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We are entering a golden age for borderless, global teams

Fabrizio Lenci for Quartz
  • Jackie Bischof
By Jackie Bischof

Talent Lab editor

Published Last updated

When the coronavirus pandemic prompted Nasdaq’s operations to shutter offices earlier this year, it was not a completely unfamiliar scenario for staff. They had practiced how to deal with an abrupt shift in operations during a crisis—except when they practiced, the crisis wasn’t a pandemic, but rather an undetonated bomb in the center of Vilnius, where the group’s European operations has one of its biggest offices.

The Lithuanian capital, like many European cities, has occasionally had to contend with construction work surfacing undetonated bombs left over from World War II. Running a simulation like this, one of many scenarios Nasdaq uses, is part of the stock-exchange operator’s “business continuity planning.” It’s a common practice that helps global corporations test what would be required if operations needed to be transferred from one location to another, ensuring staff would be able to access systems, and establishing standards and routines to cope with crises.

Having a culture used to these kinds of rehearsals put the company in good stead when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered offices earlier this year, says Gunilla Hellqvist, head of Nasdaq’s European market operations. She’s based in Stockholm and oversees 230 people in half a dozen cities, including Vilnius.

“Since we are at the center of the financial community, we do a lot of testing of our routines. We have that culture,” Hellqvist says. As a result, “I think that people felt quite secure moving to operating from home.”

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted countries to shut down their borders and turn inwards. But it has also shown the value and potential of a phenomenon borne out of globalization: that of the borderless team. As we work out of our living rooms, connected to teammates by Zoom and Google Meet, we are being asked to leapfrog distances, across cultural contexts and geographies. In order to work productively, we’ve had to understand the lives of colleagues across the globe in ways we didn’t before.

The ability to work productively across these distances was already an asset before the pandemic. Now it’s a necessity. What can we learn from teams that are built to overcome—and even harness—massive geographic spans and cultural differences to do their work?

ThoughtWorks, a global software consultancy, has 43 offices, but it has operated for years as a distributed business, with more than 7,000 employees in 14 countries working together on projects. When the pandemic hit, the company did not have to spend too much time adapting its ways of working. Instead, it could focus on figuring out how to translate the in-person experiences that were vital to their business—such as client onsite visits and employee team-building—into a virtual sphere.

“When you run a virtual global team, you’re intentional about it. You think about how you design it, you think about the time zones, you think about the language. You think about the pre-work, you think about the post-work,” says Chris Murphy, the company’s CEO for North America. “As we’ve shifted to virtual, a lot of those we already had in place, and a lot of those we’ve had to, like most organizations, add on to, or learn, or accelerate as well.”

Murphy hopes that the pressure test we’re currently facing will make us better at remote work, and perhaps result in better-functioning and more diverse global teams in the long run.

“I don’t think the things we’ve learned over the last three to six months are going to go backwards. They’ll stay with us, they’ll just be part of our way of working,” says Murphy. “And that will be the same for most organizations.”

Table of contents

The new normal | A history of working across borders | What happens when things go right | What happens when things go wrong | What companies can learn | The future of global collaboration

The new normal

It is one of the ironies of the coronavirus pandemic that as nations shut their borders to each other, the distances between the digital working class in some cases evaporated. In the absence of an office space, and at such an uncertain time, people had to learn how to work remotely fast if they wanted to connect, collaborate, and commune with their coworkers.

But advances in communication technology have helped to facilitate this for global teams for some time, and global, virtual work was on the rise even before our grand experiment of remote working. A 2017 review in the Journal of International Management reported that an estimated 50% to 70% of white-collar workers in developed countries work on projects that involved some virtual collaboration. “Of those, 20% to 35% involve collaborations across national borders—and the number of such interactions is increasing,” write the study’s authors. In a 2018 survey of almost 1,700 employees at global organizations, CultureWizard, a intercultural training service, found that 89% of employees worked on at least one global virtual team, while over a quarter worked on at least four different globally dispersed teams.

When they function well, teams that operate across distances, with different perspectives, are valued for being creative, innovative problem solvers. But they are incredibly complicated to manage and run. The Journal of International Management review suggests that there is “sobering evidence that at least half of such global virtual teams fail to fully meet their strategic objectives due to inability to manage the complexities arising from global virtual collaborations.”

This is partly because global teams have to tackle several sources of “social distance,” or emotional connection, between colleagues that can emerge from their structure, process, technologies, languages, and identities. It’s possible to overcome them (and when you do, the results are terrific), but it’s a hell of a lot of work.

When lockdowns forced people to stay home, a huge percentage of the population suddenly had to become acquainted with ways of working that are already familiar to global teams. All of a sudden, engaging with colleagues in the office, with its familiar set of norms, was no longer an option. Now, people had to collaborate on projects with multiple colleagues working from their own spaces and contexts, over mediated platforms such as instant messaging, email, and video conference.

Covid has “amplified and sped up” a tremendous amount of this type of working, says Mark Mortensen, a professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, and co-director of several of the international business school’s programs, including one for digital leaders. The pandemic has “really given an aggressive pressure test of our readiness to do that at scale.”

