In our increasingly international and virtual environment, working and collaborating with global teams has become commonplace.

Harvard Business Review quotes a 2018 survey of white-collar employees from 90 countries in which 89 percent said that they complete projects via a global virtual team (GVT) “at least occasionally.”

And that was pre-pandemic; I can only imagine the frequency and prevalence of working on GVTs have only increased in the last four years.

There are obvious benefits to working globally and virtually.

For instance, you have a broader scope of creative insight and perspective on a global team, and you can maximize productivity and have a flexible support structure due to teammates working in multiple time zones.

But there are also many challenges.

A study by Harvard Business Review identified some of the ways cultural differences can shape how GVTs function.

Personal Diversity & Contextual Diversity

The study evaluated the interactions and behaviors of 804 remote international 6- to 8-member teams over multiple months of business consulting projects. 

The teams relied completely on digital communication and featured members from different countries.

Two categories were tracked: personal diversity and contextual diversity.

  • Think of personal diversity as involving such characteristics as gender, age, skills, values, and language.
  • Think of contextual diversity as the environments of team members, including the countries’ political systems, their institutions, and their levels of economic development.

Task Performance & Team Climate

Task performance and team climate were also monitored and evaluated.

  • Think of task performance as the quality and timeliness of the team’s efforts, as judged by industry experts.
  • Think of team climate as team member satisfaction, team cohesion, their enjoyment of the process together, as indicated in weekly surveys.

The Results

The study found that a deep contrast in contextual diversity can be incredibly advantageous to task performance, particularly when it comes to tasks requiring creativity and problem-solving.

The varying points of view due to different backgrounds and experiences can lead to unconventional approaches and innovative solutions.

On the other hand, personal diversity was found to be disadvantageous to team climate.

Different ages, values, language levels, etc., leads to less trust, less understanding of others’ motivations, less enjoyment in working together, and less general communication.

Conflicts arise, while cohesion sinks.

How Managers Can Benefit

These takeaways can help managers design an effective global team.

Creative projects benefit from teams that are contextually diverse, so seeking out team members from diverse backgrounds and cultures can produce the unconventional approaches desired for such projects.

Projects that are routine but that need a quick turnaround would do well with a team that is low on personal diversity, but other cultural differences don’t impact the results of these types of projects as much.

In the end, building a GVT is not a science but using this data can only improve your odds of designing an effective global virtual team.

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