Decoding the Critical Challenges of a Virtual Global Workforce

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by Chris Richardson, April, 2020

Globalization can be broadly defined as the worldwide commercial interaction of people, companies and governments. It has touched every corner of the planet, in what is seen by some as a relentless threat to traditional norms, values and - in many areas - jobs. Major economies have seen the resistance to globalization cause their entire political realm to shift. In several countries, globalization has turned the political landscape into a duel between inward looking and outward looking groups. “Middle America” for instance is now more about demography than geography. Such is the power of globalization, and its ability to effortlessly transcend both national governments and local economies. Yet the depth of globalization’s influence varies enormously by region around the world. This discrepancy can primarily be correlated to the stage of technological development that a given country or territory has reached.

At the same time, there is one consistent factor. Whatever the speed of globalization may be in a particular location, it is unfailingly true that local cultural factors do not move at the same pace. Centuries-old cultural habits are not going to be swiftly undone by the arrival of technology. The two hour business lunch in Paris is not going to suddenly disappear, just because companies are doing more video-conferencing.

The New Normal

Yet before we consider culture, it is relevant to look at the overall pace and practice of globalization. Particularly in reference to early 2020, when the entire world was confronted by the Covid-19 pandemic. For however far globalization’s reach may have been in a certain place, the sudden necessities of coping with the pandemic rendered disparate parts of the world instantly more akin to each other. When the citizens of - for instance - Helsinki and Hyderabad are equally required by law to practice extreme social distancing measures, new parallels can be drawn between Finland and India that were unimaginable before.

In the first three months of 2020, the global Covid-19 pandemic caused entire countries the world over to implement laws bringing either a total or partial lockdown (or “grounding”) of their citizens. An astonishing 50% of global GDP was on lockdown. This compelled people all over the world to abruptly change their daily working habits. With little or no warning from governments - and therefore minimal preparation time - companies were functioning with their entire office staff working via a laptop at home. Known in French as “le télétravail”, in German as “die Telearbeit” or in Spanish as “el teletrabajo”, working remotely was the unanticipated new normal. From San Francisco to Seoul and from Auckland to Oslo, such was the scale of the new virtual realm that Europol - the law enforcement agency of the European Union - hurriedly published guidelines in twenty-four languages regarding cyber safety in the home.

Challenges inherent to the practice of working remotely were already well-known in many countries, although primarily those in more developed parts of the world. These included concerns about the lack of face-to-face interaction, difficulty in accessing critical information from coworkers (whether also remote or not) and even a diminishing level of loyalty to the employer. Practical elements of the virtual workplace are also in play, such as :

  • Adequate privacy: this can be a particular challenge for those who need a quiet work environment (such as for calls and presentations). A private space (with a door) is the ideal setting in this scenario.
  • An adequate workspace: to function well, the remote worker needs - at a minimum - a decent desk and chair. Additional space for storing the usual office items would be a bonus.
  • Background: for those participating in live video chats and presentations, the area behind the remote worker - which will be seen by the video audience - needs to look like a professional space.
  • Ambience: the importance of the overall environment that surrounds the remote worker cannot be underestimated.
  • Wi-Fi: this is the most critical element of all. For without adequate and reliable Wi-Fi, the remote worker simply cannot function.

All of these issues can be demanding enough, when being practiced by a company with experience in accommodating remote workers. They can be burdensome in a country - such as the United Kingdom - where remote working may not be customary, but at least is understood and accepted by those beyond the direct sphere of the employer. The Covid-19 pandemic caused this scenario - literally overnight - to apply itself to millions of people worldwide. At the same time, the Covid 19 was indiscriminate in terms of cultural and economic barriers. The virus affected people equally, no matter whether the country in which they lived was rich or poor.

Practical Aspects of the New Normal

The new virtual work environment was therefore thrust upon the entire world. The ability of the regions of Planet Earth to absorb this phenomenon proved to be as varied as the diversity of the locations themselves.

