In a distributed team, diversity can mean a number of things. Removing the barrier of geographic proximity and the need to commute can be a great advantage in getting the best possible people for the job. More and more, we’re seeing businesses take advantage of the flexibility of a distributed office to hire across borders and create an international team.
However, even with new ways of collaborating, some of the same old problems still arise. At Sococo, we recently conducted a survey to take a closer look at cross-cultural team barriers for distributed teams. You can take a look at the results and some conclusions elsewhere on our blog. One thing that came up as the #3 most-reported challenge is an old problem that is newly highlighted in a remote setting: the language barrier.
The difficulty of keeping the whole team on the same page when not everyone is speaking their native language is an age-old problem. No matter how hard you try, there will always be misunderstandings. However, if you are aware of the issue and keep it in mind as a challenge, you can take some steps to address it and make everything work a little more smoothly.
So before we get into things you can do to help your culturally and geographically diverse team collaborate, it’s worth it to remind ourselves why this is all so important. With that in mind, I have a simple question for you: where do you keep your ketchup? Depending on where you’re from, your answer may vary— some put it in the fridge, while others keep it in the cupboard.
“OK,” you might think, “what’s the big deal if my ketchup is warm or cool?” But what if you run out of ketchup and are looking for something else to use instead? One group is staring at an open fridge, and the other is looking in the cupboard. They have different things in front of them, and so they’ll each reach for something different. In other words, they’ll naturally come up with a variety of solutions to the same problem because of a subtle cultural difference.
The ketchup example, which comes from the podcast Reply All’s episode on diversity (transcript available at the bottom of the page), is a really simple way to highlight the value of having a diverse team. People from different backgrounds are going to provide the team with many different ways of coming at a problem. The team benefits from being able to look at a wide variety of options and selecting the best answer.
With the core value of diversity in mind, let’s take a look at five tips for breaking down the language barrier.
1. Take Time to Check Your Equipment
Issues that are challenges for any distributed team become highlighted when a language barrier is at play. The first thing to do is to make sure that your distributed collaboration tools are helping you, and not hurting you.
Set aside a little bit of time to check the basics, and then troubleshoot anything that comes up. Is your mic producing a clear sound? Is it in a good place to clearly hear all the conversations that are happening in the room? The built-in mics on most laptops are designed to only pick up someone if they’re sitting in front of the screen, so if you are trying to cover the audio of a larger meeting you may want to invest in an omnidirectional setup.
It’s also worth it to check the lighting in the room, to make sure that your video is clear and easy to see. If you have anything to share, make sure that you have it setup and organized before the meeting so it’s clear what you’re talking about.
2. Write It Down
A conversation can be hard enough to keep up with in your native language. If ideas are flying around, you can get caught up thinking about the ramifications of one thing and suddenly realize the conversation has moved on without you. What’s more, call quality or a bad microphone can make it really difficult to make out what people are saying, though hopefully you’ve dealt with that.
When not everyone is a native speaker, it’s good practice to follow up in writing. You don’t necessarily need a transcript, and especially not one that captures every “um” and “ah.” What’s important is to have something in writing that goes over the key facts and decisions so your team can refer back to it if they’re unsure. It also helps you to double check that you were clear in the first place.
3. Pay Attention to Visuals
There’s a reason that airlines have the flight attendants do a safety demonstration on almost every flight. A strong visual can communicate an idea with incredible clarity and specificity, across language barriers.
Whatever you’re trying to communicate, it is vital that you spend some time thinking about how you can use visuals to help you get your meaning across. With the screen sharing capabilities of Sococo and other video conferencing solutions, there’s no excuse—find a visual!
4. Take the Time to Clarify
In Fast Company’s tips for overcoming the language barrier, John Rampton suggests that you continually “seek clarification.” In other words, give people the opportunity to tell you if they’re not with you by making sure to ask the obvious questions: “Do you want me to say more?” or “I don’t mind going back” or “I can explain another way.”
People can be afraid to speak up for fear of slowing down the group, so make sure to emphasize that you want to keep everyone on the same page, rather than rush through and cause mistakes further down the road.
5. Invest in Bridging Across Cultures
Respect matters, and there are a few simple ways that you can demonstrate it. Mac McIntire suggests taking the time to learn about each other’s cultures. Even learning the basics of someone else’s language, “hello,” “goodbye,” and “thank you,” can show that you care. Tools like Google Translate can help you with the correct pronunciation.
Putting In the Time
Overall, the strengths of being able to draw on the talents of a diverse team outweigh the risks. Taking the extra steps to provide increased clarity for people working through a language barrier will benefit everyone, even the native speakers. In the end, you’ll have a team that is more creative, more effective, and more collaborative.