Shortly after OTRS was founded, it became clear that we would operate globally because of the worldwide distribution of our software. Plus, our corporate culture is strongly oriented towards embracing an open society and born from a product that has its roots in the open source movement, so internationality was natural for us.
But what that meant for encouraging cooperation and building global teams that work, we first had to learn. And I can say, we keep learning!
Good international cooperation plays a crucial role in productivity. If the exchange is too complicated, it will be difficult to achieve the goals set. Employees will become frustrated and less efficient. That’s why it’s important to think about how to optimize collaboration between global teams – not just for a healthy corporate culture, but also to create global teams that work efficiently and effectively together.
Two Anecdotes That Exemplify the Challenges of Global Teams
You Hired Who?
We had just set up our office in the US, and as the HR manager, I was responsible for recruiting new employees. Well prepared, with correctly translated job profiles and a detailed recruitment and training plan, I was shocked to find out that the American office was suddenly staffed by people I had never heard of and simply did not know. When I asked, for example, why the Junior Online Marketing Manager had been hired, I received the answer, “Oh, I heard him talking to customers at Subway. I liked what he said and I thought that he would be the right person for this position.” In the end, he really was: he has now successfully mastered his professional path.
Frankly, I thought that was a joke at first and did not want to believe my ears. Other countries, other criteria for personnel search and selection. How should I understand that?
Most importantly, collaboration needs a common denominator and coordinated framework to be productive and successful for everyone, especially among global teams.
The Not-So-Disastrous Customer Event
Sometime later, we opened a branch in Mexico. On this occasion, we planned an event on the pool deck of a hotel to which many customers were invited.
When I arrived there in the afternoon to double-check everything, I could not believe that the preparations had not even begun. The assistants sat calmly at the reception desk, piling up documents for the guests as they arrived. By the pool, on the uncovered area of our event, there was a heavy downpour that threatened to flush everything away. The custom-printed flotation devices, which were meant to float in the pool to keep our logo visible to everyone, had sunk and lost all color. Our guests – more than 60 – tried to reach the event by an elevator that was only meant to fit four people.
In short, it was a mess. I would have preferred to hide in the face of such unprofessionalism or drown in the pool, but … everyone stayed calm and enjoyed the situation as if it was completely normal. And probably it was, just not from my point of view. The event was definitely a complete success and customers raved about it.
What do these examples show? Well, at a minimum, our own understanding of “right” and “wrong” is not transferable to all cultures. Most importantly, collaboration needs a common denominator and coordinated framework to be productive and successful for everyone, especially among global teams.
Communication Is the Key to Building Global Teams That Work
One of the key elements in building global teams that work is good communication. This is not just about the mundane “talking to each other,” which is never easy anyway, but is also about the different forms of communication and the way they are used, which can have either a positive or rather disturbing result.
Awareness brings understanding
The first step is deciding on a common language. Usually this is English, because – as in our company – almost everyone has English language skills. What does that mean for the quality of communication? Well, language levels among employees are very different. Starting with our natives, through colleagues who have linguistic talent and may have even lived abroad themselves, to team members who laboriously search for half-forgotten school English, every level of competence is represented. This can make a meeting incredibly stressful. And yet, awareness of the various levels combined with a positive mindset mean that ALL seek communication AND understanding, which greatly enhances team spirit.
Communication rules, which the team leader has to bring into play again and again, offer additional support, such as bringing more dominant team members into balance with those who are less linguistically literate and perhaps more reserved.
Here, awareness helps again: being considerate of who is on your team and where they are located helps ensure meeting times become more flexible and accessible to all.
Culture and its role
But even if everyone was at a very similar level, cultural differences would still remain. Where some cultures look directly into the eyes to signal interest and attention, others feel watched and controlled or even attacked.
Experience has shown that it is worth discussing misunderstandings based on cultural differences. Despite many diversity discussions, we are often trapped in our prejudices and do not realize how much our own reservations can lead to conflict. Taking time for “Lessons Learned” discussions is a great way to create more understanding and a positive atmosphere.
Tricky time zones
When working with teams in different international offices, there is another limiting element: the different time zones. While some team members are about to finish the workday, others have just woken up. It is understandable that this would result in different energy levels, but this can be challenging because it is already difficult to coordinate suitable appointment times. Here, awareness helps again: being considerate of who is on your team and where they are located helps ensure meeting times become more flexible and accessible to all.
Tools Cross Boundries Virtually
And last but not least, the tools we use make it possible for global teams to work and for virtual exchanges to take place. Of course, it’s easiest to write an email. The advantage is that email is time and location-independent because we can write them when and where we want. But this form of communication has its limits.
We have to constantly remember that direct contact can be the real key. When working in international teams, it may be advantageous to give preference to personal encounters through video conferencing tools. Because of the physical distance, we create the team-feeling much more slowly than with a local team. Therefore, team building needs to be strengthened in a special way. It is helpful to create space and time in order to be able to exchange personal information and to talk about non-professional topics.
And, of course, when we need to track tasks and processes, we use OTRS. This helps us document what needs to be done and gives everyone the oversight that they need, regardless of where they are located and when they are working.
Achieving successful coexistence and high levels of productivity with international teams requires careful organization and communication. It is certainly not a task that can ever be considered complete. But the ideas and energy that emerge from the diversity of global teams are more than worth it.