Enabling Global Team Cohesion in a Time of Pandemic

crichardson's picture

by Chris Richardson, August 2021

Since early 2020, the entire world has been confronted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses in every corner of Planet Earth have had to adjust their operational methods. The primary change for most global enterprises has been the advent of remote working for the majority - rather than the minority - of company employees. This phenomenon has known no cultural or geographic boundaries, with organizations from such disparate locations as Riyadh and Rotterdam having to adopt similar measures in terms of managing remote workers. As the world learns to live with COVID-19, a certain number of remote workers will return to the office. Due to various reasons however, a large number of employees will remain remote. Some companies have found that they can save costs by reducing their office overheads, while others have found it impractical to disband the remote international teams that have formed since the start of the pandemic. Remote working has in any event surged in popularity. In June 2021, a survey in the United States concluded that half of all employees would like to work from home on a permanent basis (or at least for the majority of the time). Concurrently, remote working has become a factor in attracting candidates for open jobs. A recent global survey showed that one year ago, some 25% of job descriptions used the words “remote work” in some way. Today 75% of open jobs were seen to include remote working as part of the job description. Remote work practices are therefore the single most important component of the much-quoted post-pandemic phrase, the “new normal”. In this article, we will explore the challenges that this imposes on those required to manage remote teams in far-flung and vastly diverse environments.

 

The Challenge of Disparity

In the first three months of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused companies the world over to suddenly have to function with almost their entire office staff working via a laptop at home. The European Union hurriedly published guidelines in twenty-four languages regarding cyber safety for remote workers. There were two primary areas of challenges facing managers of remote international teams: practical circumstances and cultural considerations.

The practical challenges of the world’s newly remote workers included: having adequate privacy and workspace in the home; having adequate wi-fi coverage; having a professional setting for live video calls; and last but not least the immediate local environment of the remote worker. Simultaneously to the practical issues that were relevant across the planet, significant and varied cultural influences were also in play. Despite their critical importance to team success, the cultural factors were much harder for the international manager to discern. Examples included:

  • Unease among those suddenly working full-time in a language that is different from their mother tongue.
  • Unease among those who are not comfortable with fully expressing themselves to a group that includes more senior associates.
  • Disparities in considering the importance of punctuality between remote international team members.
  • Disparities in the propensity of remote international team members to work productively on their own.
  • Unease among those of traditional cultures in fully expressing themselves to a group that includes senior female associates.

A year and a half since the start of the global lockdowns, all of these cultural issues still apply. Unfortunately the ongoing nature of the pandemic has added issues in dealing with them that are entirely out of the personal control of the remote manager. By far the most impactful of these is the stark disparity around the world in the application and availability of vaccines to protect employees from COVID-19. Concern over vaccine availability - especially among expats who may not be registered in the public health system of the host country - can cause stress to individuals. This in turn can become a performance issue among remote team members. It therefore has a critical influence on international team cohesion, and is a scenario that is evolving at a completely different pace between the various regions of the world.

 

Vaccine Inequity

As stated by Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO): “Vaccine inequity is the world’s biggest obstacle to ending this pandemic and recovering from COVID-19. Economically, epidemiologically and morally, it is in all countries' best interest to use the latest available data to make life-saving vaccines available to all.”

Despite this statement from the WHO, enormous differences exist both within countries and between continents in terms of vaccination availability and administration. At the time of publishing this article, 83% of the COVID-19 vaccinations administered globally have been in high and upper-middle-income countries. Only 0.2% of worldwide vaccine doses have been administered in low-income countries. This is exasperating for an international manager with responsibility for company operations in both high and low-income regions.