Practical challenges included the huge inequality faced by companies in terms of wi-fi coverage. Whatever power an employer may have over internet provision at the office, it is impossible to control this at the random home location of a virtual employee. Especially when the home location may be in a less developed country.

Similarly the physical surroundings of the suddenly virtual employee can be extremely challenging, no matter where in the world the person is sitting. A senior manager at a company in highly-connected Tokyo may go home each night to a small apartment, shared with his or her family members. So while an excellent wi-fi collection is not a problem, the children of the household may need to occupy the sole family living area to conduct distance learning from school. Which leaves a senior company employee trying to manage a virtual team, while sitting on a chair in the corner of the kitchen.

Cultural Aspects of the New Normal

The practical issues of the virtual workplace caused unexpected challenges to employers all around the globe. Yet that was only part of the equation - for the new normal was being hastily implemented in a multitude of cultures.

In a culture such as that of the United States, life and work are more or less intertwined. Someone’s job is usually a much larger source of their personal identity than it is for someone in, for instance, the countries of Southern Europe. Thus the natural expectation of an American manager for a long-distance virtual team member to be available for a conference call in the evening, may well be met with hostility by a newly virtual colleague located in Spain. For the evening is for the family and the home, while a job is a distinctly different part of life. Another example is the work environment of a country such as Indonesia. Team responsibilities and tasks are predominantly allocated verbally. Written commands may cause an employee to feel that he or she is not being trusted. To suddenly be required to communicate entirely remotely - via a laptop - is intensely challenging in such cultures.

The adverse cultural conditions confronting remote workers in many parts of the world cannot be underestimated. To get an idea of the complexity and scale of the matter, it is worth looking at some key cultural considerations.

  • Language
    Language is the most basic - yet most universal - indication of a shared culture. It is the vehicle through which we all lead our lives. It is the key to the social interaction of most individuals. In the swiftly re-jigged service delivery models during the pandemic, language groups were suddenly rendered virtual. Someone normally based in an office in Barcelona - and who usually interacted in person with colleagues in Catalan - could suddenly be part of a virtual team with English as its shared common language. The precipitous lack of face-to-face interaction already being experienced, is then exacerbated by the language issue.
  • Hierarchy
    Society’s acceptance of hierarchy is another distinctive feature of the culture in a given country or environment. Employees in France usually have a high tolerance for the hierarchical nature of decision-making in the company for which they work. Although even within Europe, this can vary to a large extent. Research shows the acceptance of hierarchy to be three times higher in France than it is in Denmark. So in a newly virtual organizational structure, a Danish employee who is hastily assigned to a French manager is likely to experience unanticipated frustrations. In highly hierarchical cultures, the senior manager will reveal little about his or her personal life to a group of subordinates. Therefore communicating by video conference call may be unconscionable, for a team manager who is unwilling to expose any aspect of his or her home environment to the virtual team.
  • Individualism Level
    The countries of the world have vastly differing levels of individualism. This is the extent by which people feel personally independent in the choices they make about their daily lives. Individuals consider that their own desires take precedence over the “collective” influence of society around them. Let’s consider a company that has a successful international service delivery model, operated jointly by offices in Australia and the Philippines. Being suddenly required to adapt to working entirely remotely - individually - is going to be much more of a cultural challenge to an employee in Manila, than it will be to his or her equivalent in Sydney. This is entirely due to the collective nature of Filipino society, which does not compare with highly individualistic Australia. So the very same colleagues in a given organization are going to experience unforeseen productivity challenges.
  • Time Management
    The management and value of time varies hugely around the world. For example, a German national working on a multicultural team with Indian nationals may become frustrated by what he or she perceives to be a lack of urgency among his colleagues. Meanwhile the Indian team members may feel that their German counterpart is failing to consider the harmony of the team in getting the job done. When being played out in a “normal” office environment, a mutual understanding can usually be found among those involved. If an organizational structure is suddenly bounced from a daily office environment to a virtual version, this issue is instantly amplified.
  • Masculinity versus Femininity
    This can be defined as the extent to which gender has an influence on a given society. An employee in highly male-oriented Mexico may struggle to quickly adapt to reporting to a female manager at the company HQ in Sweden in a new virtual scenario.

