Video conferencing and how to bridge the cultural gap

It’s been a while since I published a guest blog post. After chatting about the merits of video conferencing earlier this month at my local environmental group a fellow member, Mike Boyce, made some interesting comments about the cultural issues he’s faced when having online meetings. Not one to miss an opportunity I asked him if he could jot down any tips he had and share them with me.

Mike is the global Environment, Health and Safety Manager for a US Energy Engineering Manufacturing Company. They use video conferencing a great deal to support international business transactions and Mike has spent many years working with different video conferencing technologies and with people from different cultures.

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mikeMy company has business activity worldwide and my job has 2 main functions. Firstly to review and screen new and unusual or innovative business development projects to ensure we will meet all Environmental Requirements when they are built (this includes Wind Farms, Solar farms, Carbon Sequestration and Power projects). 90% of this work concerns non-UK projects due to the restrictive planning processes in UK that kill off many renewable energy projects. The main offices which I support are Schenectady, New York, Bracknell UK, Florence Italy, Singapore and Sydney, Australia. The second role is managing a Global Logistics Safety and Environment programme that moves about $20Bn US value of cargo, spending over $1bn US doing this. In this job I support teams in Greenville (South Carolina), Glasgow (Scotland), Prague (Czech Republic), Belfort (France), Rheine (Germany), Dubai (UAE), Chennai (India) & Shanghai (China). I am involved in qualifying and auditing road, rail, sea and air carriers; investigating accidents, improving processes and promoting reductions in carbon footprint. I have local colleagues supporting me in US & China.

So you guessed it….I travel a lot. I spend about 50-60% of the month overseas primarily in the US, China and mainland Europe. When I’m at home I telework as otherwise I’d have a 170 mile round trip to the nearest UK office my company has. My carbon footprint is bad enough already and being a staunch believer in reduction of CO2 emissions avoidance of the M4 is worthwhile for the planet and me.

Video Conferencing Tips

A typical day may start at 7:30 am with conference calls to China and end with the same activity at 7:00 pm to Greenville South Carolina or our HQ in New York State. There are so many great tools out there but my top tips are:

  1. I telephone with a mute button (so no one can hear my dogs barking (I know Marieke has recently posted about animal noises!) or me typing my notes as people talk). I have a team of about 30 people globally I support. My closest colleagues know about my dogs barking, so I am not too embarrassed now. When I meet them they all want to see pictures!
  2. Telephone with a head set so you don’t have to hold the handset for hours. Some calls I make last up to 3 hours long.
  3. I have a software programme and subscription to WEBEX. It’s a cool system. I can upload slides for a meeting, run them so they appear on colleagues’ screens, hand control to a colleague in China or Australia, run agenda summaries, keep track of who joined, send private messages (like shut up and let the others talk) or provide info privately to colleagues when we have suppliers or customers online.)
  4. Video conferencing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Bandwidth often means you can either talk or move your arms but not both…unless you have a system called telepresence, but that’s usually only available only in an office.
  5. To avoid the calls in the pyjamas syndrome, get up get dressed, go out and come in again like you would do in a real office. Take the dogs for a walk.

Weird Work Locations

I’ve had a lot of funny work locations and should probably enter the Extreme Conferencing Survey. I have made conference calls from a park, in a cave in the Malvern Hills, on a beach in Greece, at the side of an Extinct Volcano (planned a recruitment campaign in France, Puys D’Auvergne) in Killybegs harbour, County Donegal, Ireland (watching seals) and in a former warzone in Croatia, surrounded by burnt out/bombed houses.

Cultural Issues

Over the years I’ve spent making conference calls I’ve come to a few conclusions: Conference calls with the US are no problem as it’s a way of life out there. Conference calls with other English speaking countries such as Singapore and Australia are fine. They are getting used to the idea and we normally have good meetings. However conference calls with non-English speakers spells trouble. Firstly you have to speak perfect English, be respectful, no slang, don’t mumble etc. Also as you move eastwards, personal relationships get more important. You need to make the effort to meet folks you will speak to regularly. This really helps because when you next get on a call with them, they will know you and the barriers are removed.

I recently had a great call with a supplier in Kuwait because we already knew each other. However it is worth remembering that you should avoid Thursday nights, Friday and Saturday in the Middle East and never ever have a conference call late Friday afternoon in China. Friday evening is a sacrosanct family or social time.

Also remember, no one can see your body expression, you can’t see hand movements, so forget jokes etc. This brings me to my last point: to get on you need to figure out the social business culture of the folks you speak to. My company uses a really good site called Globe smart for this, however you may need to subscribe to use it. It enables users to find out what the business culture is in different countries around the world and so find out how counterparts would behave and adjust your behaviour accordingly. You can log in and by answering questions your personality profile is plotted against other nationalities. You can see how you are in comparison to members of your selected target cultures on various preferences such as direct/indirect communication style, individual/group orientation, egalitarian/hierarchical structures, task/relationship approaches, and tendencies toward risk/caution. For example you might find that you are very direct (like the Germans and Dutch) or very heirarchical like the Japanese. I’ve recently used it for doing business with people in Vietnam and it helps me avoid embarrassing faux pas. This is very important as none of us want to look a fool or upset people!

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4 thoughts on “Video conferencing and how to bridge the cultural gap

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  3. In very simple terms, video conferencing is a form of communication that is conducted with the help of video and audio technology. The two signals are transmitted over a digital network to connect two or more locations in realtime. It is easy to conduct a video conference at the office, school or home as there is no technical expertise needed and more often than not it takes less than five minutes to set up.’

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