Hybrid work

Managing distributed teams: How to lead with cross-cultural empathy

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The shift to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic took most of us by surprise. More than a year later, a return to office is finally in sight for many of us, but we know it won’t be as simple as unlocking the doors. For one thing, there will be a lot of doors. With offices in nine countries, the global Asana team will still be distributed even when we return to in-person collaboration.

While distributed and hybrid work are not new concepts, they may be new to leaders at organizations who are thinking through what teamwork and collaboration will look like in a post-pandemic world. For some, it may mean returning to pre-pandemic models. For others, the current moment unlocks possibilities for building a globally distributed team for the first time. 

That’s why we recently spoke with two global leaders at Asana to get their insights and best practices on managing distributed teams. Jessica Gilmartin leads the Revenue Marketing team at Asana, with team members in the US, Asia, Europe, and Australia. Joshua Zerkel, Certified Professional Organizer, leads the Global Engagement Marketing team at Asana with 14 members across five countries. 

One of the joys of managing a globally distributed team are the diversity of perspectives your teammates bring to the table. The important thing to remember is that not everyone communicates in the same way. As a leader of a distributed team, how do you bridge the communication gap between and across cultures to ensure seamless coordination? Here are Jessica and Joshua’s best practices on leading with cross-cultural empathy. 

Start with your own education

The most important cross-cultural muscle to build is a personal understanding of the culture and communication styles in the country where your teammates work. I can say with 100% certainty that most places and most people do not function in the way folks in San Francisco do. Even though I’m used to the way we communicate in San Francisco, it’s important to remember that not all of my teammates are. 

This is something you’ll pick up over time, but it starts with education. If you aren’t already, read the news in the places where your teammates are located. Keeping track of major events that are happening in their area can help you get a better sense of how events may affect them. You don’t need to become a culture expert or know everything that’s taking place, but having cultural context beyond your city or country can show that you’re taking an active interest in the regions where each of your teammates live. – Joshua Zerkel

Be mindful of time zones and global holidays

Not every country has the same holidays or the same celebrations. The easiest way to keep these top of mind is to put global holidays on your calendar. The last thing you want to do is accidentally schedule a meeting on someone’s day off. The same goes for time zone differences. For example, team members in Asia and Australia are a day ahead of us in San Francisco—so if you schedule a meeting on a Friday in Pacific time, you’re actually scheduling a meeting on Saturday for them. – Jessica Gilmartin

Keep written communication brief

Written communication is important for distributed teams, but it’s equally important to remember that the language you use for work might not be a team member’s first language. At Asana, we rely very heavily on written communication in English to get our work done. But long task descriptions and comments can be time-consuming to parse for teammates for whom English is not their native language. While it’s critical to communicate clearly with distributed team members, always strive for brevity and clarity.

There’s a second advantage to sending brief, clear messages as well: communication outside of the US tends to be more conservative and less casual. Especially for teammates you don’t know so well, sending a casual chat message can be interpreted as uncomfortable or overly casual. – Joshua Zerkel

Share a meeting agenda and capture action items

The cross-cultural differences Jessica mentioned show up in meetings, too. For example, team members from some cultures might be hesitant to speak up—especially in virtual meetings. As a leader, you can make it easier for people to share by giving them an opportunity. I try to directly invite them to contribute, even with a simple, “Josh, is there anything you’d like to add?”

Another good way to encourage team members to speak up during meetings is to share the meeting agenda beforehand. In the meeting agenda, create a space to capture notes and action items. That way, everyone is clear on what’s going to be covered and what they need to do after the meeting. – Joshua Zerkel

Factor in cultural norms when giving feedback

Every culture has different communication norms. German culture, for instance, is more direct than US culture. I’ve found that my team members in Germany prefer direct feedback and clear, straightforward communication. Alternatively, team members in Japan are less inclined to provide feedback or ask for help, since these behaviors aren’t the norm in Japanese culture. 

There is no right or wrong way to communicate. Your job as the leader of a distributed team isn’t to standardize communication norms across your team. Instead, make a point to understand the cultural norms and preferences for each of your team members so you’re better prepared to manage them. – Jessica Gilmartin 

Looking for more tips and best practices on hybrid teamwork in a distributed world? Read more posts from our Managing distributed teams series.

Special thanks to Jessica Gilmartin and Joshua Zerkel

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