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It’s hard enough bridging cultural differences seated face-to-face in an office, but communicating virtually can make those differences loom large. Between time zone differences, the inability to see each other and read body language, and inevitable technical difficulties, it’s no wonder that global virtual team meetings can be extremely challenging.

Adding to the stress, sometimes busy team members just don’t have enough time to prepare. Here are four virtual team meeting do’s, along with four don’ts, to help global team leaders keep their meetings on track and the participants engaged.

4 ‘Do’s’ For Global Virtual Team Meetings …

1. Clarify expectations for meeting attendees. This is especially important when global team members are drawn from both traditionally Hierarchical and Egalitarian cultures (see The Hierarchy Dimension: Key to Productivity in Intercultural Business Environments). If you want to hear from everyone, let the participants know—and consider calling on them individually to be sure you get everyone’s ideas. This will help those team members who are accustomed to strict hierarchies understand that they aren’t overstepping any boundaries. It can also help balance input between Direct and Indirect Communicators, since those who value direct communication can sometimes overshadow those who tend to express their views in a more indirect way (see The Communication Dimension: A Key to Cross-Cultural Awareness that Propels Business Success). Just be sure to explain your intentions beforehand, so people know what to expect. Be patient. The group will warm up to each other and communication will become more fluid after a few meetings.

2. Discuss how decisions will be made. Have you ever seen global team members flounder or fail to speak up during the decision-making process? Often, this is due to their uncertainty over how the decision will ultimately be made. Cultural differences can feed into this, making it even more difficult to come to a satisfactory resolution. Team members from group-oriented cultures, for example, will be more comfortable with a decision by consensus while those from more individualistic cultures may naturally expect the majority to rule or the group’s leader to have the final say. (See The Group Dimension: Key to Managing Multicultural Group Dynamics.)

To ensure everyone knows what to expect, here are some key questions to address prior to the meeting:

· Will everyone’s opinion be sought?

· Will decisions be made by consensus?

· Will the team leader make the necessary decisions or will they be put to a vote?

· Once the team has reached a decision, who, if anyone, has the power to veto it?

3. Offer a polite way to interrupt one another. Interruptions are a natural part of any virtual meeting because the participants can’t always anticipate when someone is going to speak since they don’t have visual cues and can’t see each other’s facial expressions and body language. Likewise, if the technology begins to lag, an interruption can become unintentionally awkward. Prepare team members in advance by clarifying effective ways to politely interject. If the team leader will call on people, or if specific times will be set aside for questions and comments, let them know. Once attendees are prepared, they will know whether or not they should say “excuse me” or jot down their thoughts to raise later.

4. Provide a secondary means of communication. Offer a way for global virtual team members to ask questions, offer comments or solicit updates as the meeting progresses.

… And 4 Don’ts …

1. Don’t ignore time zone differences. Keep in mind that when it’s 10 am at your New York office, it’s only 7 am in Los Angeles—and 11 pm in Singapore. Remember that you want your team members to be able to contribute their best, which is unlikely to happen if it is late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. If possible, alternate who must work late or start early.

2. Don’t let the team go off in different directions. When a topic is only pertinent to certain members of the group, be careful to keep it short and take tangents offline. By keeping topics relevant, sticking to the agenda, and staying on time, the entire global team is more likely to remain engaged. If there are important subjects that only part of the team needs to discuss, deal with these at the beginning or end of the meeting, so others can join later or leave early and get on with their day—especially if it’s already nighttime in their time zone.

3. Don’t ignore multitasking. You may not be able to stop participants from checking their email but it’s important to try to keep all team members engaged. If you believe someone is drifting, you can bring them back and refocus their attention by asking them their thoughts or opinion.

4. Don’t forget to follow up after the meeting. Keep the momentum going by sending out a follow-up email or a shared document. It doesn’t always need to be detailed meeting minutes or a long list of everything discussed. Ensure the team has a clear, unified understanding by keeping it simple and to the point: what was decided, what will be done, who will do it, and when.

Effective global teamwork is dependent on successful virtual meetings, since face-to-face conferences are rarely an option. While digital technology makes these confabs possible, their diffuse and impersonal nature presents a variety of challenges. These four do’s and don’ts will help your global virtual team meetings run smoothly, keeping team members on track and the entire global team engaged.

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