Managing Social Distance with Global Teams

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A major barrier to global teamwork is something known as “social distance”, or the level of emotional connection among team members.  Social distance may be caused by physical distance, cultural distance and team structures. When people on a team all work in the same place, regardless of backgrounds, the level of social distance is usually low  because people can interact formally [and informally] and build trust. However, those coworkers who are geographically separated cannot connect or align as easily, and they experience higher levels of social distance as they struggle to develop effective interactions. The level of social distance increases even more when teams are separated not only by state lines, but by bodies of water. 

Meet Peter Ma, Head of People, US at ContentSquare, a UX analytics company that helps improve conversion rates for clients by helping them to understand how users interact with their desktop websites, mobile websites and apps in order to create more successful digital journeys. Before Peter landed his current position, he attended law school with dreams of working in the DA office as a prosecutor, but shortly discovered that there were aspects of Human Resources such as compliance, labor laws and employment laws that would allow him to leverage his background in law in a unique way. He was intrigued by the challenges faced by HR leaders and grew an appreciation for the role that HR played in the business world, especially at the strategic level.

ContentSquare has a global presence, and with that comes global teams. We had the pleasure of speaking with Peter about leading a people team for a global company and we’ve shared some key takeaways from our discussion. We think that HR leaders within our network who manage global workgroups will find his insight useful.

1. Find a way to make everyone on the team, whether they’re in the office or remote, feel like they are an important and valued contributor. Keeping in communication with one another and making everyone feel like they are one, while also respecting everyone as individuals is Peter’s goal. It’s important to remind teams that they are one unit with the same goals and corporate missions. Reminding employees where they fit into the business strategy is also a useful way to keep employees motivated and feeling like an integral part of the team.

2. Global companies should not rely on processes that have been successful in one country to be successful in another. Cultural differences can and will cause challenges, and companies need individuals who understand the culture to lead teams. “The culture is so different here [in the US] than in other markets, even down to recruiting and on-boarding” Peter said. It’s important that these processes are carried out by individuals who are familiar with the culture in which they are hiring for. It’s because cultural differences, not just language, impact communication too. Culture is defined as a set of shared values that a group of people hold. These values affect how one thinks and acts and even the criteria by which one judges others  making some behaviors interpreted as normal and right and others strange or wrong.

3. Determine what mode of communication is best. Technology can improve social distance or perpetuate it. Peter and his direct report, who is located in France, rely heavily on video conferencing as an important tool to develop a closer and more intimate working relationship. Face-to-face meetings via video chatting allows for a more focused discussion and is as close to in-person as the distance allows for, but it contributes to their success.  Video conferencing lends to being able to see facial expressions and emotions in addition to context. Communicating over email or Slack channels, while still an important tool, removes the emotional cues and information can sometimes be misunderstood and tone may be misinterpreted. Video conferencing occurs in real time, while emails typically require more wait time for responses. Instant technologies such as phone calls or video chats are valuable in persuading others to adopt viewpoints but when in different time zones, can be difficult to organize. Email, a less disruptive yet more delayed method, is useful to simply share information. 

3. Make efforts to ensure that the influence on decisions is not dictated by fluency in language. In other words, individuals who are more culturally fluent and who speak the lingua franca (a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different) more fluently are more likely to contribute and dominate meetings, while those who are less fluent may not share ideas as often but instead are likely to withdraw. As a way to address this, ContentSquare has hosted a seminar highlighting communicating effectively between and amongst different cultures as their US, UK and France teams work together and have experienced struggles in managing cultural differences and idiosyncrasies. 

Peter’s favorite thing about working for a global company is having the opportunity to learn about different cultures. It’s important that he and his team are aware of and respect cultural differences, and approach them with curiosity rather than judgement. He recommends reading “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business” by Erin Meyer, a book that explains how cultural differences can impact businesses and offers strategies to address them.

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