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Q&A on the Book Virtual Teams Across Cultures

Key Takeaways

  • Many people working virtually do so within multicultural teams and want to understand what that means.
  • Cultural diversity impacts virtual teams in three ways: within the team, between the locations, and outside the team.
  • Individuals, teams and organizations can support their virtual colleagues to develop cultural competence, even without travel.
  • Team configuration can impact team collaboration and may be counter-intuitive; colleagues in the same location can meet together, but can form harmful subgroups, and the location of the leader or majority of the team members can have a subtle advantage regarding influence and decisions.   
  • We can categorize teams based on the complexity of their tasks. This distinction helps team leaders determine the necessary level of team integration

The book Virtual Teams Across Cultures, by Theresa Sigillito Hollema, examines what makes multicultural virtual teams tick – why they’re different and how to unlock their potential.  This book is a comprehensive guide for reflective leaders who want to bring out the best in distributed, culturally diverse teams.

InfoQ readers can download an extract of Virtual Teams Across Cultures.

InfoQ interviewed Theresa Sigillito Hollema about team configuration, cultural diversity in remote teams, cultural competence development, knowledge sharing, and virtual team performance.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Theresa Sigillito Hollema: Even before COVID-19 led to lockdown and home-office, virtual working was already fairly ubiquitous around the world. There is a large body of literature that covers working virtually as well as cultural diversity, but little that brought these topics together.  And they belong together! The reality is that many people who work on virtual teams are collaborating with colleagues and stakeholders from another country. I wanted to help the reader understand what this means and how they could collaborate successfully to realize their goals.

I am also interested in the science–practice link and how robust research can help us make sense of our business experience. As a consultant, I understood the issues we encounter when working virtually across cultures, and I read countless academic papers trying to find insight and clarity. I was amazed by what I found. I also interviewed many virtual team leaders who impressed me with their mindset and approach. I translated the models and theories into practical, pragmatic solutions and incorporated the stories to show how business leaders can succeed with their teams.  

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Hollema: While writing the book, I had leaders of multicultural distributed teams in mind. I wrote the book for reflective leaders who are not looking for quick tricks, but are curious about this way of working. They want to understand what happens to people when distance and cultural diversity are mixed together with the context of teamwork.

Anyone who works virtually will benefit from reading the book because many of the ideas are universal.  

InfoQ: You created the CALDO model, a visual of the complete landscape of a virtual team. What does this model look like?  

Hollema: I wrote the book as an answer to the question: How do cultural diversity, geographic distance and technology impact how people think, feel and act in a virtual team?  

The CALDO model is a guide for exploring that question. The starting point is the context of a virtual team, which includes cultural diversity. From the research, I identified three ways the cultural diversity impacts virtual teams:

I.    Within the team – Team members communicate, make decisions and other business processes differently, and are often influenced by their cultural backgrounds.
II.    Between the locations – Team members may think differently about their local colleagues compared to their distant colleagues. Culture is a common identifier in creating subgroups.
III.    Outside the team – The culture where each team member is located may impact the team culture in unexpected ways.

The Leadership Levers of the CALDO model represent the activities that leaders and team members can engage in, given the context, to impact attitudes and ultimately team outcomes. I have summarized all the activities into four Leadership Levers:

I.    Eliminate Uncertainty (unknown knowns)
II.    Create the Team
III.    Bring in the Humanity
IV.    Complete the Work

For example, within the Lever Complete the Work, I explain how a manager’s influence will be different on a virtual team than on a collocated one. A warm smile and a firm handshake can seal the deal in person, but not virtually! Virtual team members may rely more on rational arguments and intermediaries. Leaders need to understand this simple yet fundamental aspect of virtual global teams.

InfoQ: How does the team configuration impact collaboration among team members?

Hollema: An interesting aspect of team configuration is that it is often counter-intuitive. Many people think that a team with some team members in the same office is a good thing – they can work together, go to lunch together, meet easily together. But actually, the hybrid teams can be more challenging than 100% remote teams.

