Global teams are like oceans: Depending on how they are navigated, they can link the world together or split it apart. When global teams work, they tap into a company’s top talent, exploit local expertise, unite far-flung groups and ramp up worldwide production. When they don’t, they are divisive, spark massive miscommunication and drive global projects into the ground.

“In any team, there are lots of barriers to effectively working together, and there are ways to make teams more effective through selection, through design, through leadership,” says Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard. “The challenges are really exacerbated in global teams where you have even greater potential barriers, especially when there are different cultural norms.”

Working across international, cultural and organizational boundaries poses daunting challenges on a variety of levels. Time zone differences can make meetings difficult. Language and cultural differences sometimes lead to communication problems. And a variety of less obvious differences trip up global team members in ways they rarely expect.

Despite such difficulties, global teams — in all forms — are here to stay. Whether it’s a small task force within a single company, a cross-border partnership or a multinational coalition of leaders spanning several organizations, global teams have become an essential element of modern business. “They’re often a necessity,” says Rothbard. “You may need those diverse cultural perspectives to solve a cultural problem…. We need to find ways to make these teams work effectively. We need them to get the work done as the world becomes a more global place.”

When done right, global teams can be an asset, unlocking tremendous value for companies that use them. “Global teams are able to take advantage of people not being in the same place at the same time, in order to get the work done,” says Batia Weisenfeld, a management professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business. “Projects can be progressing 24 hours a day. You’ll be doing software development in Silicon Valley and then the software testing is being done in India while those people [in California] are sleeping.”

Global teams can also ratchet up creativity and innovation by tapping into unique skill sets and multiple points of view. Weisenfeld points to one New York advertising firm as an example. The firm’s New York office developed what was supposed to be a worldwide advertising campaign. But the campaign probably wouldn’t sit well culturally for Asian consumers, the company’s Asia office advised. So team members in Asia tweaked the campaign to accommodate local tastes. In the process, they improved the campaign so much that headquarters ultimately replaced the original campaign with the Asian version.

Unlocking Value

Despite such potential, global teams pose challenges that must first be overcome.

One of the most common issues is time. When team members are scattered across several time zones, simply scheduling a meeting can be difficult.

Consultant Ana Reyes is a partner of New Worlds Enterprise LLP, lecturer in the Penn Organizational Dynamics Program and academic director for a program offered by Wharton’s Aresty Institute for Executive Education called, “Leading Virtual Global Teams.” Reyes once experienced a timing and communication snafu when working as a consultant for a large multinational corporation. The company, which had offices in several U.S., European and Asian locations, usually held global teleconferences in the morning New York time. Since team members in Asia attended the meetings in the evening, they usually used their personal phones at home. When it came to scheduling a meeting via videoconference, however, things became very complicated. Asian team members didn’t have videoconferencing equipment at home, and discovered — weeks, unfortunately, after their meeting was scheduled and the agenda was set — that they couldn’t use the video equipment in their office building because it was locked at night. “To get the video conferencing, they had to hire technology support and security for the building,” Reyes says. In the end, the company decided it would be easier to just fly people to New York.

Organizations often assume that global team members are willing to meet when it’s convenient for headquarters, says Catherine Mercer Bing, CEO of ITAP International, a Newtown, Pa.-based consulting firm that “works at the intersection of business and cultural issues.” The unfortunate result for some team members: Every meeting takes place in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn.

“It becomes [demotivating] for those team members who always have to be available at 4 a.m. or some other off-work hours,” Bing says. Her suggestion: Start global conference calls by asking what time it is for everyone involved, to make everyone aware of other team members’ situations. Also, change meeting times frequently so that everybody has a chance to attend a meeting during the day. “Rotate,” she suggests. “It makes it fair. It makes team members feel more equitable.”

Tackling cultural differences can be much more of a challenge. When global teams include more than one culture, team members carry unspoken assumptions that can lead to inadvertent misunderstandings. After all, the type of information people share and how they share it is culturally based, says Rothbard. “Hesitation in voice in one culture might signal discomfort with what is being shared. In another culture, it might just [mean they’re] being deliberative. What people mean, and how [others] interpret what they mean, is very subtle. The speaker might have no idea that their words are being interpreted in a certain way.”

Depending on a person’s cultural background, fellow team members might seem to be speaking too loudly or softly, interrupting too much or being too reticent, demanding a ridiculous amount of information or being oddly ambiguous.

“Everybody is programmed by the cultures they grew up with,” says Reyes. Studies have shown that people from Latin American, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries speak several decibels louder than other cultures. In many of these countries, interrupting is considered an acceptable way to exchange turns in conversation. “These communication patterns … become annoyances that people can’t figure out, so people often ignore [them]. And best practice is to talk about them.”

Cultural differences also impact the way global teams communicate information to others outside of the team — another possible source of conflict. Bing once worked with a global team with members in the U.S. and Spain. Consistently throughout the project, the Spanish team members would copy their superiors in emails about what the team was doing. Members of the U.S. team misinterpreted the move as attempts to undermine team efforts. “The U.S. [team members] were saying, ‘You guys are trying to get us in trouble,'” Bing recalls. “But part of who gets copied is a cultural decision.” The misperception ultimately caused so much conflict between members that the team missed a project deadline.

Cultural differences even creep into the technologies companies use, creating additional challenges for interaction, Reyes says. “Culture is really pattern-based ways of organizing space, time, human activity and the material environment. So technology — any kind of technology, whether it’s a robot or a technology system — [involves] human practices that have been disembodied and put into a machine.”

