Geographically diverse teams are not a recent phenomenon.

In olden times, when armies marched and pegged their camps in far away geographies, royal families and ministers kept a channel of information open using their most trusted people. Accounts were kept. Wages were distributed. Supply lines were kept running. Orders went to and fro. Sometimes these messages and information took days or weeks to arrive but, arrive they mostly did.

In more modern times, one company which has morphed to keep up with opportunity and change, is North America’s oldest company, the Hudson’s Bay Company(HBC). Set up in 1670, 99% of the employees were involved in the fur trade and therefore worked in various locations in North America although it was headquartered in England. In fact, postal networks, Wells Fargo, Forest Services, etc. are other interesting examples of geographically diverse teams, which have survived into this age of instant communication and shrinking distances.

Solving the Puzzle

Whether ancient or modern, the key to an effective geographically diverse team are the people.

Metaphorically, building a team is like putting together a jigsaw piece puzzle. Pieces have to fit with neighboring pieces just right.  The solver needs to keep an eye on the big picture they are assembling.

Taking the metaphor forward, like a 3d puzzle ball which has an added dimension, building a geographically diverse team is about building a team with the extra dimension of team members dispersed all over the globe.

Culture, socializing habits, and historic social rhetoric can stir up the most co-operative of people. Some might say that it would actually be wise to go back to sociology textbooks to get a solid understanding of people and their cultures before setting out to build such a team, because team members have to understand each other’s cultures, before an effective geographically diverse team can be built.

That is no ordinary challenge.

Key Issues

  1. Bridging the social distance: This is by far one of the hardest aspects of team building, and it’s even harder with the added element of geographic dispersion. Social distance creeps in when people know little about each other as their milieus are very different, and therefore social cues for interaction might not be understood.

Some problems to look out for:

  • Team members not offering up ideas/suggestions at crucial junctures.
  • Some members keeping quiet in meetings, or others dominating it.
  • Careless remarks frequently laced with chauvinism.
  • Team members who live far away from corporate HQ feel they are at a disadvantage.

Suggested solutions:

  • Introduce as many face-to-face interactions as cost and time allow.
  • Have regular meetings.
  • Before or after every meeting, factor in 5-8mins for light chit chat which is not work related. Frequently, the manager might have to lead, to ensure that all get a chance to participate.
  • Have remote training sessions to improve team spirit, and to help team members understand cross-cultural norms and practices.
  • Have one-on-one session with team members who need to understand to tone down, to make space for other voices. It could also be a session to get people to speak up.
  • Have an informal newsletter, with fun updates from various geographies which might help people understand culture and background. Be warned that this must be run by someone who is sensitive to people and culture.
  • Make sure mutual learning increases and cultural smugness is nipped in the bud.

2. Communication: This, people think, is the easiest goal to achieve in team building, with all the technology that is now available from anywhere at any time. This is one of the wrongest notions. Communication channels might be available, but how well they are used is another matter.

Some problems to look out for:

  • Information slipping through the crevices and not reaching the people who need it. Occasionally it might be reaching the wrong person, who knows not what to do with it.
  • People communicate but information is not understood as it is meant to be. Lost in translation?
  • Incomplete information is not going to help, and by the same token, too much information with little or no emphasis on the issue at stake is wasteful.
  • Most importantly, delayed communication is no communication.
  • Language used could be careless and disrespectful.
  • Meeting time reflects the bias for the more powerful members.

Suggested solutions:

  • Educate the team on the crucial importance of timely information with examples from real life.
  • A picture is worth a thousand; use tech for smarter communication. E.g. Get team members who are uncomfortable writing a long explanatory report in a foreign language (English might be one), to share a video/image of what they wish to convey, with a short write-up. E.g. a broken part
  • Have frequent language classes run by a multilingual empathetic teacher, to get team members to understand the nuances of the language being used for communication. E.g. Usage of words in different circumstances.
  • Teams must have a system whereby team members can give feedback about small failures they notice; this helps stop a small wave from turning into a big bad one.
  • Try and set up meetings at a time such that it does not trouble the same team member(s) every time.

3. Common purpose: In a team this must be spelt out in unambiguous words right from when a team is set up and this must also be made clear to every new member. The skill-set of every team member is complementary and invested in achieving team/corporate goals, and in that process, the members also achieve their personal goals.

Some problems to look out for:

  • When certain members get into an ‘I’ mode and do not share as expected.
  • Cliques are formed.
  • Parts of the team don’t gel well.

Suggested solutions:

  • Get more cross-team interactions/contributions set up within projects.
  • Get team members to suggest how work can be broken down to make workflow efficient. Use the good suggestions. Fresh views can be invigorating.

4. Building a connect: This is the hardest thing to teach a team. The connect could come via shared interests, language, goals, or anything else. The smart thing to do is listen to people like Tsedal Neeley who study global teams and can therefore understand and see the shifts in attitudes much before others. It’s then easier to find one’s way through building a solid team connect.

Some problems to look out for:

  • Teams have pools of silence within.
  • Members do not speak up.
  • Team members do not take responsibility for collective goals, because they are not emotionally invested in it.
  • Team members do not have each other’s backs.
  • There is a lack of appreciation for each other’s work.
  • Lack of mindfulness in language and attitude.

Suggested solutions:

  • Make sure that before/after every meeting, there’s an open forum where some casual chit chat can happen. It’s when people get to know each other, eventually increasing mutual engagement.
  • Have some video chats so that people can put a human being to a name/voice, see each other, learn to read body language, and get more comfortable around each other.
  • Emphasize communication, not just good language.
  • Make sure team members understand the capabilities of other team members. Either have a casual document with members’ interests or get people to talk about what they do or can do.
  • Team members must know each other better, and then they will be invested in having each other’s backs.
  • Increase team initiatives, not always work related, across geographies.

In Conclusion

The world might have turned into a global village, but bridging the distance between people is always difficult, be it across a desk, an office floor or oceans away. Even as the intellectual wealth of global teams increases, care must be taken to see that the geographically diverse team is efficient and effective. If the right balance is achieved, a geographically diverse team can be a resounding success.

Six keep-in-mind essentials for every team member:

  1. Listen and show appreciation.
  2. Be fair and kind.
  3. Encourage communication and understanding.
  4. See the human behind the email-id. Empathy is key.
  5. Always talk ‘us’ and ‘we’. Lead by example.
  6. Ask questions and encourage others to do the same. Keep talking.

To sum up, geographically diverse teams have assets and liabilities. It’s for every team member to co-operate and give their best to the team. Additionally, it is clear that mutual engagement is key to building an emotional connect, which in turn will lead to achieving team and corporate goals.

Build a team where every member happily brings their best self to work, every day. Regardless of their time zone.

Author Bio: Sophia is a newbie online ESL/EFL instructor. She is a passionate educator and blogs about education on her personal blog. She found her true calling — teaching — while she was juggling writing and a 9-5 desk job. When Sophia is not busy earning a living, she volunteers as a social worker. Her active online presence demonstrates her strong belief in the power of networking.

Image Credit: By Jason7825 – Own work, Public Domain,