The email from her colleague on one of the company’s many cross-border, global virtual teams said 2 pm. She was free then, so she responded in the affirmative, confirming the meeting time and promising to call him. She then added it to her calendar and went on about her day.

The next day, her phone started ringing at 9:15 AM. It was the global team colleague who had emailed her the previous day. “Was there a change of plans?” she asked.

“No,” he replied—confused and slightly annoyed. “Do you need to reschedule?”

Distracted, she said, “Okay, then I’ll call you later?”

“I have a hard stop in 15 minutes.”

Now also annoyed, she said, “Okay, our call isn’t scheduled until 2, so what’s the problem?”

At that point he realized the mistake. He was in London, she in Boston. His 2 pm was her 9 am, and he never clarified a time zone.

He quickly explained but by this point it was too late. She wasn’t free at 9 am Eastern U.S. time. They pushed the global team meeting back to the following day, this time agreeing to a time zone and slightly annoyed with one another for the other’s carelessness.

He should’ve clarified the time zone in his initial request. She should’ve asked for clarity when it wasn’t offered. Instead, both made assumptions and both were wrong.

Why Clarity Is A Challenge For Global Virtual Teams

While assumptions are potentially problematic—even disastrous—in any context, they are a particular and frequent enemy for cross-border/global teams and all forms of intercultural communication, because they’re often wrong.

In any office, messages are confused due to “static” like inattention, distraction, and lack of time. In cross-border and virtual teams, though, this static grows to include language barriers, technology challenges, and lack of context. Additionally, if an office environment is particularly Egalitarian instead of Hierarchical (i.e., in the Hierarchy Dimension of the CultureWizard Intercultural Model®), structure and defined roles may be lacking. Egalitarian cultures emphasize expertise instead of rank, tasks typically go to high performers, and teams—even cross-border/global virtual teams—often don’t stop to write down roles.

These communication challenges can lead to extremely costly delays and mistakes, and they are prevalent in global virtual teams around the world. In fact, 51% of respondents to our 2018 Virtual Teams Survey said that their ability to communicate effectively is hampered by a lack of face-to-face communication.

That near-absence of in-person communication in global virtual teams means that, very often, context is missing during conversations. So messages can mean something very different to the sender and the receiver.

3 Simple Steps To Enhance Clarity For Global Teams

How can global teams solve this? Here are three simple first steps:

1. Set down clear guidelines about roles and accountability.

2. Prioritize face-to-face communication and video conferencing whenever possible.

3. Create a general code of conduct for global team meetings to clarify everything from how time zones are managed to internal company lingo and acronyms that often can confuse new employees and those with language barriers.

With actions like these, and others recommended in our 2018 Global Virtual Teams Survey(some approaches to which are detailed in this blog post: 5 Strategies For Working In Cross-Cultural Virtual Teams), companies can cut down on lost time and opportunity from a lack of clarity in communication.

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