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Cross Cultural Team Barriers on Distributed Teams: Survey Results
by Mandy Ross

Today the majority of knowledge workers interact with people in different locations. From a cultural perspective, this trend has had an impact on how we as a workforce have had to change our behaviors and tackle new problems. Getting work done on distributed teams is not the same as getting work done on co-located teams. Collaboration across geographies and cultures presents new challenges and requires new ways of working in order to accommodate many cultures working harmoniously under one virtual company roof.

In order to examine the state of today’s online workforce and how they interact with their peers far and abroad, we conducted a survey of 100 friendly and generous participants who identified themselves as working on a physically distributed team of either 2-5 locations (small distribution), 6-15 locations (moderate distribution), or 16+ locations (large distribution). We asked about the types of problems they encounter working in a dispersed environment and how they handle them with co-workers, with the goal of finding connections between leadership engagement and levels of trust. We’ve compiled our findings here to share with you.

Bottom line: trust between workers isn’t the issue—while workers in the same locations trust each other more, remote workers are only trusted about 15% less than co-located workers. The priority now is keeping leaders engaged and actively working on surfacing, addressing, and resolving some pretty basic collaboration issues. Without further ado, let’s get into the data.

Top Issues

Teams who report daily issues cite the language barrier and time zone compatibility as their top problems. Workers who say they have the fewest problems in their organization call out the time zone challenge as the main issue to address. Miscommunication of requirements also ranks highly among all teams. Lack of trust was ranked as the smallest problem overall.

Leadership Engagement

Leader engagement was higher on teams that reported less frequent cross cultural issues, and conversely, the teams reporting frequent issues had lower leadership engagement. That trend is also reflected in the frequency of company cross cultural events: the less frequently cross cultural events are held, the more frequently cross cultural problems are reported.

Trust: Remote vs. Local

In general, we also see that companies with more issues also have generally lower levels of trust for both remote and local co-workers. Companies with the fewest issues report extremely high levels of trust. People who report fewer issues actually have nearly equal levels of trust for both remote and local co-workers.

Along the same lines, people who report daily issues report nearly equivalent levels of mistrust of both local and long distance co-workers. People who work alone or in a co-working space (not co-located with anyone else in the company) report a much higher, more consistent level of trust for remote co-workers—these are their only co-workers—and see their leaders as very engaged.


Distribution of Physical Locations Impact on Experience

Overall, the more broadly distributed companies seem to have the fewest number of issues, and in addition, are working the hardest to address them via leadership engagement but not planned company activities. Moderately distributed teams have highly engaged leaders and have also a moderate level of trust internally. The least distributed teams have the lowest trust levels and the least engaged leaders, but they put the most effort into internal cross cultural activities. All groups have more trust in their local co-workers over remote ones by far, with an exceptionally high level of trust of local workers in the most broadly distributed companies.

Large distributions reported the lowest frequency of cross cultural issues occurring, with over 40% reporting no issues ever occurring. Their biggest problem by far is time zone issues, followed by miscommunication of requirements and language barrier and views on quality. Their leaders rated highly for engagement, though they also reported the lowest frequency of company driven events that are specifically intended to address cross cultural issues. The level of trust for both local and remote co-workers was the highest in these organizations, though much higher among local co-workers. This group also had the highest amount of people who worked from home alone or at a co-working space.

Medium distributions reported on the average the same level of issues occurring as on small teams, occur more frequently than in large organizations. Time zones and miscommunication of requirements are the two biggest issues on medium sized distributions, followed by language barrier. For these companies, the leadership engagement score was the highest and had a relatively high frequency of company sponsored cultural events. As in all groups, the trust score for local co-workers was higher than for remote co-workers.

Small distributions reported the same frequency of cross cultural issues occurring, with nearly a third reporting no issues ever occurring. The most reported issues are miscommunication of requirements, differing views on quality, language barriers, and time zone differences. While the local trust score is higher, these had the lowest leadership engagement and trust levels for both remote and local teams. They tend to hold more company sponsored events.

Looking Ahead

These insights have given us quite a bit to consider when we think about managing our own cross cultural team, and as we think about the challenges our customers and partners are experiencing. To this end, we’ve invited Hugo Messer, virtual teams expert at Ekipa, to join us for a webinar to explore the content we’ve provided here. If you’d like to bring your voice to the discussion, please click here to sign up for this free webinar on June 23rd at 9 am PT/12 pm ET, sponsored by your friends Sococo.
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