History of virtual teams

The Hudson Bay Company, founded in 1670, was a pioneer of early employee onboarding. It happened, quite literally, onboard a ship transporting employees across the Atlantic to Hudson Bay in Canada.

To understand the evolution of distributed teams—which is essentially a story about how companies learned to control and manage dispersed operations by creating organizational culture—authors Michael O’Leary, Wanda Orlikowski, and JoAnne Yates looked at the history of the giant fur trading company, which is still in operation today, albeit as a retail business.

The company created its culture in a variety of ways, including by sending British employees off to North America with an “elaborate send-off ritual, full of pomp, tears, and Company symbolism, including a farewell breakfast, cannon salute, singing, and hoisting of the ‘Company’s arms.’” While sailing, new recruits were encouraged to talk to and learn from their colleagues, and get a sense of life working for the company. They then had a formal ceremony on arrival, and an introduction to the rules and ranks of the company.

This intense onboarding process, in addition to other techniques such as careful recruiting and management training, helped the company establish norms, build bonds, and face challenges that are “remarkably consistent with a lot of the challenges that we deal with and that we have now,” says Mortensen, such as: “How do you ensure that people are behaving in line with the [company’s] objectives, and doing what they are expected to do, when you can’t watch them?”

Since then—and in an accelerated way in the last 100 years—technology has allowed us to work together in ways that were previously unimaginable. In the Hudson Bay Company’s early days, working with your international colleagues often required that you contend with lengthy delays in communication, or that you would travel to another person’s city, and deal with them on a project on their own turf. It is only relatively recently that the telegraph, then the phone, internet, email, and now platforms like Slack, Google Meets, and Facebook have brought people together, in real time. These developments have enabled us to not over leap geographic distances, but also social distances. These advances have allowed us to be “embedded in different contexts, but working synchronously together,” Mortensen says. That’s a major shift that’s had huge implications for the ways companies operate, and colleagues interact.

As an example, we can look to the work of Global Voices, a globally distributed media nonprofit and community that has featured the work of over 7,000 contributors in 15 years. Prior to the pandemic, its core team could be found working from the US, Canada, Mexico, Egypt, Trinidad and Tobago, Bolivia, the Czech Republic, and Taiwan (its editorial team is even more distributed.)

The company is predicated on open communication and the free flow of ideas, and an appreciation for these values is embedded into their work culture, says executive director Ivan Sigal. While the range of tools his team uses to communicate is important, what’s more critical is “being really intentional and structured in terms of people’s time,” he says, and spending “a lot of time stripping out stuff that really needs to be in person, versus handled asynchronously, especially when you are working across time zones.”

Teamwork done right

Global virtual teams exist primarily because they allow companies to explore opportunities in new markets and hire local staff, which can be more cost-effective. Having local knowledge can be incredibly valuable to a business. “It’s not about just saving money on flights, it’s having those eyes and hands and legs on the ground,” says Vasyl Taras, an associate professor of international business at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.“It completely qualitatively changes the game and makes you so much more competitive.” In 2010, Taras founded X-Culture, an experiential, online learning platform which aims to introduce business students across the world how to best collaborate virtually.

When managed well, dispersed teams can be highly productive, working in relays across time zones. To achieve this, they rely on a stable structure and workflow to unlock some of the biggest advantages of remote work: the way it levels the playing field between people, and allows for more equal participation in idea-sharing and discussion, writes Martha Maznevski, a professor of organizational behavior at Ivey Business School in Ontario, Canada, and an expert in multicultural global teams. That said, power dynamics are still at play and need to be managed.

Research has also shown that a global team’s diversity of perspectives, experiences, and information networks can lead to more creative decision-making and problem solving.

Emily Nelson is a deputy chief flight director at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and has worked for more than 20 years on International Space Station operations. When on duty at Mission Control, Nelson is in constant contact with her peers at space station agencies in Munich, Tokyo, and Moscow, and says she has learned to embrace the differences that can surface between her international colleagues.

Nelson explains that in space exploration, math is a common language, as are scientific principles. But the way those principles are interpreted into engineering designs and practices is different across countries, such as between Russia and the US. “Just because their [design] is different from ours doesn’t mean it’s not as good,” she says. “It just means it can take us a while to understand why they want to do something, because their engineering practice guides them to go in a different path than ours would.”

These differences have helped her be more open-minded and innovative in her work, Nelson says. “It’s always of value to be exposed to different trains of thought. You don’t have to agree with a different train of thought to allow it to spur you on to having different creative solutions to the problems that are facing you.”

When global teamwork goes wrong

The differences between the members of global teams can reap tons of benefits, but they can also result in major issues if they are not managed well.

Some of these tensions are inherent to remote work everywhere. Not being able to work face-to-face amplifies distances between us, which we have to work extra hard to bridge. ”Remote work tends to create fault lines where all these things line up…along the exact same axis to split us apart,” Mortensen says.