Barriers to Sharing Knowledge

While cultural differences may stand out as an obvious stumbling block for global teams, differences in other areas also drive teams apart, experts point out. “Each person is likely to be situated in a very different context so their assumptions may be different,” says Weisenfeld. “Some of those may be cultural, but they can also be legal or societal.”

For example, when organizations in Europe restructure, one of the first things to come up in discussion is labor unions. This is not as much of a concern in the U.S. as in Europe, where labor laws are different, Weisenfeld says. “Those become taken-for-granted assumptions. It’s not cultural. They’re not about people’s values. They’re about people’s taken-for-granted assumptions about the way things work.”

Wharton management professor Martine Haas has made a career of studying team interaction in large organizations, looking for factors in addition to culture that may lead to a team’s success or failure. “When you talk about global teams, most of the research is about cultural issues, but there are a lot of [other interactions] that happens in global teams,” she says.

Haas has found that a mix of “cosmopolitans” and “locals” are a key to team success. She defines “locals” as team members on the ground who know a lot about the country they represent. “Cosmopolitans” are team members who have lived in several countries and may speak multiple languages. Having worked on projects in different parts of the world, cosmopolitans have a birds-eye view and may be able to see the global implications of a team’s actions. But only a local might be aware of what consumers in a particular country want from a new product, or understand the subtleties of a new environmental regulation the local country just put in place. “It’s good to have both of these on the team because they bring different things,” Haas says. “Teams that have both of these in them are most effective.”

Haas also identifies four sets of differences that can drive global team members apart: cultural, geographic, demographic and structural. Cultural barriers, discussed earlier, stem from a team member’s birthplace and background. Geographic barriers refer to the actual location where the team member resides. (These two can be different if, say, the team member is an American-born expat in charge of a company’s Beijing office.)

Demographic barriers refer to factors such as age, tenure and education level of a team member. Structural differences refer to a team member’s position in the company hierarchy or a particular business unit. “All these kinds of differences reduce the likelihood that you’re going to share knowledge,” says Haas.

Not all differences are created equal: Haas has found that structural differences play a stronger role than demographic ones, and geography plays a stronger role than culture. In fact, structural differences play a stronger role than either geography or culture. So managers from two different countries who work in the same company division could find it easier to share information than people from the same cultural background who work in two different departments or satellite offices. “The reason is that structure and geography have more powerful effects on how team members understand and communicate about their tasks than demography and culture,” Haas says. “As a result, they can encounter more communication problems when they try to communicate across structural and geographic differences than across demographic and cultural ones.”

So what can managers and companies do to make global teams work better? Our experts offer a few ideas and suggestions:

Try to meet at least once face-to-face, says Weisenfeld. “There is evidence that when people have even just one face-to-face meeting, it makes virtual teams work much more smoothly.”

Choose team members carefully. Find the right balance of locals and cosmopolitans, Haas suggests. Don’t overlook soft skills such as interpersonal communication abilities, Rothbard adds. “Often the technical skills get prioritized very powerfully over teamwork skills,” she says.

Keep the team small if possible. “Teams optimally work most effectively when you have five to seven individuals,” says Rothbard. “As you get larger than that, it becomes more challenging. You need to be very careful as you start going above that number. You need to be clear that you are adding value… I’m not saying you can never go above that number. You just need to make sure that you know there’s a tradeoff.”

Consider cross-cultural training. According to Reyes, best-practice companies “train in cross-cultural communication, project management, teamwork and stakeholder management” and they “provide guidelines and support for chartering teams, selecting communication and collaboration technologies, and building and maintaining trust in globally diverse settings.” 

Be explicit upfront about how the team will operate, making no assumptions that some things should be obvious or understood. Bing worked with a team once that called a meeting and forgot to include one member on the email. The man thought he had been fired. The reality: Nobody had sent out an email list of who was on the team. “Who’s on the distribution list? How will we communicate with each other? What technologies will we use? Just establishing appropriate protocols is important,” Bing says. “Come up with a team culture that says, ‘We all agree that this is how we’re going to work together.'”

Be conscious of time. That means not only time zones but expectations of how long tasks should take, how long meetings should be and when they are expected to start and finish. This is especially important if the team is composed of members from different cultures who have varying concepts of time, Weinsenfeld remarks. If the meeting is at 10 o’clock, for example, team members from Germany could show up at nine while those from Brazil might not dial in until eleven. “If the meeting is one hour, you can be sure that people will miss each other,” she says.

Consider how the team is organized. Be aware of conflicting interests of team members. Reyes suggests forming sub-tasks to pull the group together and counteract the tendency to splinter along cultural or geographic lines. Teams are easier to manage if everyone is reporting to the same individual, Weisenfeld notes.

Don’t overload team members. Haas says her research has shown that a team’s effectiveness is compromised if its members are too overloaded with tasks. These can be tasks for the team itself or external projects that team members have to complete in addition to their work on the team.

Give the team autonomy. Being autonomous is one of the key factors to a global team’s success, Haas has found. Teams that have no control over their budget, are beholden to outside interests or have little authority to make decisions about tasks and resources struggle to meet their goals. Without autonomy, Haas says, a global team’s scheduling efforts, cross-cultural dialogue and efforts to increase information-sharing could well go to waste. “How good is the team if they don’t have the ability to act on what they know?”