As Gunilla Hellqvist, the Stockholm-based head of Nasdaq’s European market operations, starts to consider when and how her employees might return to their offices in the near-future, one of things on her mind is how she can retain the level playing field the coronavirus pandemic has created for her team.
Hellqvist oversees 230 people in half a dozen cities. After shifting to working from home earlier this year, her team dramatically stepped up their number of check-ins. She’s been surprised and pleased to see how much more included people feel as a result. “Before, it [could] be five people in the meeting room in Stockholm, maybe having another person on the phone. Now, with virtual meetings, they feel that we are all equal,” she says. “It’s actually a very positive thing, that we come together on a more equal basis, when we can be on the same level, on the same meetings. They feel that they are a super strong [united] team because they meet each other so often.”
Globalization—the ideal of an interconnected world—is predicated on the idea that we are stronger working together than split apart. But it has proven politically divisive, in large part because its costs and benefits have not been shared equally. If the expansion of remote work makes it easier and more common to work with colleagues across borders, could it also make globalization more popular? For our field guide on virtual, borderless teams, we asked experts what kind of impact the dramatic shift in working from home precipitated by Covid-19 might have on global collaboration.
“Some people are saying this is the end of globalization,” says Martha Maznevski, a professor of organizational behavior at Ivey Business School in Ontario, Canada, and an expert in multicultural global teams. “This is just the next wave of globalization. We’re going to figure out that we can work together without having to physically be together all the time.”
Norhayati Zakaria, from the University of Wollongong in Dubai, has researched the culture of global, virtual teams. She is optimistic that the coronavirus pandemic is giving a boost to collaboration. “The beautiful part of having this be the new norm is that [we] are normalizing the whole global effect of working together,” she says. “The ‘global village’ concept was introduced more than two decades ago. With the Covid-19 pandemic, I’m very positive that we’re going towards a global village that was unimaginable years back.”
Some of the trends the pandemic is accelerating with regard to global collaboration are positive, believes Mark Mortensen, a professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. But he is also concerned about the divisions they may be exacerbating, particularly in countries grappling with a shift towards nationalization, driven by the realization that “not everyone gets to play the global game.”
Mortensen worries that Covid’s disproportionate effects will lead to an even “stronger bifurcation” between people based on class. (Recent research by the IMF has found that teleworking is already widening income inequality around the world). “The people who are able to capitalize on it—for them, this is awesome,” he says. “The people who aren’t able to capitalize on it are going to feel more and more left back—this is where the efforts to try to bring those two together are going to be really, really important going forward.” He cites examples of free online education as an example.
Expanding the search for talent beyond major cities might be another opportunity to spread the potential benefits. 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, is confident companies will become more willing as a result of the shift to remote work to globalize their talent pool, and “find the best talent where they need them, where they want them.”
Many people are also working from home right now in pretty “suboptimal” environments, Glazer says. They’re grappling with kids being home, unable to leave to go far to de-stress, and with minimal support from companies. He believes that as we navigate this crisis, businesses will get better at supporting hybrid work setups, widening the scope of opportunities for employees.
Maznevski says she is pleased we are now questioning assumptions around our working lives, such as the amount of time we spend commuting, and that remote work is creating more possibilities with differently-abled people. “I’m very happy that we’re finally challenging our notions of how we can work together. Through this necessity we’re realizing what we can and can’t do virtually,” she says. That said, she’s not a proponent of a full shift to virtual work, given how difficult it is to craft working relationships and a workplace community online. “They are a really important part of the human experience, and human progress,” she says. We need “relationships of trust and commitment, and the sharing of knowledge, so that we can build knowledge across generations and across people.”
It’s up to companies to take advantage of this moment and what virtual work can offer. Learning from effectively managed global teams is one way to do this. If they’re successful, the opportunity that lies in global work increasing—and the ensuing exchange of ideas and partnerships—is the “ultimate removal of barriers,” says Vasyl Taras, an associate professor of international business at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “I do believe that we still haven’t seen the actual results. I mean, we’re still wasting this wonderful connectivity mainly on posting what we have for breakfast on Facebook,” Taras says. “But soon enough, we will see the effect. It will be probably equal to the invention of electricity.”