The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication:
Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits
Lâ€™influence de la diversitÃ© linguistique sur la communication en Ã©quipe virtuelle :
Surmonter les obstacles et tirer parti des avantages
Influencia de la diversidad lingÃ¼Ãstica en la comunicaciÃ³n de equipos virtuales:
Superando barreras y obteniendo beneficios
Univ. Grenoble Alpes, Grenoble INP, CERAG
38000 Grenoble, France
This qualitative, exploratory study analyzes the impact
of language diversity on task-based and socio-emotional
communication processes in multilingual virtual teams.
The results highlight keys to effective communication for
both completing team tasks and building relationships:
1) propose the use of a functional language for efficiency,
but encourage supporting languages for building rapport,
2) use diverse communication channels to adapt to the
context, message and interlocutors, but emphasize
instant messaging for groups with high language diversity,
and 3) identify language nodes as key facilitators of
communication, understanding and rapport building
Keywords: communication channel, international
management, language diversity, relationship building,
team processes, virtual teamwork
Cette Ã©tude qualitative et exploratoire analyse lâ€™impact de la
diversitÃ© linguistique sur les processus de communication
(liÃ©s aux tÃ¢ches, et socio-Ã©motionnels) au sein dâ€™Ã©quipes
virtuelles multilingues. Les rÃ©sultats soulignent les clÃ©s
dâ€™une communication efficace pour atteindre les objectifs
de lâ€™Ã©quipe et crÃ©er du lien : 1) lâ€™utilisation dâ€™une langue
fonctionnelle pour accomplir efficacement les tÃ¢ches, mais
lâ€™emploi de langues additionnelles (code-switching) pour
crÃ©er du lien, 2) le recours Ã plusieurs canaux de
communication suivant le contexte, mais surtout la
messagerie instantanÃ©e pour les groupes Ã forte diversitÃ©
linguistique, et 3) lâ€™identification des nÅ“uds linguistiques,
pour faciliter la communication et le rapport.
Mots-clÃ©s : canal de communication, diversitÃ© linguistique,
management international, processus dâ€™Ã©quipe, relations
interpersonnelles, travail virtuel
Este estudio, exploratorio y cualitativo, analiza el impacto
de la diversidad lingÃ¼Ãstica en los procesos de
comunicaciÃ³n (basados en tareas y socio-emocionales) en
equipos virtuales multilingÃ¼es. Los resultados evidencian
claves de la comunicaciÃ³n efectiva para lograr los
objetivos de equipo y establecer vÃnculos: 1) Uso de
lenguaje funcional para la eficiencia, empero, fomentando
lenguajes de apoyo (cambio de cÃ³digo) para generar
vÃnculos. 2) Acudir a diversos canales de comunicaciÃ³n
para adaptarse al contexto, siendo vehemente en la
mensajerÃa instantÃ¡nea en grupos con alta diversidad
lingÃ¼Ãstica, y 3) IdentificaciÃ³n de nodos lingÃ¼Ãsticos que
faciliten la comunicaciÃ³n y formaciÃ³n de relaciones.
Palabras Clave: canal de comunicaciÃ³n, construcciÃ³n de
relaciones, diversidad lingÃ¼Ãstica, gestiÃ³n internacional,
procesos de equipo, trabajo virtual en equipo
Acknowledgments: The author would like to thank Anne Bartel-Radic, Isabelle Corbett-Etchevers and the three anonymous reviewers who provided valuable and constructive feedback to help improve
this paper, and Camilo Andres Rojas Contreras for the Spanish translations.
Pour citer cet article : Taylor, D. (2021). The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits.
Management international-Mi, 25(spÃ©cial), 18-38.
The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits 19
Global virtual teams (GVTs) have long existed as a means to connect the members
of multinationals, but this phenomenon has skyrocketed in response to the latest
global health pandemic. As such, todayâ€™s GVTs are physically separated over
greater distances and they are more diverse than ever (RW3 LLC, 2016). Even
before the pandemic, some of these teams never met face-to-face, but collaborated exclusively through technology. Other teams combined the advantages
of virtual work with face-to-face work through the creation of dispersed clusters.
The main advantage of GVTs is that the â€œrightâ€ people with the â€œrightâ€ skills and
a variety of ideas and perspectives are recruited, no matter their physical location,
and this can lead to a more efficient use of human resources (Chudoba, Wynn,
Lu & Watson-Manheim, 2005; Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999). Furthermore, virtual
work is a means to harness diversity and increase creativity within a team (Gilson,
Maynard, Jones Young, Vartiainen & Hakonen, 2015), and it is a mechanism by
which organizations can become more flexible in the rapidly-changing global
context (Mockaitis, Zander & De Cieri, 2018). Thereby, GVTs provide a competitive
advantage for multinationals (Zakaria, Amelinckx & Wilemon, 2004).
