Getting International Teams to Work Together

Last Updated Mar 8, 2010 9:05 AM EST

recipe for building virtual teamsOne of my colleagues, a project manager for a major international bank, was struggling with the same thing many of us do: how do you get people on a virtual team, scattered all over the world, to know, like and trust each other when they never get a chance to meet? The answer in his case was something simple, some might even say silly, but it worked: sharing recipes.

Before you snort, think about the problem he faced and see if it sounds familiar:

  • The team was virtual in every sense -- not only did people not work together physically, but they answered to different functional managers in different business units. Not exactly the ingredients for a cohesive team environment.
  • The team was made of people from different countries and cultures. In particular, one group was in India, and the group in the U.S. considered them outsourced help who were taking jobs that should have gone to their colleagues. Meanwhile, the folks in India thought, "They hate us and don't give us any respect." Both might have had their points, but either way, the working environment wasn't good.
  • The manager was perplexed at why people wouldn't voluntarily reach out to each other but instead chose to either go through him or stay within their silos and go to the same people all the time for answers.
This manager used an internal SharePoint site to have everyone post a profile, encouraged web meetings, and offered all the usual technology solutions, but no one used them -- until someone posted a request for an Indian recipe. Answers flew fast and furious as everyone on the Indian team offered their mother's recipe, sure to be the absolute best.

Emails of thanks flew back in reply. Requests for clarification led to long, chatty email threads (a mixed blessing, to be sure) and ultimately to an improved overall communication climate.

Why was something this minor and "unbusinessy" a success? Think about it:

  • People were meeting an emotional need. Offering assistance when there is no compelling reason to do so builds trust and gratitude.
  • People understood the cultural barriers better. Here's a simple example: the metric system. The only American kitchens that effectively use metric measures are meth labs. When forced to convert the recipes into Imperial measures, American workers got a taste of what happens when they send unconverted specs overseas, creating busy work for their teammates.
  • Team members on both sides could see who was proactive and forthcoming with information and who held back. This might be a small thing when it comes to making samosas, but it's huge when you need a quality answer fast in order to meet your milestones.
By allowing the team to communicate about something off-topic and completely social, they were able to form the bonds necessary to good teamwork. He might not be a chef, but in this case he found a recipe for creating a great virtual team.