As an example, it can be much harder to surface conflict virtually than in person, because you aren’t able to pick up on cues that signal unresolved tension and anger. Arguments, miscommunications, and clashing working styles are hard enough to deal with in an office setting. Now imagine trying to surface those issues and resolve them over Zoom. The tension “sits there and bubbles and simmers for a long time until it just explodes. And then we have a screaming match over a video conference,” Mortensen says. “It’s much harder to give someone the benefit of the doubt, and not make gross attributions” over a screen.

But these issues become particularly tricky for borderless teams, which need to navigate time zones, language, technological infrastructure, and cultural differences. Ignoring these challenges can set up power dynamics that can marginalize people and have the effect of stifling debate—the opposite of what these teams excel at.

“Diverse teams tend to perform either really well or really badly, and the same is true of virtual teams,” says Maznevski. “Both of those dynamics—diversity and dispersion—they give you something that you can’t just muddle through [as a manager]. You either take it on and manage it and get the benefits from it, or it just falls apart.”

Many of the experts I spoke to for this guide emphasized, somewhat nostalgically, how much global teams benefitted from meeting at least once in person. Technology is nowhere near able to replace the bonds that are created by real-life meetings at annual gatherings, conferences, or visits to home countries. Still, these exchanges are rare for these global teams, and there is a lot that can be learnt from how they cope, and create bonds, without face-to-face interaction.

Sigal says that Global Voices is very intentional in the way it designs its virtual meetings so as not to create structural power dynamics that marginalize some team members, such as not accounting for different levels of language skill, internet access, ways of learning and engaging, and knowledge bases.

For example, the organization convenes a “community counsel” of around 160 people—what Sigal calls the “moral center” of Global Voices—to debate topics central to the organization. Since some of the participants do not speak English fluently, a portion of the meeting is scripted, reviewed for jargon and idiomatic speech, and provided to the group in advance. Up to six people run the meeting: moderating, taking notes, answering questions in a chat, feeding that back to the moderator, and helping people who may run into technical difficulties. Participants can comment publicly or in an email group if they don’t feel comfortable talking in the meeting.

This type of structured, inclusive approach can help companies harness the diversity of their team to its fullest potential, by avoiding the pitfalls of structural power dynamics that often crop up in the way these teams are run. Fully understanding where a person is coming from is built into the way Global Voices works.

What companies can learn from global teams

The coronavirus has been a particularly unique crisis for companies and managers to navigate, because its implications have been so wide-ranging, touching individual lives as well as massive and complex supply chains.

Here again we can learn from the ways in which companies harness the power of global and diverse teams. Successful leaders of global teams understand the perspective and contexts of their employees, and consider them key to a team’s ability to function. They use this knowledge to create an environment that is well organized, open, and stable (articulating goals, mediating conversations, being clear about roles and responsibilities) but also flexible and transparent (revisiting a team’s mission and approach, considering people’s different perspectives, opinions, and circumstances.)

For example, successful global teams are very efficient at navigating a difference like time zones by scheduling things out and rotating who is asked to be on early and late calls, says Bob Glazer, the author of How to Make Virtual Teams Work, and the founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners, a fully remote global marketing agency. “High-functioning teams are really respectful and understanding of that, and they show a willingness to balance it out.”

Kimberly Moran leads the team managing the US operations and finances of multinational pharmaceutical company UCB. Her peers work largely in Europe, and she manages a team of 42 people in the US. Moran says that working with her European counterparts has made her more open to cross-border differences, such as how much discussion should happen before making a decision. “Being an American, oftentimes, I was probably very quick to rush to decisions and be action-oriented,” she says. She found the European approach of more circular conversation grounding. “You get more views, more understanding—you may still arrive at the same decision, but you’re a lot more aligned when you do that.”

Moran and her team sees time zones as an advantage, and have been able to use a relay system to work on some of the urgent forecasting and modeling that UCB has had to do regarding the coronavirus pandemic. That, combined with access to real-time data has allowed for much quicker decision making. The potential downside, she says, is burnout, especially if people are not strict about their boundaries around work—a particular risk when it comes to borderless work. Recognizing this, the company has given employees “recharge days,” flexibility with family care, and a series of internal programs to support employees.

The future of global collaboration

There is both opportunity and risk in this moment. The experts interviewed for this piece believe that if we take advantage of the benefits of remote work, we could be looking at the next phase of globalization—a once-in-a-lifetime acceleration in interconnectedness and collaboration. But not everyone has access to this moment. If the benefits aren’t shared—through education, training, and work opportunities—polarization and division will only deepen.

One way we could be intentional about this moment, Sigal says, is in creating more productive virtual meeting spaces. The ways a thoughtful team like Global Voices communicates is in direct opposition to the way we converse on platforms like Facebook and Twitter—”ahistorically, and without context,” Sigal says. He believes there’s much we can learn from adopting a more context-aware way of talking in our working life, and he hopes corporate culture doesn’t miss this opportunity by forcing through a one-size-fits-all approach.

“My preference would be that people actually do the work of building the space that they need, because then they own it,” Sigal says. “If you scale that, then you actually have a healthy information ecosystem. The technology is just there to facilitate it.”