'Virtual work will be the future, even more than now' – in conversation with Theresa Sigillito Hollema, author of ‘Virtual Teams Across Cultures’

In a wide-ranging interview, this author shares insights into the rise of cross-cultural virtual teams, and how startups and large firms can improve team effectiveness.
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Theresa Sigillito Hollema is the author of Virtual Teams Across Cultures: Create Successful Teams Around the World (see my book review here). She has worked with global teams for over 25 years. She leads the team at InterAct Global, helping organisations capitalise on cultural diversity and virtual connections. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Theresa is now based in the Netherlands.

See also YourStory’s Book Review section with takeaways from over 315 titles on creativity, entrepreneurship, innovation, social enterprise, and digital transformation. 

In this conversation, Theresa discusses the rise of virtual teams during the pandemic, the key supportive role of leadership, and trends in task-technology fit.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

YourStory [YS]: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the findings of your book?

Theresa Sigillito Hollema [TSH]: The pandemic and working from home have reinforced the findings in the book that focus on remote work. 

The pandemic proved what consultants in the remote field already knew – employees are trustworthy and do not need to be in the office to be productive and collaborate. We must remember that working from home during the pandemic was implemented in a way that we would never recommend – overnight without training, updated procedures, and adequate space and equipment. 

But as the world was dealing with a health crisis, everything happened quickly. A few messages in my book were critical during the pandemic, for instance: 

  • Trust is crucial, between the leader and employees, and between colleagues.
  • Micro-management does not work remotely. Since micromanagers cannot be everywhere all the time, they start to send emails requesting status updates, which drive everyone crazy. Managers learned to set clear deliverables, ensure lines of communication were open and trust their employees. 
  • Shared leadership was evident in many teams, meaning that team members supported and helped each other in ways that had been attributed to the leader when everyone was in the office. Colleagues stepped up and took on new responsibilities.

I think one area still needs attention: task-technology fit, meaning to use the appropriate technology for a certain task. Currently, employees have agendas filled with video meetings, which is exhausting and perhaps inefficient. 

Do the meetings need to happen, or could the topics be addressed with asynchronous communication? I think there is an opportunity for a team agreement on the tools to use, particularly as many companies move to hybrid working. 

[YS]: What are some notable examples you have seen of resilience through virtual work during the pandemic?

[TSH]: I have been touched by the level of empathy and caring that has been expressed during the pandemic, all while working virtually. We were in each other’s homes, dealing with very personal issues and collaborating together. 

I think colleagues showed interest in each other, listened intently, and supported each other. This support helped individuals to be resilient during these emotionally, physically, and mentally challenging times.

[YS]: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions you got?

[TSH]: One of my favourite frequent reactions is when people say, ‘It’s an easy read.’ Whew! It was challenging to explain complex, academic concepts in an approachable, easy to access way. 

The reader I had in mind while writing was the busy leader or manager who wants more than just a list of five things to do. They think deeply about their team, collaboration, and engagement. They want to understand what happens when people work from a distance across cultures. Then they can apply the ideas to their situation. 

My goal was an easily readable book with clear concepts and helpful advice. From the feedback and reactions, the book meets that need. 

Personally, I enjoy interacting with readers when they connect with me on LinkedIn or share what they thought of the book. Once, I was holding my book and a seven-year-old saw me and said, “My Mom is reading that book.” Good to know the cover is recognisable!

YS: What is your current field of research and consulting in virtual work? Any case studies or impacts you can cite?

[TSH]: During the pandemic, many clients were focused on working from home and how to collaborate as a remote team. Now it seems that companies are giving attention again to their global teams and are requesting that I support them. 

For instance, a common request is for a global department with people in different locations – India, the Netherlands, and Dubai. How will they collaborate virtually across cultures? My team and I create (virtual) programmes to help them build bridges across locations and develop cultural and virtual competence. 

Currently, I am also focused on global leadership and how people can develop internationally even though travel will be restricted in the future due to concerns for climate change and cut budgets. For instance, creating development programmes to develop their global mindset and identity. 

The pandemic showed that we can successfully work remotely, but we are still learning about how virtual work impacts us psychologically and emotionally and how we can lead and thrive. I find this fascinating.

[YS]: In the time since your book was published, what are some notable new examples of virtual collaborations you have come across?

[TSH]: To write the book, I used three sources: observations from my consulting practice, insights and models from academic research, and stories from actual managers and teams to show what success looks like. 

I continue to collect stories and was recently intrigued when a VP of a financial services company told me, “Our team improved during the pandemic – we are closer and more connected.” I needed to know more so I interviewed her and the team.

The team was located in three offices before the pandemic and became 100 percent remote during the pandemic (everyone working from home). As I explain in my book, 100 percent is an easier configuration than the hybrid, multilocation setup. But the significant changes were due to how the team interacted, for instance:

  • Through several deliberate activities, the team developed psychological safety. For instance, the team leader actively sought out people’s ideas and openly valued them.
  • They started to use the chat function to share gifs, comfort each other if someone had a bad day, exchange holiday and birthday greetings, and have a fun, genuinely human interaction. This was all asynchronous and had not happened before the pandemic.
  • The leader focused on creating the shared team identity so that each person felt they belonged and were valued as a unique individual. With that intention, she implemented many activities such as learning sessions, virtual team building activities, and regular one-on-one’s with each person.

This leader clearly had a global identity meaning that she considered herself to be part of a global community and behaved accordingly. She had lived in different European countries and thought broader than just the country where she was located. 

