Let me add my two cents to the conversations on how to hold productive virtual meetings these days. But it will not be about the logistics of that type of work – you can read more about that in another article on challenges of working in remote teams.
There are certain cultural aspects of communication which may be even more important to understand now than ever,in the time where most of our work is done remotely via video calls and emails only.
We all know that there are certain differences (but also similarities!) among cultures and different regions of the world. And we can either stop there, or go one step further to try and unpick what is it that challenges us, what is it that makes the cooperation maybe slightly more difficult or slower than what we would expect.
If all parties involved get this deeper understanding, which goes beyond stereotyping, this can help manage strong emotions and reactions and improve the working relationships. Especially in those tough times now when we are locked in our homes most of the time and the only way in which we can build the relationships – – is online.
Cultural values dimensions are what gives us a bit more structure to the abstract concept of culture. They can help us understand values and behaviours that are strongly rooted in certain areas of the world more than in others.
I encourage you to think where you would place yourself on this continuous spectrum and where could your colleagues and managers be. The best way to make sense of this knowledge is to look at relative values and where the biggest gaps in preferences may be – this shows you where certain adjustments may be needed.
Here are a few of those dimensions which can impact the conversations you are now having virtually with your team members or clients.
High and Low power distance
Power distance is the extent to which differences in status and power are expected and accepted.
Behaviours that are common in high power distance cultures are for example great respect for seniority of age and/or tenure, not speaking up and expressing your opinions unasked, not openly disagreeing with the manager or even a colleague, the decisions made primarily by the boss. According to cross-cultural research, countries whose populations on average are closer to the high power distance end of this cultural dimension include for example Japan, China, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia.
Behaviours characteristic for low power distance cultures are open discussions, openly expressing opinions and disagreements even towards ideas presented by a more senior colleague, making decisions together as a team, addressing the colleagues by their first names regardless of their position, ability to reach out to a more senior colleague directly with questions. Countries which based on cross-cultural research represent very low power distance cultural orientation include for example the US, Denmark, Netherlands.
How does it impact your virtual meetings?
Virtual meetings increase the distance in any case, and this may pose additional challenges to the ability to build good working relationships and trust with your colleagues and clients.
In lower power distance cultures, the expectation in a meeting is usually to speak up unprompted, discuss things and come to a conclusion during that meeting. With video calls however, the person running the meeting may need to take a bit more lead than usual, to ensure structure to the conversation.
The combination of higher Power Distance preference and delays on the line, may slower the pace of the conversation and put even more responsibility for the structure on the person leading the meeting. If you know you have more typically silent colleagues on a call, make sure they have the chance to speak as well. You can give them a heads-up that they may be asked for opinions more directly and put on the spot, or gather people’s initial inputs beforehand via a survey or email. It’s important to provide the space for everyone to talk – you wouldn’t like to miss out on their inputs just because you are too quick to fill in the silence!
In higher power distance cultures, a lot of the times many discussions happen outside of those meetings, or perhaps even in the evenings after formal work time, which can be a difficulty these days without options to socialise as easily outside of work. Make sure to cater for everyone’s needs and organise online connectivity events where possible.
Remember that you and your colleague do not have to necessarily come from different cultures or be on two opposite sides of the spectrum for this dimension, in order to experience even minor tensions. The key is to have the awareness that other people may have a different preference, and that you may need to adapt your working style to accommodate for the needs of your team members.
High and Low uncertainty avoidance
Uncertainty Avoidance is the extent to which you prefer that the risk is reduced or avoided through planning and guidelines.
Characteristics of people with low uncertainty avoidance are that they are comfortable with uncertainty, taking risks, lack of thorough plans for each possible scenario. People may act first and then continue getting supporting information as the situation progresses, they are more comfortable with change. Regions which typically are classed as low uncertainty avoidance include the US, UK, and also the Nordics.
High uncertainty avoidance preference is characterised by not being as flexible and comfortable with uncertainty, preference for working off explicit instructions, having clear processes and policies in place for multiple possible scenarios, also checking if everything is absolutely correct before releasing a product or a presentation to the public. Many countries in Latin America, Spain, Italy, also Poland, Ukraine, Russia are very close to that end of the Uncertainty Avoidance scale.
How does it impact your virtual meetings?
It impacts your day to day work and team management in any case, but there may be some specific tensions between people with high and low uncertainty avoidance preference, in the time of coronavirus.
You can expect people with high uncertainty avoidance basically trying to get certainty in whatever way they can – scheduling meetings far in advance, reading the news and statistics. They could also go back to their default modes of writing emails or calling instead of videocalling if they are not familiar enough with the video-calling technology. Learning new systems may just seem like another change and added stressor to what’s already an anxious time.
People with low uncertainty avoidance on the other hand may want to rush to just keep doing things and trying new things even despite uncertain times. They are not thrown off that much perhaps by the uncertainty, they may have a lesser need to talk things through with others to release some of the stress.
Those two approaches are more on the emotional level of dealing with uncertainty, so especially when you cannot meet in person, you need to be vigilant to the clues your colleagues give you. Some colleagues may need more support than others, some of them may need help in providing a bit of structure to their new remote routine. Make sure to be perceptive to those needs to nurture supportive relationships in your team (and with clients) and promote mental health.
Even though your organisation may have a set of certain values and ways of working embedded in your culture, in the times of uncertainty and stress, very often people go back to their default modes. Make sure to have that in mind when working virtually with your colleagues who are local as well as international. We all have different needs in this uncertain time, and we all react differently depending on our context and emotional capacity.