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Virtual Work and Intercultural Encounters

A Study Finds that Virtual Work May Deteriorate the Quality of Work Related Intercultural Encounters

The Global and connected world has its implications also to intercultural encounters in work-life. Modern information and communication technologies (ICT) allow interaction that has not been possible previously.

Virtual teams are a phenomenon that team organizations are not anymore dependent on the actual location of a person’s workspace. In practice employees and virtual team members can work wherever globally. COVID-19 has made, but also allowed, specialists and their supervisors to work from distance. This has emphasized virtual teams and related work practices even further.

A relatively recent study by Johanna Saarinen, a well experienced Human Resources Management professional, and Rebecca Piekkari, a professor in international business at Aalto University, covered cross-cultural encounters in global virtual teams. Their focus was on the work of Finnish managers with employees from different cultural backgrounds. Most of the employees and members of the studied virtual teams were Chinese. The study intended to discover how Finnish managers talk about their work with employees.

There seems to be a tension between expectations of being a good leader and the reality of working in a virtual setting. Also, it seems that a virtual working environment combined with cultural differences has impoverished interaction. In practice, this means Finnish managers have adopted a harder and less dialogue-based approach. Since virtual meetings do not require any travel they have become shorter and thus agendas tend to be brief. This means in practice that there is limited time available for discussing ad-hoc topics or personal issues. Due to this the communications between managers and workers are prompt and efficient.

Also, some problems associated with communication technology were reported. However, technological development has advanced further since the study was made. Therefore it could be assumed that at least part of the perceptions of the physical and psychological distance between managers and their team members are alleviated.

Virtual work seems to put less emphasis on socio-relational communication and more on task-oriented and fact-oriented communication. The researchers suggest that a virtual work setting makes the nature of cross-cultural managerial work different and thus new leadership-related competencies are required.

Since the growth of popularity of virtual work, there is a need to improve intercultural communication practices. The following approaches could be taken separately or combined:
1) securing high-quality connections and technological competencies of both managers and their employees,
2) emphasizing dialogue supporting skills and practices including dialogue encouraging topics to meeting agendas, and
3) taking into account of expectations of both employees and their managers to make virtual communication both effective and efficient, but still a pleasant and work community-building activity.

Read the full article (pages 167–180) here.

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