On the surface, the issue of language in virtual teams can seem like a relatively simple one to deal with, for many managers it is a case of nominating a common project language and tell everyone to use it for all correspondence and discussions.
However, as in so many things, reality is not quite so straight forward. Most language issues are visible in the project correspondence, whether that be written in emails and letters or spoken in meetings, but then there are the less visible ones of written documentation and the almost invisible, particularly to the less observant, or the challenges for staff for whom the chosen project language is a second or third after their native tongue, and frequently a distant second or third at that.
Language Challenges in Virtual Team Correspondence
The issues language differences bring to team correspondence are perhaps the most immediate and visible of the language challenges. Sentence structures and differences in meanings of words combined with different skill levels in even the first language for some personnel let alone a second or third language cause no end of confusion in meetings, with participants needing to repeat, restructure and expelling even some of the simplest things. Combine these issues with some cultural differences, where many people are simply reluctant to use what second language skills they may have due to embarrassment at potential mistakes, and lack of confidence, and you have a real recipe for trouble.
Language Challenges in Project Documentation
The language challenges associated with project documentation are some of the hardest to quantify and overcome. Many projects will adopt a single common language, typically dictated by the client, and from then on all documentation will be required in that language. This is completely understandable from the clients perspective but can cause some real challenges for the project organisation, particularly if either they work in a different language or they are operating as a virtual team where some of their offices are in countries where the project language is not the first language.
Some of the biggest issues associated with working in a different language are;
- Documentation can become very hard to understand for employees not comfortable with the different language, this can lead to substantial delays in progressing work and usually also additional rework over organisational norms as employees develop understandings of the interpreted documents.
- Employees can experience difficulty asking and responding to questions, or even knowing that they need to ask questions on occasion. These issues can occur due to personnel not readily grasping some of the nuances of requirements when written in a language they may not be so fluent with.
- Checking and finalising of final documentation can be a much longer and protracted exercise, not only do the technical content of the document need to be correct, they also need to be expressed in the right way in the project language.
All of this can lead to frustration, delay and tension between individuals and offices during the execution of the work, with personnel from all sides struggling to integrate as easily as they would with a common language.
Overcoming Virtual Team Language Challenges
Every situation will be different, but there are a few ways that major virtual team language challenges can be managed.
- Be cognisant when establishing your virtual team of the project language and the principle language of both the home and remote office. It may be that a remote office may have a strength in the project language that can be a real advantage in the delivery of the project.
- Always have key documents translated into all main languages and ensure that you have personnel conversant with and key delivery or performance standards required under the contract.
- Engage interpreters if and where needed, this can include linguistic professions for meetings, translation of correspondence and documentation.
- Try, where possible, to leverage the language skills of any personnel in each location, having a few people comfortable with both the language and the culture of the countries involved can help avoid a lot of the potential conflicts that language issues can stir up.
- Keep meetings, particularly electronically mediated meetings, brief and on message, and where possible, try to use video rather than voice only for these meetings. Body language can play as large a part in the meetings as spoken language.
Ulfire specialises in supporting organisations establish and run high performing virtual teams, we combine extensive practical experience from decades of involvement in virtual teams with current real world academic research into the way members of virtual teams collaborate. Please contact us to discuss ways we can asset your business.
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