One of the reasons for the challenge is the formation of subgroups that develop according to location and culture. Often, perceived stereotypes differentiate the groups. To highlight the nuances of the different configurations, I created the Taco Sauce Test, which asks questions such as: where is the leader, are some members isolates (one person in a location), is the team balanced in locations, or is there a majority? The test shows that some teams are more complex primarily due to the location of the team members and the leader.

Once the team is aware of how the configuration impacts their collaboration, they can take actions to strengthen the connections between the locations. For instance, instead of assigning tasks by location, a manager can assign tasks across the locations in a way so that the distant colleagues need to collaborate. The colleagues work together, build trust, rely on each other and minimize configuration issues.

InfoQ: What can trigger a culture shock and how can we deal with it?

Hollema: Firstly, it is important to understand the meaning of culture. In the book, I go into more detail, but for now we can say that culture is the meaning that a group of people give to understand life and interpret their experience. Culture is a social construct, meaning that it develops through the interaction of people. As humans, we are influenced by many cultures, such as company culture. The book focuses on country or location culture.  

When we work with people from the same culture, things tend to go smoothly. In general, we understand each other’s communication style, work approach, reactions and ideas. It all makes sense because the assumptions that drive us are similar. However, when we meet someone from a different culture, we may not understand or we may be surprised by their communication style, work approach, reactions and ideas. The assumptions that drive their behavior are fundamentally different. This is what we call culture shock – that feeling of confusion because the other person does not make sense to us.  

People who work internationally have most likely experienced culture shock. The critical aspect is how we respond to it. Some people may identify the other as being wrong and then take a defensive or antagonistic approach. Others may feel frustration or withdrawal, and hope that the collaboration ends soon. A person with a growth approach, after experiencing the initial shock, would be curious about the other and themselves. They reflect on their own reaction and the assumptions that drive their own behavior, and they try to explore all points of view. They would learn about their colleague’s practices and wonder how to include them more in the team. We can identify this mindset of someone who is culturally competent and has the ability to work with people from different cultures.

InfoQ: What are the differences between specific and diffuse cultures? How can we deal with such differences?

Hollema: Fortunately, researchers have developed models for us to understand cultural diversity, including Fons Trompenaars, Geert Hofstede and Erin Meyer, to name a few. These models are guides and can help trigger conversations for learning between colleagues. I have included many stories about cultural diversity in a virtual team, and in one story I reference the dimension "Specific-Diffuse", which is part of the Trompenaars Seven Dimensions of Culture model.  

The Specific-Diffuse dimension is very rich with meaning. For instance, one aspect is communication – direct and indirect. Whatever your communication style, I recommend the following to develop cultural competence. First, understand this aspect of culture – why do some cultures speak directly and others indirectly? Second, look at your own communication preference and how you have been influenced by your own cultures. Third, consider the communication preferences of your colleagues. Finally, learn to adapt one’s communication style for the communication recipients.

Sometimes I hear people say, "If I adapt, then I will lose myself." I think that we could look at the deeper intention of the communication which may be to show respect, build relationships, understand different points of views, or offer a psychologically safe environment.  How we do this - the communication style - may change, but the personal intention and values remain.  

InfoQ: To learn about a culture, people can travel to a country to experience it locally. What if the ability to travel is limited, or if we're working with distributed teams that have people from many cultures and we're unable to have people visit all countries on a short notice? How can we develop cultural competence virtually?

Hollema: This is an important point that may be underestimated. We bring our cultural assumptions to our virtual teams and we work with diverse colleagues even though we stay in our own location. So we need to develop cultural competence and learn about other cultures without leaving our office or home.  

Initiatives and support for people to develop cultural competence happen on three levels - at the individual, the team and the organization level. The individual can read books, speak with colleagues, research different countries and be mindful of their own responses to cultural differences. The team can prioritize learning about the cultures on the team. For instance, they can attend a culture course together (online or onsite) and can make time during their meetings for each person to share cultural attributes of their country. The organization can offer experiences where people work on international teams and organize support through courses or coaching.

InfoQ: What factors influence the performance of virtual teams?

Hollema: Not all teams are the same, and the classification criteria used gives insight into the solutions. In my research, I found the criteria based on complexity and interdependence to be extremely eye-opening and insightful for my clients.

