Managing the Culture among Remote Teams

Until about six months ago this was my normal morning call now my normal morning is I wake up between 7:00 to 8:30 in the morning every day. We’re neither my kids jump on my bed they start screaming they start hitting each other they start crying something always happens and I get out of bed I make the most of the morning, I play with them a little bit I mean it’s an absolute blast then I take a few steps and in less than 5 seconds I’m at work I get into my study I open up my computer and this is
what I see boom 1 2 3 sometimes up to 20 different people with other their faces or names on screens on my computer 30 different people from over 10 different nationalities spread all around the world talking nonstop 5 different offices around the world 5 different time zones complete chaos. But it’s actually a blast so I do this between 2 to 6 hours every single day of the week I currently manage a team of 30 people from 10 very very very different nationalities I don’t actually know what is tougher the
remote part of having to interact with all of my team just using Skype videoconference telephone or email or the different cultural interpretations to everyday things that happen in the workplace luckily my own personal journey has been a bit of a nomad experience. I was actually born here in Spain and before I was even a month I moved to Africa then I spend five years in Puerto Rico than a few more years in Spain then five years in the Netherlands then I spent 10 years between LA San Francisco in New York. Please don’t try to add all of this up it’s a little bit chaotic before I move back to Europe traveled a little bit around and finally settling down back in Madrid. I am no expert in cultures.
I haven’t studied about cultures and I haven’t read many books about cultures but I’ve had hundreds of experiences managing everyday problems that arise from managing a multicultural team remotely. And still I make many mistakes so why am I talking about this today because this situation that I face every single day will happen to most of you if it already hasn’t happened. People want flexibility, people want the choice of work and they want it now take a look at this graph here so this is what Millennials want from the workplace they want training. I think we can all agree with that you know they want to learn at work and they want flexible working hours they want to work remotely they want to choose when they work they want to have flexibility during the day they want this above cash bonuses. They want this above private health care they want this above more vacation I mean they
want this above maternity, paternity benefits people want flexibility many people on my team how great it is to work remotely the reality is that they end up working a lot more hours actually a ton more hours very late at night. But they love the flexibility that
they have during the middle of the day and remote working will become even more common because the new generation of
managers wanted in their workplace and the beauty about remote working is that you’re actually adding a huge employee benefit for much less cost. And you’re actually creating loyalty for people in the workplace.
It’s a killer addition for people but with all this flexibility you know it’s actually not easy to make it happens. It’s actually quite tough there are tons of problems that arise from everyday situations in the workplace to illustrate how simple yet complex this problem is I wanted to share a story that happened to me about two years ago when I first started working remotely with my team in South Africa. I’ve been doing this for about five years um and as usual, I was sitting down in front of my computer in Madrid and I had one of my first conference calls with my team in South Africa conference call when grade and at the end of it one of my team members tells me, I’ll call you just now which I thought oh great. I mean I was actually very excited to get into the into the detail of it so I ended the call and I waited in front of my computer and I waited, and I waited and I waited and then after about 15 minutes I sent a message to my team member in South Africa and I told him hey are we talking just now – which responded yes yeah just now and he pinged me this message sent me this image describing how South Africans define time so just now wasn’t you know I think what we’re all thinking right now you know we’ll talk in a couple of seconds or a couple of minutes for South Africans just now can me can mean you know we’ll talk in the future hopefully today if not tomorrow maybe someday in the distant future. You don’t really know when you’re going to talk about how could something so simple such as expressions about time lead to such misunderstanding and this had been an internal meeting so it wasn’t a big problem but imagine this had been an external meeting with clients cultural
differences can lead to huge misunderstandings and the remoteness part of it made it even worse because of I
couldn’t get out of my desk go around the hallway tap the person in the shoulder and say are we talking just now and of course this was my first week at work and I didn’t want to sound like an idiot asking these questions with my own team remote working situations can be even more confusing. So just this week we launched the project in India and it went extremely well and I wanted to share my enthusiasm with my team so I in one of our weekly calls I shared with the rest of team and I told one of my Indian co-workers you’re killing it out there and the next day – to my surprise I get an email very early in the morning from my Indian team
member asking me up what did I do wrong can you give me advice can you tell me how I can improve and I was taken aback.
I was actually trying to express my enthusiasm and the great job that he had done and he had interpreted something completely different the exact same sentence in the exact same language being understood in two completely
different ways the lack of context created this misunderstanding context is absolutely necessary when working with remote teams so even with two teams with the same natural language such as English there are still problems created due to due to lack of context so about a year ago I was having quite a few communication problems between my US and my London based teams we had tons of meetings probably too many nowadays and in most companies and lots of actions were coming out lots of activities were doing lots of things.
But the results were poor people were not communicating well too well with each other and people were getting extremely frustrated so I needed to do something about this so I bought 30 copies of a book about how to work with people from different cultures and I gave my whole team this book here the culture map by Aaron Mayer and the effect was absolutely amazing it brought out in the open in plain sight how different people are on the team so I had 30 different people from 10 very different nationalities that were all speaking the exact same language, in this case, English but we’re all saying things that were completely different and were acting completely different in the same situations so, for example, my team in Latin America they’re very hierarchical so they didn’t understand when people were responding in certain ways or my US and my Dutch team is based in London they found it completely normal that in the middle of a conference call you can interrupt the person and you can say
your opinion and other people were going absolutely not to this self-awareness and bringing this out in this open was absolutely amazing it was a key driving force for our success.
so I think we all agree that remote working is great and now having this flexibility in the workplace is absolutely amazing but it can actually also lead to loneliness in my case over the last five years I’ve actually felt lonely quite a few times sitting in my little study in front of my computer all by myself and when I’ve been in the office with other people and actually have to travel I felt very lonely on the road I had to take lots of conference calls in hotel, rooms in trains, in planes in public bathrooms even you know in horrible situations I had to take calls in the middle of the morning now very late at night at three four five six o’clock in the morning.
I mean really horrible situations both physically and mentally challenging situations so you have to find a way to make yourself be in comfortable situation co-working areas such as this one here are great to solve this problem you. I mean you can feel that you’re part of a company you can feel that work is being done sitting around with other people you can network with others you can get inspired by others. You know you can inspire others you can just get out of your chair grab a coffee and have a conversation with someone from a completely different company you just feel that work is being done so remote working and what co-working areas are absolutely great I think there’s there’s no doubt about it but the reality is that you still need physical presence to create a truly incredible team you can have amazing relationships just via video conference via email you can establish some sort of relationship between your team but you need the physical presence to create empathy to really add empathy to your team so remote working is the future but you need physical presence at least a couple of times a year to truly create an amazing team so I want to leave here today with one last thought to share with everyone I want you to start thinking about what you need to do to be able to wake up in the future hopefully not a very distant future and to be able to get up every morning with your loved ones and with your family and be able to take your first call in a place such as this sometimes being away from your co-workers isn’t such a bad thing.

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