Vol 44, Issue 3

January/February 2005

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Ideas for Avoiding Confusion in an International Virtual Office

by Jeff Staples, Independent Contractor

Last month, part one of this article discussed several cultural factors that may cause confusion or problems in an international virtual office. This article discusses ways to avoid confusion in an international virtual office.

In communicating, especially between cultures, members in an international virtual office need to possess a willingness to learn about/experience other cultures and other practices. For example, some cultures may respond to messages (e-mail or phone) promptly while others may take hours or days to respond. This could result in frustration as the cultures correspond with each other. Thus, having tolerance for others and practices that may be different from your own is essential for anyone dealing with intercultural communication, such as in an international virtual office.

In addition, a company cannot dictate another country's laws or practices and online communication is still generally free of laws governing its use (and misuse). Therefore, to address these issues, the company and/or virtual office should establish its own guidelines for online communication. The company can have its legal department write the guidelines for legal interpretation and have each team member sign a disclosure based on the guidelines.

To help avoid confusion/problems in an international virtual office, management should consider the following ideas:

  • Establish guidelines for the virtual office and its members on copyright and privacy issues. For example, create guidelines on the use and distribution of information exchanged among members.
  • Develop a disclosure agreement for the virtual office that each member will sign. The agreement can help prevent (or protect against) members disclosing any information gathered through office activities to other individuals or companies not affiliated with the office/team.
  • Develop a mission statement for the activities/projects handled by the virtual office and its members to gain the members support for the goals of the team. (Getting people on-board with the mission of the team and getting people to believe in what the team is doing may hinder any efforts by members to “hurt” the team by sharing information to others or using the information in the wrong manner.)
  • If English is designated as the “office language,” members need to identify the dialect of English that they use. In addition, they need to “either familiarize themselves with potentially troublesome expressions or have a native speaker of that dialect of English review the [communication] to help ensure that the correct message is conveyed” (St. Amant 2000, 83).
  • With e-mail and phone being the team member's primary means of communication, members should take care in preparing and conveying their written and oral communication. For example, e-mail text can be cold and, if the communication is not written carefully, the person receiving the communication can easily interpret the text the wrong way.
  • Identify the numeric representations that will be used, or that may be implied. For example, when representing a date, always spell out the month. And for time references, come to an agreement about using AM and PM or a 24-hour clock (which helps avoid the confusion that can occur when using AM and PM).

Any communication interaction can result in confusion if there are any differences with the individuals involved. In addition to such basic differences as personality and characteristics, cultural differences can also lead to confusion when communicating.

Edward Hall and Geert Hofstede constructed dimensional models that provide a good basis for gathering general information about cultures/countries. For example, Hall identifies the dimension of high- and low-context cultures. As these cultures communicate with each other online, they will need to be open to each other's various modes of communication.

As with any communication, the more you know about the other person helps you to deliver and receive information in the most effective manner.


St. Amant, Kirk. “Success in the International Virtual Office.” Idea Group Publishing. 2000.

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