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Tips and tricks for online international collaboration

Online collaboration in an international environment in times of COVID-19: some intercultural dimensions
24 March 2020

Author: Michaela Carrière, Section Head & Trainer Intercultural Competence at the Language Centre, University of Groningen

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Looking back at more than a week of online collaboration, I suspect it has been a rollercoaster for all of us.

A crisis is a difficult time for anyone, but even more so for those who are functioning outside their cultural comfort zone. A crisis is known to reinforce the desire to do things the way we're comfortable with, from back home, which can easily enlarge the cultural gaps between us.

My multinational background and teaching activities around intercultural competence over many years have helped me to develop a set of lenses that enable me to see things from various cultural perspectives.

Therefore, I want to offer you just a few insights from an intercultural perspective, including tips and tricks for online collaboration in an international environment, in the hopes that it allows us all a touch of gentleness and the empathy to practise shifting our perspectives.

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1. Ik hoor het wel als er wat is

One point arose during an online MT meeting - our second of what turned out to be daily MT meetings in the times of COVID-19.

One of the other participants said: Ik hoor het wel van hem als er wat is ('If there are any issues, he'll get in touch with me') and my intercultural competence radar was triggered.

This is an assumption one shouldn't necessarily make in an international environment.

It is the virtual equivalent of a manager's “open-door policy”. Such a policy might not be pro-active enough for someone who expects their manager to take the initiative to come to them. Colleagues from backgrounds where hierarchy and status are dimensions governing interpersonal relations will not want to impose, or be an additional burden. They understand that a manager has many important things to do, and that the manager will make time available when the time is right for them.

Tip: Reach out to your people. Don't assume they will come to you when there are issues.
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2. We moeten de boel op orde houden!

Similarly, a cultural difference in priorities around task vs relationship orientation may play a role in these times. Let me explain: those with strongly formed task-oriented priorities take pride in crisis management: they jump to the task at hand to be able to say 'see how well the core tasks are being kept on track!'
Those who see it as duty to put relationships first in times of crisis, take a very different approach; they will ask 'How are you doing? What are you running into? How is this impacting your family? Will you be able to manage your home and work burden?'

Tip: Reach out to your colleagues, not only regarding whether they are working on their tasks when quarantined to their home environment but also in terms of how their adaptation is going, and how they and their families are doing.
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3. Turn-taking in online collaboration

People with a more direct communication style are accustomed to taking their turn. People from a more indirect communication style are accustomed to awaiting their turn. The direct find the indirect too passive; the indirect find the direct too pushy.

Tips:
Allocate a facilitator (or take on the facilitator's role) who ensures that turns are more explicitly given to all participants in an online meeting. Make sure that the quiet person (who's camera might also be off) is also asked what their thoughts are…
Practice different communication styles to develop new intercultural skills: for those with the tendency to jump in, perhaps consider only speaking when you really have something important to say. For those with the tendency to hold back, experiment with jumping in. Recognize it when you see a colleague step outside their cultural comfort zone, and appreciate that effort.
And practice personal leadership: when you find yourself triggered, when something comes along that sets your judgemental radar pinging or when you find yourself uncomfortable with something that you don't quite understand, ask yourself - what does this say about my values; and, assuming positive intent about the other, what might someone else's perspective be in this situation…
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I'm surprised at how relevant intercultural skills are in this time of uncertainty. Our current situation requires finding comfort outside our comfort zones, tolerating ambiguity, utilizing cognitive and behavioural flexibility, shifting to other people's perspectives and displaying empathy despite stressful circumstances. So, be gentle with one another.

And, if we run into more of such insights, we'll share them with you. Or, if you have your own, please share them with us in a reaction to our post on Facebook or LinkedIn!

Last modified:24 March 2020 09.23 a.m.
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