However, GVTs also create difficulties such as challenges related to communication, trust and intercultural understanding (Karjalainen & Soparnot,
2010). While not explicitly cited by the aforementioned authors, language diversity
is essential in exploring the challenge of communication, specifically in the
context of GVTs. Language diversity observes differences among people in a
particular group or organization and it can be measured in relation to a personâ€™s
language skills as well as in the languages actually used within the work
environment (Church-Morel & Bartel-Radic, 2016). Language diversity is often
conceptualized in relation to national languages that are used on an everyday
basis, but it can also be studied in other contexts such as company speak or
technical or profession-related language (Church-Morel & Bartel-Radic, 2016).
While it is accepted that language diversity influences teamwork (Kassis-Henderson, 2005), communication effectiveness (Charles & Marschan-Piekkari, 2002;
Kim, Roberson, Russo & Briganti, 2019), team member relationships and emotions
(Charles, 2007; Cohen & Kassis-Henderson, 2012; Hinds et al., 2014; Tenzer &
Pudelko, 2015) and the use of different media for team communication (Fleischmann, Aritz & Cardon, 2020; KlitmÃ¸ller & Lauring, 2013; Tenzer & Pudelko, 2016),
a nuanced understanding of the keys to effective communication, for both teamwork
and team building, is lacking within the dual context of high language diversity
and virtuality. Thus, the main research question explores how language diversity
influences communication, specifically considering task-related and socio-emotional
processes, in multilingual virtual teams. By exploring language diversity and virtuality,
we aim to better understand and overcome difficulties associated with language
and communication and reap the benefits of such teams.
By exploring team processes related to language and communication, the
focus expands not only to processes directly related to the task at hand, but
also to socio-emotional processes including relationship building (Powell, Piccoli
& Ives, 2004) and establishing rapport (Cohen & Kassis-Henderson, 2012). In
this way, we address the influence of language diversity on such phenomena as
subgroups, team adaptation and team member well-being, all of which are cited
as opportunities for future virtual team research (Gilson et al., 2015). This
question reflects a need in the current context where virtual teams are more
and more popular and where managers benefit from learning about the challenges
and advantages of such teams, as well as keys to manage them. Additionally,
we also respond to a call from Angouri and Piekkari (2018, p. 21) for research
on language in the field of international business (IB) that â€œzoom[s] in the practices
of employees around specific processes and zoom[s] out on the wider contextâ€
as a means to bring together theory and practice.
To explore the research question, this paper starts with a review of the literature
at the junction between language diversity in IB and GVTs. Then, we describe a
qualitative study with semi-directive interviews of 20 individuals participating in
multilingual GVTs. The results highlight the influence of language diversity and
virtuality on task-related and socio-emotional processes, and finally we propose
four keys to effective communication for both completing team objectives and
building relationships in multilingual virtual teams: 1) A functional language
increases efficiency, but supporting languages increase the development of team
member rapport. 2) Code-switching harms team dynamics at the group level
but improves relationships when used in one-on-one situations and small talk.
3) Diverse communication channels help such teams adapt to the context, but
instant messaging is especially helpful for groups with high language diversity.
4) Language nodes bridge gaps and improve efficiency and relationships and
should be identified from recruitment. By considering these keys to effective
The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits 20
communication, multilingual virtual team members and managers can overcome
the language barrier and leverage the benefits of diversity.
After a discussion of the main findings from previous studies on language and
GVTs in multinationals, this literature review considers the importance of
communication in relationship to team member skills and technological tools.
Finally, the focus turns to communication as a process, with team processes
including both task-related and socio-emotional processes.
Language is â€œa multifaceted, multilevel construct for IB researchâ€ (Brannen,
Piekkari & Tietze, 2014, p. 496). Language diversity can be classified based on
Harrison and Kleinâ€™s (2007) construct which separates diversity into three types:
variety, separation, and disparity. Language diversity in particular refers to the
variety of native languages or differing proficiency levels of learned languages,
the separation between people based on differing values, beliefs or attitudes
about language use, and the disparity or power differences between individuals
based on their language skills (Church-Morel & Bartel-Radic, 2016). This paper
specifically focuses on language variety in order to study team processes that
use diversity to the organizationâ€™s advantage, rather than ruptures, subgroups
or language as a â€œpower-wielding instrumentâ€ (Charles, 2007).
Language diversity is separate, but complementary, to cultural diversity.
Indeed, language is approached here as a social construct emerging from
different layers of context, including culture (Karhunen, Kankaanranta, Louhiala-Salminen & Piekkari, 2018). By complementing an instrumental view of
language with a culturally-sensitive perspective (Tenzer, Pudelko & ZellmerBruhn, 2021), we recognize that language can indeed be influenced by culture
because people â€œhearâ€ and understand differently depending on their background
and experiences (Kassis-Henderson, 2005). However, language is recognized
as more than culture and is a separate stream of research in IB (Barner-Rasmussen & Aarnio, 2011). Furthermore, language differences are more visible
than cultural differences on a day-to-day basis, so language is more â€œpersistently
salientâ€ (Hinds, Neeley & Cramton, 2014, p. 555).
