Overcoming Cross-Cultural Challenges in Virtual Work
With remote work now the norm across the world, global businesspeople might be wondering how their virtual work style might differ from those in other cultures.
With that in mind, we asked some of our GlobeSmart experts to give some insight into cultural differences that may become magnified in a virtual workspace, along with some specific strategies and advice for overcoming these challenges.
From our GlobeSmart Expert: Here are some of the cultural differences that become magnified in a virtual workspace when working with Indians.
An indirect style of communication. This is a hard one to work around in a virtual environment. The majority of Indians are indirect by nature; that problem gets exacerbated by a hesitance to share video and poor internet communication. My personal workaround is to send an agenda to participants so they can know what to expect. Let them know they can voice concerns or comments before the session so that they can get touched upon during the call. Use a personal chat box to ask if indirect communicators can talk or provide more details so that everyone can hear their thoughts.
Saving face — or an inability to say “no.”This is another difference magnified in a virtual space. Unless someone is intimately aware of an Indian individual’s skillset or ability to complete a task, it may be better to avoid putting them on the spot or requesting things they may not fully be aware of. For most Indians, not knowing something is a sign of failure; they would not want a larger group of people to be mindful of things they have yet to figure out. However, a one-on-one session may make that individual more inclined to ask for help and get a more flexible deadline.
Silence is something many Indians struggle with. As a nation, we are always surrounded by noise; silence, then, can get awkward for Indians. It can mean a multitude of things, from an inability to understand, hesitance to ask for help, wishing a situation would disappear, or even a lack of interest. In a virtual setup, it’s ideal to have more engaging sessions — with input either through polling questions, chats, or breakout rooms. That helps keep energy levels high. Ideally, slides should not be too long, as there is a tendency for individuals to get distracted when there is too much talking and too little engagement.
Hierarchy is another critical concern. It’s crucial to remember that Indians will not speak above or against a senior member of the team present during a meeting. There is no workaround for this; it’s embedded too deep in the culture. Many leaders will choose to opt-out of meetings and discussions where people’s input is required so that people can share more freely.
From our GlobeSmart Expert: In France, I believe two factors influence people’s behaviors in a virtual context:
Social and cultural conditioning
How comfortable people are with virtual communication — how far they get pulled out of their “comfort zone” (or not)
If French employees are accustomed to virtual tools, then there’s less of an impact. However, if the employees are not used to virtual communication, they may, therefore, feel a little panicked in a virtual context. In these cases, our culturally-ingrained behaviors (the ones shaped by social conditioning and our upbringing) can reappear. There’s a French saying that applies here: ‘Le naturel revient au galop,” or “Nature will come galloping back!”
Mastery of English is another issue on top of virtual readiness. If the employee has mastered English, then the trained “cartesian logic mindset,” so common among French individuals, can happily resurface, and they may confront merely for debate’s sake (even in a virtual setting). However, if English is not fluent, there may be less interaction during meetings. Also, the Anglo-Saxon mindset can be perceived as “too simplistic,” “not sophisticated enough,” and “too application-driven.” In this case, the French may think that the discussion is missing the beauty of debating theoretical concepts.
However, none of this thinking is likely to be shared thanks to language barriers. Just as in India, therefore, it can result in silence — which is highly unusual for an emotive Latin culture.
From our GlobeSmart Expert: When it comes to China, I’d like to frame this question around our three “virtual distances” — contextual, communication, and relationship.
Contextual distance: Virtual workspaces limit the “context” Chinese want to provide during discussions, making it harder to negotiate, explain, and convince their global counterparts, especially leadership. For Chinese workers: to overcome these challenges, be sure to proactively and consistently provide local context, and provide both context and information before the virtual meeting. For global counterparts: make an effort to understand China for support and background during the meeting, and be sure to create linkage and alignment between local context and global scenarios instead of over-emphasizing and “isolating” special local situations. For global counterparts, be sure to — again — proactively understand the Chinese context and use more one-on-one meetings to collect information.