As of August 2021, almost three quarters of the adult population of the United States has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Yet vaccination coverage can be unequal, even within the same country. Black and Hispanic Americans remain less likely than their fellow white citizens to have received a vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. It is only among members of the white population, that the vaccination rate percentage tallies with the percentage of the general American population that is classified as being white. In other racial groups, the percentage rate of those vaccinated is lower than their size as a percentage of the overall American population (this information is based solely on those states that reported to the CDC). Some striking conclusions were found:

  • The share of vaccinations received by black people is smaller than their share of deaths. In the District of Columbia, black people have received 43% of vaccinations, while they make up 71% of deaths (and 46% of the total population).
  • The share of vaccinations received by Hispanic people is also smaller than their share of deaths. For example in California, 30% of vaccinations were administered to Hispanic people, while they account for 48% of deaths (and 40% of the total population).
  • White people received a higher share of vaccinations compared to population size in most of the states that reported data. For example in Colorado, 76% of vaccinations were administered to white people, while they make up 68% of the population.

However, the CDC also reports that vaccinations are now starting to reach larger shares of Asian, Black and Hispanic populations within the overall vaccination rate. This suggests a narrowing of racial gaps in vaccinations at the national level in the United States.

In global terms, Africa is the continent with the lowest percentage of its population fully vaccinated (2%). Europe has the highest (40%), followed by the Americas (39%) and the Western Pacific (37%). Around 25% of the population of Australia and New Zealand are currently fully vaccinated. At the current pace of vaccinations, low-income countries are unlikely to meet the global vaccine targets set by the WHO of 40% coverage by the end of 2021 and 60% by mid-2022. Low-income countries would need to increase their daily vaccination rate by nearly nineteen times to reach 40% coverage by the end of 2021. And while the Western Pacific, Europe, the Americas, and South-East Asia are ahead of schedule for reaching these vaccination goals, Africa would need to increase its rate of first dose administration by eight times to reach 40% by the end of 2021.

It is thought that vaccine inequity will cost the global economy US$2.3trn before the pandemic is over. At the national level, richer countries are likely to economically recover more quickly from COVID-19 than poorer countries. At the human level this adds another dimension to the challenges faced by the manager of an international team. Vaccine inequality worsens the economic, health and social disparities between nations. This makes it far harder to apply harmonized measures and practices among employees in a diverse region. The uncertainty and inconsistency regarding vaccine roll-out - seen even in a country such as Australia - plays havoc with decision-making and thus impacts the efficiency of the remote manager.

 

The Human Impact on Remote Teams

Obviously a remote regional manager based in Singapore has no control over the low vaccination rate in New Zealand, or the fact that remote workers in Australia are now on different sides of a domestic border that has been closed due to vastly different COVID-19 infection levels between federal states. Similarly a remote manager based in Paris is powerless in terms of the vaccine supply being interrupted in Tunisia due to political unrest, or the unwillingness of the Burundian Government to promote vaccine use. Yet such circumstances naturally have an influence on the individuals in those areas who may be reporting to the far-flung manager. Pandemic-related conditions can place additional burdens on employees that could not have been known when the person was hired. It can therefore be useful for the manager to consult professional studies that look at employee well-being overseas. This can enormously help the manager in understanding remote overseas employees, especially when they may be unwilling to share their sentiments due to cultural barriers. Most importantly, leaders need to recognize the influence of employee wellbeing on employee dedication.

A global study conducted in the Spring of 2021 (essentially one year after the start of the pandemic), showed that 70% of individuals had experienced stress and worry during 2020. This is hardly surprising, given the extreme circumstances of the pandemic. In specific terms, 53% of workers globally experienced temporary unemployment; 50% of workers experienced a decline in income from their employer and 32% of workers lost their job entirely.

There is a huge disparity around the world in terms of these experiences. For instance in Western Europe, 6% of workers lost their job due to the pandemic and 24% were temporarily unemployed. Meanwhile in South Asia, 50% of workers lost their job and 66% were temporarily unemployed. The overall life satisfaction of individuals follow the same trend, with Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands recording a 76% “life satisfaction” score. Australia came in at 57%, while Canada and the United States were at 56% (this being a 5% decline from 2019). By comparison the Middle East posted a score of 32%; East Asia 29% and South Asia 21%. It is striking - but not surprising - that “life satisfaction” levels and the level of vaccine uncertainty follow a similar pattern by global region.

