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This post is Part 2 of a three-part series. Part 1 covered the essential information needed to understand the remote team environment. Part 2 covers more nuanced aspects of social and cultural relationships, including:

  • Building relationships with the Lo-Fi version of ourselves
  • Understand the cultural breakdown of the folks in each location
  • Adjusting for Communication, Culture and Language

Building relationships with the Lo-Fi version of ourselves

When we deal with people remotely, we’re engaging with lower-fidelity (lo-fi) versions of ourselves.

Even with reasonably high-bandwidth video conferencing we experience lo-res, two-dimensional versions of high-res, three-dimensional people.

The communications channel degrades the direct interpersonal cues and signals that we receive in person. We can miss remote offline interactions – the quizzical look across the partition, the rolled eyes or red face reactions, or knee-jiggling of boredom. If people disable their cameras, then the situation is worse.

Ideally, a remote relationship builds on a pre-existing physical one. If you’ve met virtually from the start, you have much ground to make up.

For our relationships to thrive across multi-locations and multi-time zones, we need to compensate for the lo-fi versions of our teammates.

Understand the cultural breakdown of the folks in each location

Multiple time-zones often mean multi-culture. We covered the mechanics of multi-location holidays in Part 1, but there’s more to work patterns than holidays and dates. Many holidays in countries around the world have a cultural or religious basis rather than statutory.

Cultural and religious events will impact your team differently depending on the cultural makeup of each location. Some countries have a very heterogeneous mix of sub-cultures, and some the opposite. In homogenous situations, there’s a general rhythm throughout the year when large groups of people tend to do the same thing. You can reliably predict downtime. In comparison, heterogeneous mixes produce a complex set of interacting cycles that can vary throughout the year and from year to year.

An example is Malaysia (and to a lesser extent Singapore), which has Muslim, Chinese and Indian cultures in significant proportions with Christian and others present but tiny. We see the dynamic between Ramadan and Chinese New Year change depending on their exact dates each year. It’s less of an impact when the two are either far apart or overlapping. But it seems like it’s a more significant impact when they are only a week apart.

For which events do people return en-masse to their home town or village? To “klab barn” in Thailand or “balik kampong” in Malaysia. Do younger folks resist but older folks stick with tradition?

Understanding this breakdown, in combination with the essential data we collected in Part 1, will enable you to plan and not be surprised.

Adjusting for Communication, Culture and Language

Everyone working on multi-party, multi-country projects needs to have a heightened awareness of different communication patterns and potential roadblocks. Hi-fi interactions can easily have these issues, but our lo-fi experiences are especially vulnerable.

It’s a truism of team management that we need to invest cognitive energy to detect and avoid communication problems, but often this investment is lacking.

How does a team become dysfunctional? One lousy interaction at a time. And misunderstanding the communications, cultural and language implications can rapidly make for lousy interactions.

Remote collaboration – via tiny slices of interaction spread out over time – only complicates the lo-res picture of ourselves that we see via collaboration tools.

These issues might arise for many reasons: cultural, experience and personal. Language is an important consideration, but other cultural patterns have influence. For example, many cultures will resist calling attention to themselves, so asking a breezy “Anyone got any questions? Ok, I’m taking silence as a ‘no’.” often leads to wrong assumptions.

Language is, however, by far the most significant factor – after all, language is culture (or is it the other way around?).

Is there a default or “official” language for the working environment? Or is everyone comfortable in whatever language emerges during the conversation leads? In countries with several large cultural groups, it’s not uncommon for people to be fluent in three languages and functioning in another two. Conversations can morph from one language to the next. But many countries have one dominant language in which everyone has to converse regardless of skill. For this discussion, let’s assume it is English.

If I were to say “People from xxxx country don’t speak English as well as we do”, then that would be cultural profiling to the point of prejudice. But it’s not profiling to understand the range of patterns that might come up with multiple groups of people from different countries and cultures all working together. To be aware of the possibility for miscommunication is not prejudice, as long as you don’t attribute this to a particular cultural profile.

Even when everyone is a native-born English speaker, problems can arise.

George Bernard Shaw described England and the USA as “Two nations divided by a common language.” Now we have dozens or more of countries who have English as a primary or a national secondary language. Australia has few dialects and a limited number of regional accents. Other countries whose official language is English have hundreds of dialects and accents.

I’m Australian, so I speak Australian English. It’s my native language. Apart from slang and local references, Australians tend to speak relatively fast and “runallourwordstogether“. The native language patterns of some cultures have more difficulty with this than others. Again, this can be an issue in person, but the problems are worse in our lo-fi environment.

Even in co-located situations, there are many possible causes of communications impairment amongst a group of people collaborating on a project. With collaboration with multi-time zone, multi-location, multi-cultural teams, we need to be even more aware of the potential for problems.

That requires knowledge and an unremitting focus on the quality of interactions throughout the project.

Conclusion

That’s it for Part 2, which unpacked the social and cultural overlay to the mechanical aspects outlined in Part 1.

In Part 3, we look at putting all this together: strategies and techniques to make multi-time zone, multi-location, multi-culture projects flow smoothly.

Stay tuned.