Cross-Border Workforce Issues: Worker Qualifications and Virtual Teams

Globalization continues to march steadily forward, and the HR and talent management functions of your company are no exception. Workers are recruited and deployed to just about anywhere in the world with an Internet connection, which can create some real headaches for your department in a variety of areas. Two areas that deserve special consideration include worker qualifications and virtual teams.

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Muddy Global Waters: Worker Qualifications

It’s a well-known and unfortunate trend that the kinds of skills companies need and the skills being developed in students going through the educational system seem to be increasingly out of step with each other (see Why Obama’s Free Community College Plan is a GREAT Idea and Think Globally, Hire and Train Locally). This trend makes it hard enough for talent management and HR professionals to accurately assess workers’ qualifications, but when you’re dealing with a truly global workforce, the situation gets even trickier.

The problem is that there’s no international standardization in education, which means you can’t necessarily assume that a degree in one country means the student has the same skills as one holding the same degree from another country. There can even be a good deal of disparity between different institutions within the same country. The result? Persistent skills and qualifications mismatches that cost companies time and money. For workers, this typically translates into being overqualified for their jobs, which becomes a psychological burden for them over time. Whether speaking of skills or qualifications, the longer-term solution is for educational systems around the world to become more attuned and responsive to labor market needs, as well as more consistent as an industry.

Managing Virtual Teams

The wonders of 21st century communications technology allows for the formation of virtual teams that span the globe. There are advantages to be found in virtual teams, such as saving a lot of money on travel and worker relocations. The diversity that can be obtained in virtual teams has a much greater chance of not only avoiding group-think (uncritical conformity) but of boosting creativity and innovation. Managing these globally diverse virtual teams, however, can be tricky.

Here’s a scenario for you: Your company is outsourcing some significant technical development work to a capable team in Southeast Asia. Your interactions with the team are all online. You check in with them daily to see if they have questions, and every day the response is the same – the code is coming – and yet days continue to tick by without any results. Finally, you get on a plane and meet with the team in person. They clearly have no understanding of the larger business context surrounding the development project. It’s not their fault, really, because this information was never conveyed to them. But from a cultural perspective, they didn’t feel comfortable saying they didn’t know enough to proceed with the work. After a simple face-to-face meeting, all of this is quickly cleared up and the team goes on to produce top-notch work, asking plenty of questions along the way. Note to self: Not everyone is comfortable launching major projects in an online-only environment. Sometimes a certain level of trust must be developed that can only happen through an initial face-to-face meeting. When working across cultures in a virtual environment, you need a certain level of multicultural sensitivity to make it work.

An Economist Intelligence Unit survey back in 2009 revealed that as many as one-third of virtual teams are thought to be poorly managed (source). And make no mistake – you can bet that linguistic, cultural, and time differences all play a role in making virtual team management a difficult proposition.

While the issues around skills and qualifications mismatches don’t have any easy short-term or quick fixes, there are lots of things companies can do right now to improve their management of virtual teams. Keep an eye out for additional articles on that very topic in the weeks ahead.


December 8, 2015   Updated :November 16, 2016   cross-border workforce, virtual teams, worker qualifications   

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