Virtual assignments: cultural and inclusion issues By Olivier Meier, Mercer Find out more about cross-cultural solutions for mobile and virtually mobile assignees. Many factors influence the feasibility and success of virtual assignments. One of these factors is related to culture: organizations might have the right work and technology setup but fail to succeed with virtual assignments due to their specific company culture and misunderstandings between assignees and management. The question of culture and its impact on virtual working encompass different challenges: cross-cultural issues, inclusion, and alignment with the corporate culture. 1 - Cross-cultural issues Cross-cultural trainings are provided for international assignments for a good reason: cultural misunderstandings could lead to bad experiences for relocated families and a lack of effectiveness of assignees working with peers from a different culture. Virtual assignments without relocation might avoid problems for the family, but the ability of the virtual assignee to work effectively with colleagues abroad remains a fundamental question. A virtual employee who is not on site may face communication issues and struggle to integrate with the host team. The virtual interaction can reinforce stereotypes and limit access to local contextual information that explains the attitude of other team members. Ultimately, employees from different cultures are equally able to adapt to virtual work, but the initial setup and support requirements might be different depending on the culture background of the team members. Here are examples based on the 8 dimensions of culture used by Mercer’s partner RW3. Cultural dimensions Implications for virtual teams Hierarchy: hierarchical versus egalitarian When dealing with a hierarchical culture, understanding everyone’s place in the hierarchy may require some research and preparation before starting virtual meetings. In a very egalitarian group, the focus should shift to establishing clear roles and responsibilities and bring structure to the virtual team. Group: the group versus the individual Understanding group dynamics from a distance is difficult. Virtual assignees may require additional clarifications when dealing with group-oriented culture. A facilitator may be helpful to integrate virtual assignees into the group – especially if they originate from individualistic cultures and have a different mindset from their peers. Relationships: interpersonal versus transactional If building a personal relationship is a pre-condition to do business effectively in the host country, virtual assignees without local connections will be at a disadvantage. An initial short-term assignment or business trips may be needed to build local contacts before working virtually. Communication: direct versus indirect Indirect suggestions, double-entendre, and contextual information are not easily conveyed during virtual meetings. Team members need to be aware of these pitfalls and set clear communication rules. Time: controlled versus fluid A rigid virtual meeting schedule may be challenging for individuals who have a more fluid relationship to time and prefer on-going informal interaction in an office. Careful considerations should be given to the timing of the virtual interactions. Control: internal (self) versus external (external circumstances) Managers with preference for strong control and fixed rules may be uncomfortable with virtual working. Addressing their concerns and potential misconceptions is a precondition for the success of a virtual assignment. Formality: formal versus informal Virtual teams need to agree on a meeting etiquette that is acceptable for all team members and integrate the right level of formality. Motivation: status versus balance (personal life) How to enhance your personal status where you’re just a distant virtual figure? Virtual working can enhance your work/live balance or on the contrary damage it depending on support available at home. Source: RW3’s cultural dimensions based on the Intercultural Awareness Model (ICAM)©. 2 - Inclusion The inclusion question is linked to cultural issues but adds another dimension to the virtual challenge. An employee may be for the same cultural background as the other virtual team members but still be considered an outsider. The question of diversity encompasses all aspects of what makes individuals unique: not only their country of origin and language but also their gender, family status, professional background, education, thinking style, sexual orientation, and age/generation. Virtual assignees can end up being outsiders because they do not master the unspoken codes of the group and are victims of unconscious biases of other team members or management. Virtual meetings can amplify stereotypes based on appearance, gender, and accents. A camera does not convey body language and foster empathy in the same way as a real life meetings. Not all participants in virtual meetings have the same innate degree of assertiveness depending on their personality and experience with virtual tools. The risk of falling by the wayside in a large virtual meeting is significant. Virtual working has implications for inclusion, and a better collaboration between the mobility and the diversity teams is needed. Implicit biases Implications for virtual teams Affinity bias Affinity bias is our tendency to give preferences to people who are similar to us. Fighting this bias is challenging for an expatriate arriving in a new location. It is even more difficult for a virtual assignee who has only limited contact with local peers. Communication and trainings designed to focus on commonality and building a shared sense of purpose help fight this bias. Confirmation bias This bias is about seeking information confirming what we believe. Real-life on-going interactions with diverse groups allow us to fight this bias. In a virtual context, teams members receive only limited input, and if they don’t actively question the information they receive they might stick with their preconceptions about a topic or an individual. Halo effect A specific attribute can shape our view of other team members. For example, enthusiasm may be regarded as a positive sign whereas it indicates nothing about the competence of the person. In virtual meetings this halo effect is amplified, and teams members may be rashly judged on superficial attributes. Status quo bias The status quo bias is an unconscious resistance to change. Accepting new ways of working requires a change of mindset and may trigger resistance from management. A virtual assignee may struggle to be accepted by local teams members who have never worked virtually with foreign colleagues. Bandwagon effect / groupthink The bandwagon effect means that a negative perception of the virtual assignees (biases and preconceptions) can spread quickly in a group of local colleagues based in the same location. Source: RW3’s Inclusion course. 3 - Company culture Is the company culture paternalistic and control-oriented, or more flexible and laissez-faire? What about “office politics”? One of the greatest fears of expatriates is losing the connection to their home unit. A virtual assignment can go a long way to alleviate that fear if the assignee remains in the home location, but it could also exacerbate the situation if that person were working for a third country or has limited contact with the host destination benefitting from the work. Leaving the official organization charts aside, what are the real, informal collaboration patterns in the company: who is talking to who, what informal support is provided? Who is isolated, and who is well connected? Detailed network collaboration analyses can uncover weaknesses and opportunities for virtual working in the organization’s work practices. As a first step, an honest reflection on the unique characteristics of the organization can already provide some insight. Company characteristics Implications for virtual teams Centralized versus decentralized Where are the decision centers in the organization? The effectiveness of virtual assignees will depend on their connection with decision centers and familiarity with decision processes. This could be an argument in favor of a virtual assignments (e.g. staying at the HQ where the decisions are made) or against it (e.g. if decisions need to be taken locally). Paternalistic versus hand-offs Individual managers may prefer a high level of control but sometimes this preference for control is embedded in the processes of the organization (i.e. frequent reporting by the virtual assignee will be required). Conversely, Agile organizations including self-organizing teams might be more acceptant of virtual working but requires nevertheless good coordination. Diverse versus homogeneous Diverse teams who are used to work internationally with colleagues from different background might be more welcoming to virtual assignees. At an organization level, diversity of practices might foster innovation but also complicate the task of dispersed teams. On the other hand, virtual assignees may find it easier to start working remotely if practices and processes are consistent across geographies and business units. Tolerance for exceptions Virtual assignments are not meant to replace all traditional assignments and might be offered on an ad-hoc basis. They may also initially require specific arrangements. To what extent is management willing to address the specific needs of virtual assignees? Past history / skeletons in the closet Examine the company’s past history regarding virtual/remote work for local employees as well as with Agile self-organized teams. Analyze which policies have been tried and failed. Source: adapted from How to Develop a New Mobility Policy by Olivier Meier and Yvonne Traber, Mercer. At first glance, the different aspects of the culture factor may seem trivial in comparison to compliance and workplace setup issues. Yet, they form an underestimated barrier to virtual working. Organizations that integrate the culture factor into their thinking can increase the success of virtual assignments and the productivity of their virtual employees. On the other hand, companies that have the right technology and setup but ignore the realities of their culture eventually face dissatisfaction from both employees and management. Only an honest assessment of their true culture and preferences can help companies find their own ways into the world of virtual working.