Communication distance: The virtual workspace requires Chinese to be more outspoken, especially in large group meetings. However, many Chinese still live by the philosophy of “thinking before speaking.” Many Chinese nowadays are very direct, especially those working for American companies. However, many still want to provide good thoughts, correct answers, and mature conclusions before speaking directly. This is a result of the “certainty”-oriented communication style, and because of a Chinese education background that pushes students to achieve better-to-perfect scores and not make mistakes. Many, then, become silent when they don’t feel their opinions are mature enough, when others say similar things, and when the conversation moves to a new topic.
For Chinese workers looking to tackle communication distance problems: try to get to the point quickly without worrying too much about context, being afraid of saying something “stupid,” or interrupting others. For global counterparts: have the host or other attendants provide the opportunity for Chinese to speak, have it in the agenda that the Chinese will speak, and notify Chinese to prepare beforehand, try to understand, and clarify through asking specific questions.
Relationship distance: Relationships are still the foundation for many Chinese to trust someone and talk freely. However, it is challenging to build relationships in a virtual workspace. Many Chinese have become task-oriented, so it is also possible that the virtual workspace creates more conflicts and tension — when both sides don’t care about the relationship or don’t have a chance to grow it. “Small talk” at the beginning of a virtual meeting is needed for even task-oriented people, but it is difficult for many Chinese to do this. Many Chinese are trained in “business English” and not comfortable doing virtual “small talk.”
Chinese workers need to emphasize how to balance relationships and tasks when working virtually. Work to recognize and appreciate others more, and practice “small talk” with global counterparts.” For global counterparts — be sure not to directly and immediately push back. Use some topics Chinese are familiar with in small talks. Turning on video in a virtual meeting can be a good strategy but don’t always do it — as many Chinese don’t feel comfortable with it.
From our GlobeSmart Expert: Perspective One:I don’t think there’s any significant difference for the Danes — we tend to be rather informal both in-person and virtually. What you see is what you get.
I think the one area where there would be a small difference is task-relationship. I notice conference calls, for example, have even less “small talk” than usual. Normally, we’re not big on it — even face-to-face — but there would be some times for jokes and office chatter before the real meeting. Instead, these days it seems to cut to the bare minimums — intros, brief exchanges about the weather — and only until the last call-in participant has joined. This can further limit the trust-building needed for teams. Realizing this, teams should introduce either a formal “temperature check” round in the meeting, or “virtual coffee breaks” with no formal agenda to cater to those with higher relationship needs.
One last thing to mention, about the famous “directness” of the Danes. This might, in fact, be less pronounced in a virtual setting, due to the slight uncertainty about how straight criticism might get picked up when no immediate follow-up is possible.
Perspective Two:In Denmark, there is usually minor small talk at the beginning of a call, and then straight to the point after initial hellos. For example – recently, we met with a client for the kick-off of a project, and there wasn’t even an introduction to the rest of the team working on this project. It was just straight to the task.
Additionally, Danes don’t have a problem with sharing their opinions or disagreeing with superiors. Being super task-oriented and low-context, emails and online messaging tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams tends to work well with Danes.
However, I think Danes tend to be misunderstood by people that are more indirect and relationship-oriented. In my experience, a virtual environment makes it harder to build relationships — out of sight, out of mind. Generally, Danes are very independent and speak English very well.
From our GlobeSmart Expert: In the virtual world, Americans — used to a highly participative communication and meeting style — will tend to dominate, especially when other cultures tend towards silence due to lack of face-to-face presence and other cultural influences.
There’s a tendency for Americans to ask Yes/No questions in meetings — “Does anyone have any questions?” or “Does anyone have anything to add?” This is a nod to our “low context” language tendency; you either have questions or you don’t, and “let’s be specific and efficient in communications.” These questions are often met with silence in virtual meetings due to many cultural reasons. For example, a team member respecting face and hierarchy might not want to speak up and question an American in front of others.
When working with other cultures, Americans should try to work on questions that are more engaging in the virtual space and could actually call on participants for responses to make sure they hear from people that may tend towards silence. Try asking something like, “What section of this presentation would you like to hear more about or needs some more clarification?” instead of “Does anyone have any questions?”
