The Challenge of Virtual Teambuilding

A major biopharmaceutical organization wanted the same results of trust, action items, relationship building, cultural awareness, respect, and understanding from an in-person program to be replicated virtually.

Can you teach a program that promotes teambuilding, trust, relationship building, cultural agility, and empathy via a virtual classroom?

This challenge was presented to me by a major biopharmaceutical organization that wanted the same results of trust, action items, relationship building, cultural awareness, respect, and understanding from an in-person program to be replicated virtually. That meant we needed to transform our Global Mindset course—which had been taught in-person all over the globe to more than 500,000 corporate leaders, managers, and associates—into a virtual classroom that would accommodate team members from eight countries on four continents. The focus also changed from awareness building to teambuilding.

We split the full-day in-person program into two 90-minute virtual classes. Each class was limited to 30 participants. The participants from Asia/ Pacific took the Webinars together, while those from Latin America and Southern Europe took the Webinars together to account for time zone differences and similarities in cultural background of the Latin cultures. North Americans took the program in-person after the other countries finished their Webinars. This was deemed strategically important since the company’s headquarters were in the U.S. and those located at HQ are typically most oblivious to the cultural differences that undermine team effectiveness.

Here are the core components of the program:

  • Action Planning: Each virtual class began and ended with an online action plan form participants had to fill out. This allowed team members to record any behaviors the individual or the team should Start, Stop, or Sustain to promote more effective cross-cultural collaboration. Examples of action plans included:

Start: Create a team calendar with all the major holidays of team members and create a communication plan.

Stop: Point out to the Americans every time they use slang or sports analogies on conference calls and make them explain the meaning of each word or phrase.

Sustain: Announce your name each time you speak during a conference call.

  • Quizzes and Simulations: Every 10 minutes, there was a cross-cultural quiz or simulation. This created competition and kept participants engaged. A sample quiz question was to quickly list the proportion of the world’s population in each region of the globe. A simulation had the participants complete a task in an unfamiliar manner, to simulate working when there are different norms on how to achieve a task.
  • Mutual Perceptions: A week between each Webinar gave participants a chance to integrate their new skills and engage in several homework assignments. One of the most popular assignments was a Mutual Perceptions Exercise in which the representatives from each country posted how they thought they were perceived by others. A small sample includes: Brazilians thought they were perceived as jovial, warm, communicative, and celebrating Carnival all year long. Italians thought they were perceived as flexible, not well organized, people oriented, and not committed. The Chinese thought they were perceived as shy, unwilling to speak up, and group oriented. Indians thought they were perceived as hardworking but not having leadership competencies because they were not comfortable speaking up when a leader was on a call or at a meeting. Americans thought they were perceived as loud, rude, not team players, gun happy, risk-taking, and obese.
  • Assessment of Cross-Cultural Differences: During each Webinar, participants completed a cross-cultural questionnaire that identified their attitude and behavior related to critical cultural differences. For example, on the topic of hierarchy at work, participants saw the live results of the differences between the cultural groups within their own team. Indians and Chinese scored much stronger in hierarchy than Americans. This led to a discussion of why some group members tend to speak up on conference calls, while others who are more hierarchical wait to be called upon. This then led to creating new norms for future conference calls for the team.
  • Sustainability: Participants learned how to use a Web-based cultural diversity tool, Culture Wise, which allowed them to get detailed information on the cultural, social, and business customs in team members’ respective countries. Culture Wise also allowed the participants to learn best practices for virtual communication skills, and it sustained the learning by giving participants the opportunity to measure their cultural profile on 11 cultural differences over time. Team members had access to the tool for two years and were sent activities and challenges using the tool each month to sustain the learning.

IMPACTFUL RESULTS

Despite early apprehension that a sensitive topic such as cultural differences could not be taught in a virtual classroom, the results were surprisingly impactful. In some ways, the virtual program had an advantage over the in-person classes. The one-week period between classes allowed attendees to absorb the information; take an assessment; develop mutual perceptions; and for those who struggle with English, provided time to read through the materials in preparation for the second class. The virtual nature of the communications made it easier for participants who tended not to speak up to ask questions via chat. The action plans participants created were impactful and practical. Many items on their action plans have been implemented as a result of the programs.

Though this class was taught in-person to the client more than 60 times, the division that sponsored the Webinars decided to put the entire division of 2,500 people through the virtual program. As a result of the program’s success, the client is considering virtual classes on other sensitive issues such as unconscious bias and harassment.

If you have any best practices for delivering training on topics such as teambuilding, diversity, or related topics; questions; or case studies to share, send them to me at ngoodman@global-dynamics.com for possible inclusion in future articles.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at ngoodman@globaldynamics.com. For more information, visit http://www.globaldynamics.com.

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