So here are some of the most common "lessons learned" my students have come up with in the past:
- Don't assume anything
- Outline the communication and work process at the beginning, including ways to communicate, communication contact information and back-up information (in case of problems with primary contacts, another person that can track down what is happening), expectations of quality and quantity of work, and a tentative schedule.
- Build in sufficient time into the schedule. There should be regularly scheduled updates and work should be divided up and planned in pieces, with early milestones given priority over other work.
- There should be multiple channels of communication which allows for regular updates. If one system or process does not work, groups should be flexible enough to change it so it does work.
- Analyze "silence" to make sure that everyone understands what is going on. What is causing the "silence": cultural differences? technology problems? problems with the group (dynamics)? Other problems that can't be seen?
- When setting up a virtual group consider: time differences (time zones, including the change from summer to winter time), seasonal differences (there are different business systems for those in summer time and winter time--vacations, whether related work delays---between those in the northern and southern hemisphere. Those around the equator have differences between the dry and wet seasons), holidays, work schedules (how long the work day is, time for lunches, days of the week), access to technology (types of technology, training, accessible power sources--some countries turn off power in the night or early morning, others might have unannounced blackouts on a regular basis), and communication structures (gatekeepers to authority, organizational structure, language ability).
- Have patience. Plan that things will go wrong and develop a plan of how to troubleshoot when that happens. This is especially important for language and cultural misunderstandings.
- Be sensitive to differences in culture, values, concept of time, office relationships, and language. Ask, don't tell. Realize that others in the team are trying to figure you out as much as you are trying to figure them out, so be explicit and explain EVERYTHING. Don't be insulted about ANY questions that might be posed to you and don't assume that any question is dumb as long as the intent is to make the group work more efficiently. Put yourself in the others situation.
I feel that these are experiences that all new workers in the US should be exposed to. As the world economy shifts to Asia, Americans need to start recognizing that English may not stay the world language of business, and at the very least, more and more decisions and groups may have members outside of the US.