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Overcoming Distance and Cultural Barriers to Virtual Teamwork

Overcoming Distance and Cultural Barriers to Virtual Teamwork

“Out of sight, out of mind.”

This expression exists in many cultures. In some cases, the distance makes us far from the mind. In others, it is from the heart that we are far. This thinking versus feeling cultural aspect is interesting in itself… But in all cases, we agree that when one is far, one is easier to forget!

To conclude our quest for full proficiency in virtual, international teamwork, today we will investigate the distance and human aspect/cultural barriers, finalising the evaluation of ourselves and our counterparts.

Based on this, we will be able to make any needed improvements to our own techniques and, as Project Managers, help team members and other stakeholders to progress in proficiency.

As a reminder, here are the Transactional Analysis Discounting levels again:

  1. Not registering that a problem exists
  2. Not registering the significance of that problem
  3. Not registering that there are options for action [to solve the problem]
  4. Not registering that one is personally capable of implementing those actions [to solve the problem]

The Distance Barrier

Levels 1 & 2 – Problem and Significance

The distance barrier is like a two-sided coin.

On one side, the physical facts: remote communication techniques such as email, telephone, videoconferencing, text messaging, etc. are needed to communicate across distance and time zones. From studies such as the work of Mehrabian, we know that not all information passes through the words of an exchange (verbal communication). A vast majority passes through the non-verbal communication (body language) and the para-verbal (tone of voice). Based on this, an audio-only conversation (phone call) can lose up to 50% of the information content; a text-only communication (email, text message) can lose up to 90%.

On the other side of the coin are the human effects: it is harder to create and maintain fundamental emotional bonds and mutual trust at a distance. Knowing that this is a key characteristic of high-performing teams, the significance of the problem is clear.

Levels 3 & 4 – Options and Actions

To solve both the information loss and trust-building issues of distance communication:

  1. Blended communication is the tactic of mixing communication methods to ensure the most effective and efficient overall communication strategy. Like blending the ingredients of a cake: if we only had flour, it would be a poor cake! But add eggs, butter and sugar and we have something good. In the same way, if we only use email to communicate, we don’t have a very good “cake”. If we add videoconferencing, audio and instant text-messaging we have something much tastier! Blended communication leverages the positive aspects of each communication method. Used wisely, we obtain communication which is more effective and efficient than some co-located mono-method communication. It also addresses the trust issue as we can build better bonds with videoconferencing than via email, for example.
  2. To further improve mutual trust, we use inclusion. This means purposefully spending time and energy to genuinely exchange with speaking partners. By enquiring how a colleague is, and genuinely listening to the answer, we may or may not see results straight away. But the additional bond made and trust built through this fundamental human interaction will bear fruit throughout the relationship.

Human Aspects The Cultural Barrier

Levels 1 & 2 – Problem and Significance

Whilst each one of us is unique, we all have the same fundamental needs – safety, physical and psychological well-being and belonging/recognition. Our uniqueness is a mix of our individual personality and our cultural background. On a macro level (country/region/company), cultural tendencies are clearly visible. On a micro level (person/team), individual personalities have a high importance.

In our daily work with others, we may observe that:

  • Some people prefer to do one thing at a time; some prefer to multi-task
  • Some believe that rules are rules; for others, rules are relative and depend on the situation
  • Some keep strict timing whilst others think that it is naïve to believe that we can divide and “control” time in this way
  • Some prefer to act alone whilst others place a high importance on relationships. Sometimes we feel that this is just for relationships’ sake; sometimes we feel that potential advantages of the relationship are taken into account

These and other observations lead us to the conclusion that others act differently to the way we do. We can fall into the trap of thinking that our way is the “right” way and their way is the “wrong” way. This leads to poor working relationships.

Levels 3 & 4 – Options and Actions

The owl and the chameleon are our guides here.

Firstly, the owl for its incredible senses of perception and reputation for wisdom. The wisdom we seek is to perceive diversity as an advantage rather than an annoying barrier to overcome.

Secondly, the chameleon for its agility and capacity to blend into its surroundings.

By combining these characteristics, we:

  1. Free ourselves from the “right way / wrong way” trap. We recognise that “their way” is simply “another way” and that different points of view increase creativity and generate new ways to solve problems
  2. We observe, using all our senses, what is going on in a situation and try hard to understand and interpret with an open mind
  3. We use the chameleon’s power to adapt agilely to the situation with the aim of enhancing mutual success.

Virtual Teamwork – Harnessing the Power

By understanding the problems and their significance (Levels 1 & 2) and identifying options for action (Levels 3 & 4), we transform the three barriers into three solid pillars supporting our international and virtual teamwork.

By seeking to:

  1. Understand each other through high quality communication and thus build trust
  2. Use blended communication and inclusion to increase efficiency and deepen trust
  3. Use difference as power and understand others’ behaviour (owl) then adapt to the needs of the situation whilst keeping our own identity (chameleon) we harness the full power of virtual global project management and teamwork.

Wishing you much success and enjoyment in your virtual international interactions!


For further details, see “Foolproof International Communication”, Moberg & Chadwick, Japco Publishing House 2013, ISBN 978-91-637-1116-9, 2013

About the Author 

Peter Chadwick is the Founder of Island Hoppers, and a Trainer and Consultant with IIL. He is qualified as an engineer, project manager, trainer, coach and pilot.

The common threads to Peter’s career are innovation and exploration. From early days dreaming-up designs, through roles leading larger and larger international project teams, up to his current role of trainer and coach, Peter constantly searches for better designs, better ways of working.

Building on his research and in-the-field experience, he has co-authored two books on transcultural cooperation with Pia Moberg and devised the Chadberg Model.

Peter has a long track record of designing and facilitating pragmatic support to individuals, teams and organisations – harnessing the power of international collective intelligence.

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