Vol 44, Issue 2

November/December 2004

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Factors That Can Cause Confusion in an International Virtual Office

by Jeff Staples, Sr. Information Developer, Valley Forge/Kitba Consulting

In today's global society, it is not uncommon for a company to have employees in different locations around the country and around the world. To link all these employees, management may consider creating a virtual office. In evaluating such a venture, management is wise to consider the cultural diversity among its employees and the confusion and problems that this cultural diversity can create.

Part one of this two-part article discusses the following types of cultural factors that could cause confusion and/or problems in an international virtual office:

  • linguistic
  • technical
  • numeric
  • legal

The typical office environment has potential for conflict and confusion, due to the various people and their various personalities, traits, and characteristics. Now add people from other cultures into the mix (potentially in a virtual office environment) and it is easy to expect that challenges will arise.

Look for and consider the following factors when evaluating and assembling an international virtual office.

Linguistic Factors

With an international mix of people in a virtual office, the team members “face significant, immediate challenges in organizing and communicating” (Suchan and Hayzak 2001, p. 177). The members of the team may speak different languages or may speak the same language, such as English. However, English may be a second language and the team members may not know or understand it well. Team members who are using a language other than their native language generally “favor their native culture's format for presenting information, even when that information is presented in a different language” (St. Amant 2004, p. 149).

In addition, all members speaking English does not mean that they are speaking the same English. For example, one person may have different meanings for the same English words or expressions than another person.

The interactions between virtual team members is “closely linked to the concept of translation, or how different linguistic and cultural groups prefer to present ideas in a given situation” (St. Amant 2004, p. 146). Translation, and especially good translation, is not just converting a text word-for-word.

Translation involves converting words and meanings into another form such as another language. For example, recently one of the news networks had a story about bootleg translations of books being sold in China and how the text in many passages had no connection with the original text from the published book.

These various linguistic factors alone can cause confusion but are also compounded because the “linguistic limitations of individuals who are interacting online might not be realized until problems related to comprehension occur” (St. Amant 2004, p. 151).

Technical Factors

In creating a virtual office, technology restrictions “may be so great that [people] either cannot access information or cannot view it as is intended” (St. Amant 2004, p. 161). Therefore, it is important that management evaluate the access capabilities of each member of the office team and ensure that everyone has the same technical capabilities, such as the same software system so that files can be easily exchanged.

In addition, other technical factors that can create problems include the “reliability and the carrying capacity of telephone lines, the speed of microprocessors, and the resolution of monitors” (St. Amant 2004, p. 157). For example, if individuals have slow online connections, they may rely on printing all materials. However, the printing process can be affected if individuals do not have a reliable printer or if the materials such as online information do not print well.

Numeric Factors

Numeric systems can vary based on culture. Individuals in one country or culture might use dates, time, and magnitude in a form that is misinterpreted by someone in another country who uses a different form. For example, the United States conveys a date in the form of month, day, and year, while Europe uses day, month, and year. A date such as 6/4/04 could be read as June 4, 2004, or 6 April 2004. This type of misinterpretation can lead to embarrassing, confusing, and/or costly mistakes.

Confusion can also arise with the use of different numeric systems. For example, one culture may use the English system while another uses metric, and the cultures do not understand each other's system.

Legal Factors

Copyright issues related to online interactions can cause concern and is something that anyone posting to the Web should be aware of and give consideration to (although I expect that most of us probably do not).

With international communication in a virtual office, more concern is warranted because one country's copyright standards may be different from (and less or more restrictive than) standards used by the countries of other office members.

People from a variety of cultures/countries may bring a variety of copyright policies and procedures into the office environment. In addition, the different team members are probably familiar with and use their own country's copyright guidelines but are probably not familiar with copyright guidelines that the other members may be using or be familiar with.

International outsourcing can create more issues for the virtual office if it brings in even more people/cultures and thus different copyrights and laws. Each country may have specific laws governing production practices, employee work schedules/rates/benefits, and so on. These items could affect the office's production schedules, delivery times, and contract obligations.

Another factor is that, unlike country borders that determine law jurisdiction, online communication is without borders and boundaries. Therefore, it will be hard to determine which law is in effect for a given transaction. Online communication also raises issues related to the disclosure of information and an individual's privacy when communicating via online connections.

Next month : Ideas for avoiding confusion in an international virtual office.


Copyright information. www.copyright.gov/fls/fl100.html . June 1999.

St. Amant, Kirk. “Legal and Ethical Aspects of Globalization.” 2004.

St. Amant, Kirk. “International Online Workplaces: A Perspective for Management Education.” The Cutting Edge of International Management Education . Information Age Publishing. 2004.

Suchan, Jim and Greg Hayzak. “The Communication Characteristics of Virtual Teams: A Case Study.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 44, no. 3:174–186.

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