At a glance
Remote work is becoming increasingly common and technology is making it ever easier to collaborate from anywhere in the world. While this allows multinationals to bring together global teams with the most relevant skills, it can be a real management challenge for leaders.
Facilitating meetings between remote workers can be particularly testing, with communication and cultural differences – not to mention logistical complexities – to navigate.
Here are four strategies that can simplify the process.
1. Encourage social connections
In shared workspaces, colleagues have numerous opportunities to chat “off the clock”. These informal conversations play an essential role in building rapport and trust between co-workers, and even boosting productivity.
While teams in different offices miss out on these casual encounters, leaders can still create “water cooler” moments in virtual settings by starting each conference call or video conference with five to 10 minutes of small talk.
Alternatively, each session might begin with a short presentation in which a team member shares something about their culture or personal life with the group.
2. Neutralise power inequalities
If one office is perceived to hold the lion’s share of power – whether because it has the most staff members or it is the leader’s main base – it can leave other offices feeling like second-class citizens.
To give all meeting attendees a voice, a manager might ask everyone to prepare one contribution beforehand, or to expect to put forward an opinion at least twice.
Rotating roles such as facilitator, timekeeper and scribe demonstrates that all team members contribute to the meeting’s success.
If offices are in different time zones, scheduler tools such as Time and Date can help ensure meeting times are during everyone’s regular business hours. If this isn’t possible, try alternating meeting times, so that one office isn’t always drawing the short straw.
3. Bridge cultural divides
In some cultures, asking questions or challenging authority could be perceived as proactive, while in others it’s taboo.
Similarly, an employee assigned a task in one country might tell their manager they can do it, meaning they’re confident in their abilities; elsewhere, the same response might indicate that they’re simply willing to try.
To avoid misunderstandings, leaders to be clear about how meetings will be run – covering everything from punctuality and creating an agenda, to the use of devices and expected participation.
If, for instance, you want to hold a group brainstorming session, let everyone know in advance that they’ll be required to spend several minutes sharing their perspectives and ideas.
Leaders can also ensure team members are on the same wavelength by creating a culture of questioning. For example, if an employee agrees to an action and you want to gauge how confident they are that they can complete a task successfully, you might ask if they need any support, or anticipate any challenges.
4. Manage communication differences
With 55 percent of any message conveyed through non-verbal elements such as facial expressions and gestures, the best way to promote understanding during meetings is through face-to-face communication. Videoconferencing platforms such as Skype, Slack and Google Hangouts help meeting participants catch the small details that make a conversation feel natural; they also show whether people are keeping up.
If team members have varying degrees of proficiency in the language used for meetings, encourage fluent speakers to simplify their speech, slow down, use fewer idioms and slang terms, and check that they’ve been understood.
After the meeting, circulate a summary of the agreed points of action to back up the verbal discussions and prevent any lasting miscommunication.