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Virtual conflicts hampering international teams

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Fewer than one in 10 (9%) employees think they can communicate completely effectively with business associates in other countries, according to research from Education First (EF).

The report, Virtual Conflict, found that 70% of respondents said that working in global virtual teams could lead to communication conflicts, with email the tool most likely to cause misunderstandings.

The top three communication barriers found in virtual teams were an inability to speak a common language well enough to get the subtleties right, time zone differences, and a lack of cultural understanding.

The researchers highlighted the case study of the development of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which was delayed and entered commercial service more than three years behind schedule. The report argues that this was the result of poor communication between teams in different countries.

“Virtual teams are the norm for most multinational businesses today,” said Peter Burman, president of EF Corporate Solutions. “But what’s clear from the research is that most companies are failing to pick the right tools for the right job, and this is hindering their ability to communicate effectively.”

However, there are steps that firms can take to improve their situation. The report found that 40% of workplaces benefitted from regular video conferences, and promoting a company culture of sharing ideas helped one-third (33%) of the respondents.

“Very recently there started to be more awareness that cultural differences – the important ones – are not about etiquette tips, they’re about how to motivate teams from different cultures,” said research contributor Erin Meyer, affiliate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD. “They’re about how to build trust differently, how to make decisions differently.

“These elements require that global team leaders are really working on building a competency set that they didn’t need when they were working in their own cultures.

“Different people in different parts of the world are trained to think differently,” she added. “If you have that kind of cognitive diversity that comes from cultural diversity it means that you can be a lot more innovative.”