Sochi Lessons – Working with Culturally Diverse and Distributed Teams

On a winter night in 1892 Paris much like this one, Pierre de Coubertin announced the re-establishment of the Olympic Games.  The idea was received with enthusiasm, but no one knew quite what they were getting into.  The first step was a massive one: appoint a committee in charge of organizing the first Games and creating an international movement around them. Yet it was accomplished. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was established in June of 1894 and became one of the most famous culturally diverse and dispersed teams in the world.

Acting as a catalyst for collaboration between all parties of the Olympic family, from the National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and the athletes to the broadcast partners and United Nations agencies, the IOC shepherds success through a new Olympic Games every two years. Members in dozens of countries have been corresponding nonstop to prepare for this month’s event in Sochi, Russia. While they are from different worlds, they share a common passion and excitement for the Games.

Your group may face many of the same challenges as the IOC, and as we prepare for the Sochi games to unfold, here are four best practices to keep in mind when managing a culturally diverse and distributed team.

Understand Where They’re Coming From

Unlike other Americans who work in your office, culturally diverse team members may not share your norms, values, and motivations, and therefore may not behave the same.  As the manager, you should conduct personal interviews and third-party research to learn about your employees’ cultures and how you can help them achieve maximum productivity.  It is also helpful to infuse your whole team with a strong sense of purpose, making sure that your messages are clear in your team members’ native languages.  Follow up often to check that this is the case.

Communicate Systematically

Virtual communication, is, by nature, less frequent and more ambiguous because you cannot read body language.  Combat these obstacles by creating a comprehensive communication plan for your distributed team, including complete contact information, meeting calendars, and protocols for reporting status, handing a project off to the next person, and using communication technologies. For instance, spell out for your team when it’s appropriate to use instant messenger and for what.

Take Flights Periodically

Flying internationally is expensive, but so is the rapid employee turnover that results when team members feel isolated from the organization and the group.  If there is an annual conference or other event where your whole team will be together in the same place, take advantage of that situation to strengthen relationships in person and boost your team’s engagement.  If no such event is on the calendar, make the effort to see each of your employees in person at least once a year.  They should get to know each other better too, so consider having international team members spend time working in another office.

Pass the “Middle of the Night Conference Call” Mantle

It’s admittedly difficult to get the whole team on a conference call when everyone is operating in a different time zone.  If you have an odd man out (i.e. he’s the one who is sleeping while most others are awake), make the occasional sacrifice so that communication with him doesn’t slide.  All team members should be encouraged to reach out to the time zone-challenged individual at least once a week so that he feels connected even if he can’t participate in every meeting.

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