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December 17, 2018

6 Tips To Work Effectively with Virtual Teammates from India

The tips in this article are based on real-life experience. I am US citizen who has over 10 years living, working and studying in India. With over 30 trips between the US and India since 1998, and running a successful business in India for over 6 years, these tips will not only help you do business with more ease in India but are designed to help you get more work done when working on a team in an office or virtual team environment.

Tip 1: If the Small Talk seems too Personal, Find a New Comfort Level 
Once, an Indian friend told me, "Make yourself comfortable with uncomfortable situations, especially when it comes to small talk at work. Americans don't tend to get as personal as quickly as we Indians do." 

This was probably the best advice anyone ever gave me. Was it easy to follow? Heck no! It took me a lot of time to get used to it because in the US our cultural conditioning tells many of us that many of the below questions may not be suited for a work environment: 


Going out to lunch -and making small talk-
with a team I worked with in Hyderabad.

Daily Small Talk Questions: 
  • Have you had your tea/breakfast/lunch? (If you say no, be ready to sit and eat and/or drink in many cases!) 
  • How's your family? (The question "How are you?" is gaining more popularity, but many prefer to ask about your family.) 
  • What's your weekend plans? 

Get to Know Questions:
  • Are you married? Do you have children? (Not meant as a question to ask for a date!)
  • Where do you stay? (In Kerala, people would end up narrowing this down to the street, then noting anyone they knew who lived near me to forge a mutual connection.) 
  • Where are you from? (Again, people in India may ask this question and narrow down your answer to understand if they have friends or family that may also live near to where you are from.)
  • Where did you study? When did you pass out of college? (In the US, "When did you graduate?") 

Tip 2: Get to Know the Local Cultural Norms for Women 
Once when I was delivering a training program in Kerala, India, at a little before 6pm all the women asked to be excused. Half the class left, though we were not to finish until 6:30. I was baffled as I had not yet learnt the local norms. And, I was not informed by anyone about this, even though the training team had sat with me to make the schedule, and they also knew the program ended at 6:30.

Once, only the men were left in the room, I asked them what happened to all the women. A few of the men mentioned that in their company (a progressive, MNC, with headquarters in India) women were given company conveyance to their homes, which left promptly at 6pm. I later learned that many companies in that part of India offered company transport for both men and women, though women's transport tended to leave around or before nightfall (usually around 6:30pm year-round). 


Keep these points in mind in regards to women on your team: 
  • Women may not attend team outings due to cultural factors. This was true in Kerala because many team outings had alcohol and women preferred not to be around men when they were drinking. Many women do not drink or would not drink in front of their male counterparts.
  • If your conference calls with Indian teammates are after 6:30pm IST, there could be a high probability that your female teammates may take the call from home. 
  • In my experience women do make handshakes in India. As I am a woman, it's possible more women were open to making a handshake with another woman. Many other websites say women may be more reluctant to make handshakes than men. I have been in situations where both men and women did not greet with handshakes. So, it's ideal to assess this on a person to person basis and do not get offended if your Indian colleague prefers not to handshake in the first face to face meeting. 
  • In some parts of India women may be more apt to wear Indian clothing to work. For those that do, if they are to come to the U.S., they may need a little more coaching, preferably from another woman, on what to wear when coming onsite to the US.
All dressed up for Onam. Attending cultural programs is an important part of
building relationships at work in India. Do not forget to get your team's holiday
calendar when you start working together. Holidays vary per region of India.
Holiday parties and functions in India tend to last much longer and be more
formal affairs than in the U.S. with dances, skits, songs, games and competitions.
These events can last all day, or be scheduled on a weekend day at a fancy hotel.

Tip 3: Show A Genuine Interest in Your Indian Teammates
In the US, many of us may build trust first through responsiveness (being on time, doing things on schedule) and task completion. In the US, we tend to build our working relationships through actually doing the work. We may work years with a teammate and not always know about "simple things" like where they live, if they are married, have children or important days in their life. To give a better example of this from an Indian's point of view, I'll share a short story about my friend who grew up in India and lived in the US in his late 20s. He worked on a particular team for about 3 years. One Monday morning when he came in, his colleague said to him, "Tell Mary Congratulations!" My friend was confused. Mary sat right next to him and he said hi to her every morning. He could not understand why congratulations were in order. When he found out Mary got married last weekend, his first reaction as being hurt, then offended. How could an office mate not invite him and his family to their wedding? In India everyone in a team is invited to a wedding, no questions asked. After this happened, it could be assumed my friend had a harder time having a trusting working relationship with Mary. I, on the other hand, have been in this situation a few times: not being invited to a colleagues wedding. But, that never hurt my feelings (as I did not consider that person a 'personal friend'), nor did it break my trust in the working relationship. 

