Cultural Intelligence for the Remote World: Virtual Working in the US

Published on January 21st, 2021

More Americans than ever are working remotely in a societal shift never experienced before. For many, there are benefits of ‘WFH’; no more commuting, flexible working hours, a better work-life balance. Employers can pick the best workers, with geographical location no longer a barrier. The expense of an office can be eliminated. With tried-and-tested systems in place, productivity can increase.

There are, of course negatives. Stress, isolation and a lack of structure are just three.

Here are 12 points to consider when working remotely in the USA:

1. Virtual meetings are second nature to Americans, all the more so in recent months. In American business culture, time is money, regardless of whether you are in an office or working remotely. Virtual meetings, like physical meetings, are therefore expected to have a clear aim and an agenda, and to end in decision. Arrive on time, keep small talk brief and establish a system before the meeting. Invite participants to speak in turn, for example, or ask someone to raise their hand if they want to make a point.

2. The emphasis is on the deal, not the relationship, but having said this, it is important in a virtual meeting to come across as alert, engaged, keen to listen and knowledgeable about your product or topic. Maintain eye contact – look at the camera, not the other person’s face on screen. Use confident body language, dress respectfully and avoid distractions like a cluttered background.

3. Americans are results-driven and linear in their approach to problem solving. Roles need to be clearly defined and tasks allocated, all the more so when working remotely. Performance incentives are often set. Increasingly, companies working remotely use collaboration software like Slack, Trello or G Suite for all internal communication, file sharing and projects. Whatever your company’s choice of software, remote working can only succeed if it is adopted to the full and by everybody. Endless chains of emails are an invitation to chaos.

4. When moving to a remote working setup, HR departments need to make sure employees are properly equipped. A desk, ergonomic chair, effective internet connection, suitable laptop and advice on health – screen breaks, nutrition and exercise – are all important. Buddy systems can be used to encourage regular breaks, or software that can be programmed to remind individuals to take 15 minutes away from the screen.

5. Managers in the USA tend to feel they have to be available 24/7. When working remotely and across time zones, this becomes even more counterproductive.  Corporate culture needs to address this mindset and help individuals set boundaries to avoid burnout.

6. Many relationships with co-workers have already been established and the transition to remote working has been relatively easy because of this team spirit. But companies need to address the issue of integrating new employees who may find themselves working with a team they know only via virtual meetings. Emotional intelligence, on the part of team members and managers, is considered more important than ever in US business culture.

7. Even if English is the common language of a company, it is important to make sure there is no ambiguity. Trying to read between the lines of written messages when you have never met your colleagues in person can be challenging. Managers should encourage clear and precise communication.

8. Leaders are expected to share information with their team regularly and establish a sense of connection via virtual hangouts. Do not underestimate the importance of the office watercooler. Companies with remote workers scattered across time zones should rotate the time of the hangouts. These informal gatherings can be used for talks, demos, sharing success stories, addresses by senior management and general bonding; the opposite goal to that of a formal meeting. Encourage social events, whether this is weekly ‘happy hour’ for those in the same time zone, coffee mornings or virtual team building exercises.

9. Managers should hold regular one-to-ones with their team; strong leadership and a sense of connection is important. A culture of accountability is essential; just because individuals are working remotely doesn’t mean they can avoid reporting on their week’s activity. Trust is critical when working remotely.

10. Empathy and inclusivity are more important than ever when large numbers of employees are working remotely. Managers need to understand the dynamics within a group, and that everybody’s personal situation is different and may affect their productivity, or their daily schedule. It’s also essential to find balance; if some of the workforce is in the office and others working remotely, those remote workers must not be excluded.

11. Be aware that individuals who are effective in written communication tend to get ahead in virtual teams, where constant reporting and information sharing are essential. Those who struggle with the written word can fail to thrive in a virtual environment.

12. Some companies in the US are moving towards a hybrid setup; hot-desking, and perhaps the option of a couple of days a week in the office. Some surveys show that the days of all employees being present together are considered to be over. Corporate cultures, relationships with co-workers and the role of team leaders are all still adapting to this ‘new normal’.


Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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