From there, try to call on two or three participants in the meeting to engage them in response. Get more focused in regards to what type of feedback is being sought, as well as calling on more participants to join them. It is also essential for Americans to inform meeting participants early that they will appreciate participant input, and not to be surprised if they call on them!
From our GlobeSmart Expert: One tip regarding working virtually with Brazilians? Build in a lot of back-and-forths. Brazilians are usually high-context. They will give you a whole background explanation on topics. So, depending on the message, consider what technology to use; some messages will be easier to address via phone or teleconference or videoconference, rather than email.
Brazilians are also more indirect when they need to ask questions — to get approval or propose something, for example. In regular communication, I would say they are high-context, but not as indirect as people from Asian cultures.
Another critical point to remember: not everyone can or is comfortable speaking English. Sometimes people can read and write it, but can’t express themselves easily when they speak. This is changing, however, and the younger generation is getting much better at speaking English.
From our GlobeSmart Expert: Singaporeans value relationships. Typically, these relationships get built over informal interactions such as dining and engaging in small talk. However, the current situation makes this process impossible. Now, relationships are getting created by learning about each other’s context — through understanding the person’s surroundings and their impact on work. For example, discussion topics may include the country’s status (on COVID and policies), the situation at home (with kids and partners), and how one is feeling. Relationships are getting stronger, as now it is easier and even essential to share information beyond just the task at hand.
This can, however, get influenced or impacted by the people who are interacting. On a call, if there is someone more senior, a junior person may defer to them to do the talking and leading with very little participation. As a leader, however, this offers an excellent opportunity to build trust and relationships first and then move on to tasks.
One element that is getting magnified currently is the idea of directness for an otherwise not too direct country. This could be a result of the stress under which individuals and their families are operating. As a result, people may be seen as rude or brash when asking for information or answering questions. At the other extreme — depending on the individual — there could be little said when one is in “freeze” mode.
Finally, know that Singaporeans usually carefully consider their options and are not too risk-friendly and generally very compliant. In the current climate, with several rules to abide by, there could be resistance if what gets asked of them is not seen as law-abiding or reasonable. All of these are underpinned by the relationship orientation of Singaporeans, and how one supports (or fails to do so) during these times can determine and impact long-term relationships.
From our GlobeSmart Expert: I think that for Swedes (like Danes) flat hierarchy is essential. Add to that the famous Swedish longing for consensus, and the result is that in Sweden, all voices need to get heard — no matter where in the hierarchy this person is, and if this person also has an opinion.
Because of that need for consensus, round-robin discussions are also quite popular. One can replicate this in the virtual setting by — for example — asking participants to raise their virtual hand if they agree/disagree, for a quick check-in with participants. As a facilitator, make sure each person has a chance to speak up at every meeting; try using a participant list to make sure everyone gets included. Swedes are usually not very talkative and are very sensitive to “one person taking up too much space,” so the timing and managing participation part should not be a problem.
Punctuality is very important in Sweden. As a meeting leader, one should keep a close eye on the agenda and make sure one practices strict time management. Swedes will generally not want to stay extra after the meeting’s scheduled time, and may just log off.
For the same reason, Swedes won’t want to spend too much time on small talk at the start of a meeting. It doesn’t come naturally for Swedes to connect on a personal level while in a professional environment; this can get magnified in a virtual setting. Being aware of that as a meeting leader or as a facilitator is important, as one can introduce some relationship building blocks into the meeting itself.
Another thing to consider: the intricacies of the Swedish language. There are a lot of verbal tweaks meant to soften up, diminish, and camouflage directness — although, in general, Swedes consider themselves to be honest and straightforward. Some examples: instead of saying, “I really need to run now,” a typical Swedish formulation would be, “I believe it is time for us to round off this meeting.” “Can you do this for me?” would instead be, “Would you like me to take this on?” Making requests impersonal and using “one” instead of “I” is typical.
