Last week I wrote about the benefits of working with virtual teams, which are many – including broader coverage, reach and output. Yet for every upside…

Any group endeavor presents its challenges. Yet we gather because we believe the end-result is worth the effort. For example, consider last week’s Burning Man Festival, which attracted 61,000 “Burners” to a bleak plot of land in the Nevada desert. For one week, people from all walks of life and from all corners of the earth figured out a way (mainly unaided from the legal authorities) to eat, drink, dance, party, meditate, feed and enjoy art, all while forgoing modern conveniences like toilets and electricity. Such sacrifices can challenge even the Zen-ist of Yogis; although remarkably, it all seems to work out with fewer skirmishes than you might imagine.

Working with a virtual team can sometimes be like this — except rather than combating heat and sand, you’re often battling time zones, cultural idiosyncrasies, and technological glitches.

Cultivating Culture, Dealing with Differences

While different cultures present varied perspectives to learn from, they also invite foreign points of view that can be difficult to understand across groups. And we all bring them with us, whether it’s the peers across town or the partner from the other side of the world. In the end, we have to navigate these differences to be successful. Not so easy when you’re in the crush of a deadline and jamming out a thought via email — which these days, seems to happen a lot.

Breaking through, understanding, and accepting cultural differences is tough. Most of the time, language is actually the easy thing. Almost everyone in the tech industry speaks at least some English, and where there’s a language barrier, there’s always Google Translate (note: a tool that will due in a pinch, not a presentation). Communicating virtually, however, is a completely different ball of wax — sometimes ideas sometimes just don’t translate.

Approaches to customer relationships, when some are built over time and others are transactional, must be flexible. Media programs vary in their effectiveness from pitches in the Americas, to press events in Japan, to product reviews in the UK. Story building varies as well, with some regions preferring long-form copy, and others the more telegraphic news that’s commonplace elsewhere. Some journalists like to lead with an explosive headline, while others prefer to develop the long, narrative arc of a trending story. All of this variance means the news as a whole is consumed differently from region to region, and more and more, that includes how it’s delivered — and that means mobile.

According to IDC, China, the US, India, Brazil and United Kingdom comprise 53.6% of all the smart phone usage in the world. If you’re not optimizing for mobile, you’re missing out on a significant chunk of your potential audience; a one-size-fits-all corporate approach isn’t going to cut it.

On top of general culture differences and an increasingly mobile consumer base, there’s the vacations. Somewhat naively, I assumed that everyone had a two-week possible vacation period0 spanning from around Canada Day to the Fourth of July. How North American of me, right? Truth is, it’s always vacation season somewhere — our friends down under often take advantage over December and January; our lucky colleagues in France and Scandinavia even take lengthy, often legally-mandated vacations throughout the year. As a result, planning a synched global launch can be problematic — especially when 30% of the team is daydreaming of Mai Thais and reading books on the beach.

Add to that the constant flurry of local events, different boom and bust cycles, and varied values about key technology issues (like the trade-off between privacy and convenience of cloud-based software), and finding optimal, feasible deadlines might leave you reaching for an aspirin and a shot of whiskey.

What Will You Do, What Will You Do?

The solution sounds simple, but it’s hard to do in practice: enjoy la différence and minimize le merde. So, what’s that mean, exactly?

  • Listening. And then listening. Oh, and then listening some more. Gathering feedback from the team about what worked and what completely tanked. Keeping these flukes and failures in mind, so you can find another path when the same issues crop up — that way, you’ll have advanced solutions that are workable for most.
  • Wanting to believe that all boats rise with the tide, but knowing that’s not always the case. Instead of a command-and-control management style, try moving to a more flexible style that creates an individual strategy for each region under a general umbrella, followed by implementing a process of support and advice that gives everyone the freedom to succeed in their own region.
  • Request that plans be supported with metrics, so that there’s always hard data to point to behind decisions (this is sort of my version of Reagan’s “trust but verify” policy). Encourage different regions to self-monitor how they’re measuring up to the group’s goals.
  • Finally, be as transparent as possible. I know it sounds trite, but the more people know the more they are empowered, and the more confidence you can have that the team is working for a result that benefits everyone – which sometimes gets strained across the many miles of cables and culture.

While you can’t avoid personally addressing every issue that comes up, laying down a foundation and creating a protocol for problem-solving benefits everyone. And that’s a good place to build from.

Many of the positives that I listed in my last post come with some aggressive downsides that, if you’re not careful, can eradicate the good. So, over the next several weeks, I’ll take a closer look at these challenges and offer up some time-tested advice from my vantage point of working with the global team here at Mindjet.