncommon to take calls at 6:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. It’s our culture. So, you just flex your day,” an HR leader on a global team recently told i4cp.

Leaders should block time on their calendars, not only for their own well-being, but to model healthy behaviors for their teams. This is why flexible work arrangements are so important to global teams; they need flexible scheduling to make it happen.

“Leaders of globally disbursed teams can easily have a day that’s 24/7 if they’re not careful,” Strid said. “You do need to be intentional about finding time for yourself and you don’t need an organization dictating your work hours to do so.”

Read i4cp’s executive brief, Flexibility or Flight, for our latest findings and analysis on hybrid work, flexibility, and the strategies and practices that make organizations talent magnets.

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