We can readily see how cultural issues are a major component in creating a virtual work environment. Under normal conditions, companies that required employees to work remotely were able to bring about operational success in a measured and planned way. The abrupt nature of the Covid-19 pandemic removed that luxury.

Solutions

As has already been referenced, there are no standard global solutions to the challenges of the virtual business arena. This was especially the case in the corporate response to the Covid-19 lockdowns around the world, where geography and practicality counted for nothing in the urgency of the situation.

The best that most managers could do in the immediate term, was to acknowledge the stress and anxiety that employees may have been feeling. Stress which many of the managers were probably experiencing themselves. More effective managers then built a shared virtual community, within the realities of the technology available in his or her particular scenario. Such measures include a daily check-in call, visual contact (where possible) and the creation of a new set of expectations for the diverse group involved. At the same time, those managers who created a specific virtual space for general news and communication - in a good humored way - helped promote a feeling of equality among virtual team members. Whatever their various cultural and technological realities may have been.

Due to the speed of the situation, the effective use of inter-cultural training tools also became critical. While the manager of a virtual team may have no control over the level of internet provision in a far-flung corner of the world, today’s technology could provide a platform with which to start building mutual understanding among globally diverse colleagues.

The technology now available in the realm of intercultural training enables the manager of the “suddenly virtual” team to identify cultural differences between team members. In a virtual environment, there is obviously no possibility for team members to get to know each other face-to-face. However the use of technology - for instance in the analysis of an individual’s personal cultural disposition - permits the manager to better understand all of the cultural “ingredients” that make up his or her global virtual team. The manager can then discuss any potential points of contention with individual team members by video.

This can go a long way to ironing out different methods of reaching agreements, and to reaching a practical consensus over divergent views of deadlines and hierarchy. Some cultures may be dominant in discussions, while others may only feel comfortable speaking in a one-on-one conversation. Understanding the contrasts can enormously assist the manager in creating a “unique” culture for a virtual team that has absolutely no prior experience of working together.

Looking Ahead

The Covid-19 pandemic was a crisis of global proportions. As in all such dramatic and far-reaching scenarios, some of the measures that were taken quickly in response to the immediate situation are likely to remain in place. In other words, they will evolve from being an emergency tactic to becoming standard business procedure. This is especially the case of technology and its correlation with virtual work practices. Due to the lockdowns being experienced in much of the world, one such example was the surge in the number of job candidate interviews being conducted by video. This is likely to prevail as a routine business procedure.

As Theo Short, co-founder of the online interviewing consultancy CleverYak observes: “the convenience and value of the virtual interview is being recognized by recruiters throughout the world, from big international companies to the admissions departments of universities”.

This is but one example of the lasting impact caused by the exceptional circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic. Companies far and wide will doubtlessly adapt their operational procedures in ways that are still unknown. The pandemic was the most significant chapter in the story of globalisation so far. It was one that took the world by surprise, and unfolded in an extraordinary way. It dramatically highlighted - in a myriad of situations that companies had been unable to prepare for - that the ability to decode cultural differences was an ever more critical factor in working with clients, colleagues and suppliers around the world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Richardson has lived in seven countries on three continents, performing both global and regional roles in the area of mobility and talent management. As Managing Editor of World Trade Resource, Chris has overall responsibility for the content integrity for 200 countries around the world for the World Trade Resource (WTR). He speaks French and German in addition to his native English. An avid traveler, Chris enjoys returning to the countries in which he has lived while every year also visiting a new country for the first time.