Aside from the Swedish verbal communication style, one leading a cross-cultural team with Swedish participants should also be mindful of the subtle non-verbal communication style — not much variation in the intonation, not using too much speech volume, and not much gesticulation. It can be challenging to read Swedes (even in the face-t0-face setting), but a virtual environment usually makes it even more challenging. An example from personal experience? You may often get silence as a response to what you say, which can feel intimidating to many. However, silence in Sweden is not necessarily something bad. If you feel in need of a response, though, try using feedback by voting, using chat questions, or deploying polls.
From our GlobeSmart Expert: Israelis have a very direct communication style and a preference for a debate-style of conversation. In meetings, this is demonstrated by everybody engaging, openly voicing their opinions while contradicting what has been said before, interrupting each other, and thinking out loud.
Israelis are also very egalitarian and believe everyone in a meeting is equal. This lack of concern for the hierarchy gets manifested through people disagreeing with their managers or presenting opposing points of view.
Many meetings are intensive, passionate, expressive, and can be experienced as brainstorming sessions. This communication and meeting style is seen as a way to build teamwork and relationships. Everyone comes together to work on the task at hand. In an Israeli setting, this style will increase the trust within a team.
Israelis have a polychronic workstyle – they prefer doing a few tasks at the same time. At meetings, people tend to be on their computers and mobile phones, conducting several conversations at the same time. Thinking style is associative, and topics will overlap. Often, there is no clear structure or beginning and endpoints.
These behaviors and cultural traits are typically amplified in a virtual workplace. Israelis tend to dominate virtual meetings, push for airing all opinions and conflicts, and expect everyone to step up and contribute. Israelis will rarely ask questions or leave space for others to speak up. The assumption is that anyone that has something to say will insist on being heard. There is a saying that the “right of way is taken – not given,” and the expectation is that everyone will have an opinion. If the Israelis hear silence on the other side or want information, they will typically ask very direct questions or call on someone to answer.
When working in a multicultural environment, it can be helpful to have a strong moderator whose job is to manage contributions during meetings, keep the meeting on track, and specifically call on participants to participate. Also, holding short, frequent virtual meetings focusing on specific subjects can be effective for Israelis. This will help with language – for many Israelis, English is a second or third language, and long meetings held in English can be challenging to follow. It will also moderate the polychronic attitude towards time that can be seen as a lack of respect or chaos by monochronic cultures. If you are working virtually with Israelis, expect meetings to be high energy and solution-focused with creative “out of the box” thinking and a commitment to the project, team, and company.
From our GlobeSmart Country Advisor: In a virtual workspace, some cultural traits of Argentines may appear magnified. These include:
Time management skills. Argentines’ time management skills might not be the best; these include punctuality for meetings and awareness of deadlines. My advice for overcoming this challenge? Remind colleagues about timing, durations, and deadlines clearly — but also a bit subtly. Make sure people keep the awareness, but also make sure it doesn’t sound rude.
Communication styles.Argentines may get more talkative in a virtual environment and may mix business and other relationships in the same conversation. My advice for businesspeople that are more task-oriented would be to be a little flexible with meeting and conversation agendas. Be flexible enough to make sure your counterparts feel comfortable, but rigid enough so that your meeting stays on track and productive.
The relationship orientationof many Argentines may also get magnified in a virtual setting. Try to be flexible and invest a couple of minutes chatting about personal things for the good of the meeting. The informal style that may be typically displayed by some cultures (Americans, for example) may be well received here; this might be very helpful to build trust and credibility with Argentines. It’s also important to note that when you ask Argentines “How are you?” they may well answer with a personal answer of their lives — especially now, in times of pandemic. This is in contrast to the typical, short “I’m doing fine, thanks” style from some countries.
A blunt style.Softer words like “suggest” might get little attention from Argentines, and might be considered as one of the many options of what a person could do. Try to avoid saying, “I suggest doing A, B, or C.” Instead, be more direct and explicit, saying, “Please do A, B, or C” if that’s what needs to get done.Argentines tend to understand blunt expressions a bit better. If something gets said as “a suggestion,” they might take it as something that is not needed to get done.
Looking for guidance on how to adjust to the ever-changing current work environment?