This is a new area of interest for me, as research is demonstrating that the identity of the leader may impact the success of a multicultural team. 

The story goes on and will be an article on my website in the near future. This story shows a leader focused on the team connection and the emotional well-being and success of the team members during a very difficult time.

[YS]: Most of the case studies in your book feature big companies. What are your findings with regard to startups who are doing virtual work across cities/countries?

[TSH]: Yes, I did reference multinationals in my book because historically many of them had been locally focused and had to make the change to global collaboration. That process is ongoing. 

Startups, on the other hand, can from the beginning, consider themselves location irrelevant and establish the mindset of a distributed company early on. One of the key advantages of distributed working is the access to talent and the ability to serve global clients with a small geographic footprint, key advantages to a startup.

As many startups are fast-growing and regularly add new people, they need to put attention to the remote onboarding process. I would recommend that they regularly (re)launch the team.

By this, I mean they come together and discuss topics that are often covered in a team launch meeting. For instance, roles and responsibilities, introductions, how will we work together, technology use, and fun activities.

In addition, they need to pay particular attention to the development of their remote corporate culture as they expand. This is true for all startups, and particularly distributed companies who do not have a building to give a sense of belonging. For instance, continuously communicating the purpose of the company or examples of valued behaviours and contributions.

[YS]: What are the typical challenges entrepreneurs face as they scale up their company - how can they retain their culture and cohesion as they become bigger, more distributed, and more virtual?

[TSH]: This has been a hot topic during the pandemic because well-established companies also wondered how they could maintain their culture when the majority of the employees were remote. 

I reference the work of Jennifer Howard-Grenville who proposes that virtual organisations need to be more explicit about their cultural values, norms, and behaviours than collocated.

The office building gives a physical indicator of the company, where employees observe acceptable behaviour and are continuously reminded that they are part of the company. 

The shared physical space disappears in highly distributed companies and teams. Therefore, leaders and teams need to speak about and demonstrate their culture. 

For instance, during meetings, they can say, ‘The way Anna and Vivek supported the client really shows our entrepreneurial and client-first spirit,’ or ‘We will share this information with our client because we want to build partnerships.’ 

Also, including stories and achievements in frequent newsletters and other company communication can help employees understand what the company stands for.

[YS]: What trends do you see in the field of cross-cultural virtual work?

[TSH]: Many trends, which makes this field exciting! Cross-culturalists are starting to integrate their work with broader diversity lenses of race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on, and this is critical because cross-cultural work is not in a vacuum apart from other aspects of each person. We are continuing to explore what inclusion means and also how neurobiology affects cross-cultural interactions. 

Researchers are expanding on the concept of identity – with which groups do you feel you belong? For instance, do you identify yourself as from your country, your profession, your company, or your gender, and what happens if these are in conflict as they often are on global teams? 

Also, what is the advantage if a leader has a global identity instead of a local country identity? This is significant for a multicultural team because the leader will behave differently: building global networks, overcoming cultural barriers, and interacting with the team as if they were borderless.

[YS]: Your book deals with virtual teams within the same company. How would things change if the teams are from different companies?

[TSH]: Some of the issues that I raised would be more apparent. Imagine a joint venture with people located in two separate company offices in two different countries. The psychological distance would be a consequence of cultural diversity, geographic distance, and corporate cultural differences. The chance of us versus them would be increase and the ensuing difficulties. 

Now, make it more complicated by saying they are not in two separate offices but are in various offices – who is where, who is near power and decision-makers, etc. This becomes very complicated. 

If the collaborators understand the dynamics and intentionally try to build bridges as I have described in my book, this does not need to be a tragedy. 

[YS]: What generational shifts are you noticing in virtual work, and what would be the success factors for virtual teams in a multi-generational workforce?

[TSH]: During the pandemic, many research organisations provided various surveys as to how the different generations experienced working from home. Although younger generations have grown up with various technologies and are savvy with the tools and software, the issues raised were regarding mental health, belonging, professional development, etc. 

One study shows that Gen Z and Millennials are more interested in returning to the office than their older colleagues. 

My point is that technology is only the critical foundation for virtual and remote work. Virtual collaboration also needs sharing, mentoring and creating. Although I do not have my own research, I agree with the researchers who see that the generations can help each other. 

[YS]: What is your next book going to be about?

[TSH]: In the near term, I am trying to share the messages of my book in different formats. For instance, I have a YouTube channel where I offer short videos with quick topics and advice. I have spoken on many podcasts and have written blogs and articles as well.

I am not sure of my next book, but I am very interested in how virtual reality will shape collaboration in the future. Particularly because I do not expect business travel to return to pre-pandemic levels and international collaboration will most likely continue to increase. 

I wonder how VR will contribute to improve virtual collaboration and help people to develop cultural competence virtually. Even though I cannot travel to a country, can I experience it through VR? I wonder what the future brings. 

[YS]: What is your parting message to the aspiring leaders in our audience?

[TSH]: Embrace virtual work! Virtual work will be the future, even more than now. 

First, technology will continue to improve. Second, organisations will continue to expand their global strategy. Third, and most important, climate change is the ultimate global challenge that needs global integration and partnership. 

Humanity needs leaders who can engage with the global community while recognising that initiatives are local. The leaders can inspire and communicate seamlessly anywhere in the world. They also understand how humans are interdependent physically and spiritually and who responds with openness and compassion across borders. 

Our sustainable future depends on global leadership. 
Edited by Suman Singh

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