Tip 4: Indians May Blur Work and Personal Time 
People in India see time as more circular than linear, like we do in the West. Depending on the company culture, some may also have more fluidity to work throughout the day than restricting themselves to a 10am-6pm schedule (or whatever their 'normal working hours' are). This may mean that Indian colleagues may be more willing to take business calls from their home at night or other locations we Americans may find inconvenient. For instance, I have had business colleagues take calls with me from hospitals (when they admitted a family member), and from weddings or family events. Of course, the calls taken from these locations were not as formal as from the office setting, but it was meant to keep in touch more than 'do business.' The time of the day may also seem odd to some of us Americans. In Kerala, where I lived, it was rare to get a call before 9:30am, but I could get calls as late as 9pm. Though it was rare, I did get calls up until 11pm on occasion.

Tip 5: When a Question Doesn't Work, State Your Request 
Many who work with Indians may have experienced that Indians do not tend to ask a lot of questions. Questions are often considered disrespectful in India, whether by word of mouth or written in an email. This means that in many cases, a question asked may not be answered as well. If you have been trying to get information from your India team through asking questions and get radio silence by email or over the phone, attempt to change your question to a statement. It may feel rude initially, but once you start getting the 'requests' answered, the behavior will start to take shape.

While I give this advice, as a person who was born and raised in the US, and after all my years working and living in India, this still doesn't come instinctively because I was raised to think this was disrespectful and rude. I still don't feel 100% comfortable in doing this code switching, but it has proved to work many times when I realized I had been asking questions and not getting them answered. A common one would be requesting a meeting time. Let's see how this would go like this:


Step 1: My initial request

When you would like to meet? (An open ended question that only worked about 2 out 10 times.)
Step 2: First Follow Up
Would you like to meet (list a few times)? (Typically either NO answer to this or 'yes.')
Step 2 or 3: Second Follow Up
Would you like to meet (give ONE specific date, day, time)? (This may get responded to about three out of 10 times).
Step 3 or 4: Final request as a statement
Let's meet Friday, December 20th at 4pm IST. 

Keep in mind that final request is still a request for a meeting, not an answer to a meeting request. In 10 out 10 cases I used this approach it was answered. In many cases, the answer was, "I'm not available then, but can meet at..."

I have had to change questions to statements for all kinds of requests, requirements gathering sessions (training needs analysis) and even casual conversations.

Also, it's interesting to note that when I first learned this technique, I had learned it in the reverse order to teach Indians how to request things from US Americans. It was only sometime later that I taught myself how to use this in the reverse order to communicate more effectively with Indians. This is also a perfect example of why I believe Indian English and American English are like two different languages. Though the words are the same, cultures dictate how we use the words and phrases differently. 


The Authentic Journeys cubicle in the coworking space, NRITBI, in Infopark, Kerala.

Tip 6: Over Communicate and Micromanage 
US Americans prefer to take initiative on their own work with minimal interaction from their manager. Managers only come talk to their teammates in between supervision sessions if there is an emergency or something has come up that may take the task off course.

In India, on the other hand, it's common for managers to interrupt the work of their teammates frequently to give direction on the task at hand or even change the task. Interruptions from the task at hand are common. Sometimes these interruptions can force the teammate to drop whatever they were working on and do something completely different and unrelated. Some may consider this approach more reactive than proactive. As a friend who grew up in India advised me before we moved to India, "Be aware that there is always someone or something to get in your way in India." This was a guiding principle for me in India; as things can change "due to unexpected circumstances."

Some of this depends on the culture of the company as well as the culture of the team. However, in the US culture training programs we facilitated in India, a common theme that came up was, "How can we take initiative when our US client or manager doesn't talk to us frequently?" This question in itself communicates a great deal. As an American teammate, manager, or client, you could be getting frustrated if your Indian colleague doesn't seem to be doing the work 'without your direction." If you feel this way, it may be time to interject more communication with your India team. More emails may not be the answer. Pick up the phone. Or, even try to jump on video chat. Seeing you makes it even more real. Treat it like 'water cooler talk.' Do not always call to talk about the task. It will make the Indian team member feel like, "Why are they only calling me to get something out of me? Don't they want to know me as a person?" Though many Indians know Americans are more task focused, we Americans have nothing to lose but everything to gain in reaching out to make those more personal relationships.

In this post I have shared five (oops, I mean SIX!) tips to work more effectively with your Indian teammates on your virtual team. Though there are many more tips, I hope the in depth examples with step-by-step solutions can help you to improve some of the communication and workflow on your international team. Through Authentic Journeys, I provide training and individualized coaching to help you and your team to apply these and many more tips to work more effectively with your colleagues from India. I am looking forward to speak with you today

9 Tips for Expats Visiting India On Work 
4 Good Things About Working in Kerala, India 
5 Tips To Encourage Offshore to Acknowledge Email Requests 
How Indians Manage Their Time at Work  

Authentic Journeys: Bridging Culture on Virtual Teams

We help build effective, culturally competent global teams with focus on the cultures of the USA and India. Jennifer Kumar, Managing Director, an American citizen, has almost 10 years experience living, studying and working (owning a business) in India. Authentic Journeys Consultancy is registered as a Private Limited in India (Kerala) and an LLC in the USA (Utah). We provide onsite and live-online instructor-led courses, facilitation and corporate coaching.