These factors have an impact on the performance of remote team members, and contribute to employee enthusiasm and their sense of belonging to the enterprise. This is despite the fact that much of what is now influencing the employee is out of the control of the enterprise. As we have seen, the remote manager is faced with cultural and practical challenges in being effective with a diverse team of remote employees. The issues of vaccine inequality and a divergence of employee wellbeing by location have now been added to this already complex scenario. All this in a business environment in which the numbers of employees working remotely is going to remain at levels that were unimaginable even two years ago. Indeed in mid 2019, it is thought that some 16% of employees were working remotely. At the time of writing this article, that number is estimated to be 70%.

 

Overcoming the Obstacles

As 2021 has progressed, the manager of a remote international team - or even a team of workers in disparate regions of the United States - has had every right to feel overwhelmed. As we have seen above, there have been significant outside influences during the first half of the year that cannot be controlled by either the manager or the enterprise. Nevertheless by fully understanding the cultural background of team members, the manager can better appreciate - even from a distance - how each person is processing their own local circumstances. As such a distinct culture and motivational work space for all team members can be created. Thus despite it all, success can still be achieved when managing a remote international team.

Good international leaders took the time during 2020 to learn about the home cultures of remote team members. Excellent international leaders went as far as to consult with each remote team member in terms of their own personal cultural background and life experiences. This has led the remote manager to better understand a diverse team, and therefore to focus on what its members may have in common whatever the culture or geography involved. Especially when the additional pressures of the pandemic have now become such a vivid part of the international equation. It’s useful to look more closely at how team cohesion can be achieved.

The first step for the remote manager is to fully understand himself or herself from a cultural standpoint. Knowing one’s own cultural propensity in terms of such dimensions as communication, hierarchy and relationships has an enormous impact on the way the remote manager leads and manages an international team. For it is only when we are aware of our own assumptions and biases, that we can understand those of a different culture. It should be noted that our cultural propensity comes not only from the country in which we are born, but from all of the experiences we may have had in our lives. The British national who has been living in Greece for twenty years, is no longer going to have the cultural profile of a pure Brit.

The second step is for the manager to conduct a similar assessment procedure with each remote team member, thus observing the characteristics that they may share and those that may diverge This helps the manager communicate with far-flung team members in a more effective way. The manager will learn how to adapt the communication style being used, both in one-on-one situations and in virtual team meetings.

The third step is for the remote manager to build a cultural map of the entire team. This provides clear vision as to which team members have the most in common with each other culturally, and which team members may be outliers. The manager can use the map to navigate his or her way to a place of team cohesion. Remote employees are therefore more likely to feel that they have the opportunity to voice their opinions, in a way that is culturally appropriate to them. For instance issues that an American team member may feel comfortable talking about with the group, may be more appropriate in a one-on-one setting for a German team member (even if both are at the same level in the organization).

Various educational tools are available that enable managers to evaluate both themselves and team members in this way. In using these tools, the remote manager is thus creating a unique team culture for the specific group. In taking these actions, a profound sense of workplace belonging can be nurtured within the team. Studies show that this can lead to a 56% increase in job performance and a 50% reduction in turnover. The remote manager is effectively creating his or her own culture of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion within the group. Trust is thus built among team members, both with the remote manager and with each other.

These are the building blocks that go on to enhance the “Emotional Quotient” (EQ) of both the manager and the remote team. EQ can be defined as the ability to manage and understand emotions in positive ways to defuse conflict and communicate more effectively with others. This in turn empowers the remote manager in every way, from day-to-day operations to annual reviews and candidate hiring situations. In short, the performance of team members, their sense of belonging and their very mental health are all improved.

Remote working across vast distances is here to stay, even as the additional impacts of the pandemic start to wane. This means that the ability of managers to be effective across cultural and geographical boundaries - as invisible in a virtual environment as they are real - is entirely more critical now than it was even two years ago. There is no better time than right now, for managers to explore ways to enhance their effectiveness in managing remote employees.

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.