The reality these days is that a lot of us work within teams whose members are not based in the same locations. You might like it or hate it, but you can’t really change it. What you can change is how you approach the challenges related to such set up of work.
These two articles provide a good start into the topic, so if you haven’t read them yet, I highly recommend them 🙂
Below you will find information about the one crucial thing you can do before starting a project with an international team. This should help the team’s effectiveness, reduce the space for misunderstandings and ensure a better collaboration. Whether you are a team leader or team member you might find this helpful and implement this approach in your everyday work.
Schedule the initial team meeting ahead of the project start date
One of the things that can be crucial to the team’s well-being, especially if the team members can’t actually almost ever meet in person, is to have a Team Code. A set of team rules that we all agree to and decide to follow. A set of rules that every single member of the team agreed to. On that note, be aware of how leadership may vary across cultures and how sometimes people will not challenge your idea publicly. Depending on who are the members of your team, you might want to flex this decision making process by combining direct methods with more anonymous ones to cater for all the people’s preferences. The key is for all the team members agree with the rules during the kick-off meeting and want to follow them.
What areas could you explore when defining the rules and ways of working?
Timezones – are there any challenges here? For example, will the team members in San Francisco agree to have a 7am meeting once a month and the ones in Shanghai to do a late evening one? It’s important that there is a balance and that there is no one team member that always needs to compromise just because they are in an uncomfortable time zone.
Meeting frequency – is there a need for all the team members to meet every week? Maybe for certain team members it’s enough if they join every other week and otherwise the weekly email updates will suffice to keep them on track?
Updating – How will we keep the team in the loop? How will we make sure that the team leader has all the necessary updates? How do we define what updates are necessary? Who needs to be included in weekly email updates? Should we schedule separate weekly calls in sub-teams? These are the types of questions you might like to consider.
Goals and expectations – make sure you are aligned in your goals and understand this goal as well as separate tasks in the same way.
Personal commitments – are there any commitments in the team that people can’t move? Is there anything that might significantly affect the team effectiveness? Are these commitments something that they can compromise on?
Working preferences – do you know what working styles do your team members have? This is something that you can discuss in a bigger group in the form of a workshop or set as a task to complete a chosen questionnaire that you can later discuss during the kick-off meeting.
There are various options here, but it’s worth considering especially those three:
- All team members seem to have similar working styles.
Sounds like an ideal world where no issues should arise. But is it really? Challenge here worth considering might be that everyone will have a similar way of approaching various topics and that in turn might lead to missing out on some other creative ideas or improvements.
Both as a team member and as the team leader, it is worth having this in mind. You can then monitor the situation every now and then, check in with someone with an outside perspective. That way you ensure that there’s nothing you are not noticing.
- Everyone seems to have completely different approaches and preferences.
How do we make sure all the crucial needs are met, but also find ways of effective collaboration? Which are the preferences that can be adjusted or compromised? How do we deal with potential conflicts?
- One person seems to have a working style opposite to the rest of the group.
What if there is only one person who is “the odd one” and has different opinions, different preferences? Definitely, one thing to make sure is that their opinions are also always included! They might be the very important devil’s advocate that might have been missing in case of the team in point 1. They might provide valuable input, however controversial, if only they are allowed to express their opinions.
How can you make sure everyone commits?
One most important thing is that each team member has the opportunity to express his or her opinions and needs. When you don’t know the team members from some previous assignments, it’s best to cater for all possible needs and ensure that there are multiple ways to express these opinions.
- You might include some questions in the email and ask for their input to all the above areas by responding ‘to all’.
- You might also prepare an anonymous survey for people to express their needs, which you can then discuss during the meeting.
- You might ask everyone to send their responses to the team leader separately, so that he/she has an overview of the team’s needs and can guide the discussion accordingly during the first meeting. This also allows for disclosure of some more personal issues and non-negotiable commitments that a person might have.
- You might also set time aside for a virtual team workshop to discuss those ways of working as well as kick-off the project.
Agree that you might always revisit the rules if a team member expresses such a need. Circumstances change and it would be stupid not to allow for flexibility around it if the project is to last for a while.
What is your experience in working within international teams? Do you take time to do the initial team kick-off meetings or rather jump straight into work? If the latter, would you consider running these initial meetings at all?