Teams with low levels of complexity and interdependence do not have to know each other’s way of working. They can work independently and just agree on what each person will deliver. On the other side, teams with complex markets or products or creative ambitions need team members to work more interdependently, and therefore the teams need to know each other well, agree on ways of working, understand each other’s cultures and many other elements of high performance collaboration.  

Generally, I find that virtual teams tend to underestimate their level of complexity and necessary interdependence. They feel less connection and more transactional due to geographic distance and cultural diversity, but they need to feel more like a team to achieve their goals. This leads to trust and performance issues. We work on helping them to get to know each other, to learn about each other’s cultures and markets, and to implement practices that create a cohesive team, even from different locations.

InfoQ: What if a person wants to collaborate with people in different teams, or is a member of several teams? Most likely there will be differences in culture between the teams; how can someone deal with that?

Hollema: Each team is unique and how they work may be different depending on the agreements they have made. People who work well internationally develop the muscle to work across cultures, also team cultures. Research by Professors Nurmi and Hinds found that knowledge workers enjoy many characteristics of global work. Specifically, people enjoyed the job complexity of global work and the ability to develop their communication, coordination and innovation skills. They also enjoyed the greater learning opportunities offered by working with people from different parts of the world. However, working across cultures with many teams can be tiring. The researchers found that people who like working globally take time to recover by turning off technology and enjoying their private life. Teams need to make this a part of the norm by honoring the non-working hours of the team members.

InfoQ: What can be done to foster knowledge sharing in virtual teams? And in distributed organizations?

Hollema: In academia, they call the knowledge system of a team the "transactive memory system." I really like that phrase because it emphasizes a team memory, and how we store, gather and retrieve information in our own memory. In a team, we store memory by nominating certain members as experts and they need to continuously update their knowledge and let others know what they know. The gathering should be considered a collective process such that if marketing hears about a new technology in the market, they give a heads up to the product engineer. The retrieving process means that team members turn to the correct person when they need knowledge.  

In spite of the word "transactive" in the title, the memory system consists of humans who are reluctant to share information with people they do not know well. They may hesitate to communicate with culturally diverse colleagues in order to avoid misunderstandings, and often they don’t know the expertise of their colleagues in different locations. This issue is more pronounced on a distributed team. Therefore, a team needs to create the environment for the team memory system to thrive.

As I explain in more detail in the book, the team can:

  • Build connection and communication pathways between team members
  • Ensure that team members understand the knowledge and credentials of each team member
  • Build trust and psychological safety within the team
  • Develop the cultural competence of each team member in order to help them to effectively communicate with their colleagues
  • Evolve the ability of the team to adapt to new knowledge

InfoQ: How can media richness create a spirit of co-presence between people?

Hollema: Media richness indicates the degree to which social cues and information can be sent via a communication tool. For instance, email is low on media richness, which is one reason why we add emojis. Video meetings are high in media richness because we can see facial expressions and hear the messages of the speaker. The feeling of co-presence happens when distant colleagues feel psychologically present with each other. In the beginning of a relationship, using richer media can help increase co-presence because of the increased social cues that are sent. Interestingly, over time as the relationship builds, communication tools can increase in media richness. For instance, a text from a friend has more social cues than a text from a new client. Other elements also contribute to co-presence such as the speed of response. If we have a chat back and forth, it can feel like we are near each other.

InfoQ: What's your advice for managers when they are asked to lead a virtual team?

Hollema: New virtual managers need to recognize that leading a virtual team will be different than a co-located team and engage in a learning process. They may need to question their assumptions about how to build a team, how to communicate, and how to achieve results. It will be a valuable personal and professional learning experience!

I believe that leading a virtual team strongly encourages leaders to develop their leadership competencies and move away from micromanagement to a more inclusive, supportive and catalyst style of leadership. This is the type of leadership style we need now and in the future and I encourage new virtual managers to prepare themselves with reading, coaching, mentoring and leadership development programs.

About the Book Author

Theresa Sigillito Hollema has worked in and with global teams for over 25 years. As a cultural consultant and team facilitator, she’s helped hundreds of leaders around the world learn how to excel when working with virtual, culturally diverse teams. She leads the team at InterAct Global, a group helping organizations capitalize on cultural diversity and virtual connections.


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