In teams, language diversity has been studied in the context of a team characteristic to be managed, for which language policies and language management
strategies are established. Language policies often refer to a corporate language
(often English as a lingua franca or Business English as a lingua franca BELF),
which is chosen based on the companyâ€™s strategy (Luo & Shenkar, 2006). BELF
is an international style, somewhat of a â€œbroken Englishâ€ [I16], that is used in
professional settings (Charles, 2007; Kankaanranta & Planken, 2010). The goal
is simply to transmit a message and make the interlocutor understand, or â€œget
the job doneâ€ (Charles, 2007). Vocabulary and grammar are simplified from the
English spoken by a native speaker. On the other hand, a multilingual approach
(i.e. a multilingua franca), where the most appropriate languages are used
depending on the specific context and where members can speak and be understood in their native language, has also been suggested to be the best solution,
albeit the most difficult one, for multilingual teams (Chevrier, 2013). In practice,
a multilingua franca is more frequently used socially, rather than professionally
(Harzing & Feely, 2003).
Management strategies are established at different organizational levels
including the corporate, team and individual levels (Feely & Harzing, 2003;
Harzing, KÃ¶ster & Magner, 2011). Besides a corporate language, management
and HR can dedicate resources for improving language capabilities and can
recruit based on language requirements. At the team level, the team can choose
their functional language, preferred communication channels and to use
code-switching (a term from sociocultural linguistics referring to â€œthe use of
more than one language in the course of a single communicative episodeâ€;
Heller, 1988, p. 1). Individual, intercultural and communication skills also
determine which individuals may serve as language nodes, or bilingual bridges,
between groups (Harzing et al., 2011).
A small number of studies, rather than seeing language as something to
â€œtame,â€ see language diversity as a real strength to harness, thereby exhibiting
a more positive view (Bordia & Bordia, 2015; Church-Morel & Bartel-Radic,
2014). People with different language skills can bring critical skills and capabilities
to the company, and thereby languages can be company resources. In any case,
while it is accepted that language diversity influences team work, understanding
is lacking concerning exactly how and in what ways language and language
The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits 21
diversity affect specific team processes surrounding communication, especially
in a virtual setting.
Global Virtual Teams (GVTs)
This study highlights teams with a high degree of virtuality (i.e. they collaborate
significantly more virtually than face-to-face) because of their growing influence
in multinational corporations. In early 2020, 89% of employees said that working
in a virtual team was critical to their productivity (RW3 LLC, 2020). Of course
todayâ€™s participation in virtual and remote work has skyrocketed as a result of
the covid-19 health pandemic, and this is predicted to continue into the future
A team, in its traditional sense, is a group of individuals, guided by a leader,
that is organized together around a common goal for which all members are
collectively responsible (Devillard, 2005). In response to evolving external
demands and tasks of ever-increasing complexity, teams now have more fluid
boundaries and evolving structures (Hackman & Katz, 2010). Therefore, todayâ€™s
teams tend to have a higher degree of virtuality. To be precise, virtuality is not
a categorical variable, separating virtual teams from face-to-face teams, but
rather the reality shows that it is a dimensional attribute which can be defined
on a continuum with variation in the extent of face-to-face contact (Chudoba et
al., 2005; Gibson & Gibbs, 2006; Marlow, Lacerenza & Salas, 2017). Virtuality
comprises three dimensions, including team distribution, workplace mobility
and a variety of practices (Chudoba et al., 2005). GVTs can be recognized specifically as teams that are geographically and temporally dispersed, are dependent
upon technology to communicate, are naturally culturally and linguistically
diverse, often have an international task and are often temporary (Chudoba et
al., 2005; Jawadi & Boukef Charki, 2011; Maznevski & Chudoba, 2000). Thanks
to these characteristics, companies can go beyond geographical and temporal
boundaries, access required skills independently from their location and construct
international partnerships and alliances (Jawadi & Boukef Charki, 2011).
The popularity of GVTs in the professional world is reflected in research.
Gilson and colleaguesâ€™ (2015) literature review on GVTs proposed 243 empirical
articles, proposing ten main themes studied between 2005 and 2015 including
team inputs, globalization and leadership and ten future research opportunities
including subgroups (such as those related to language groups), team
adaptation, creativity and team member well-being. We believe that language
diversity, could be a factor influencing phenomena such as subgroups, adaptation and creativity especially in virtual teamsâ€. Thereby, this paper examines
the underexplored area linking language diversity in IB and GVTs.
Communication: Importance, Skills and Tools in Multilingual GVTs
Communication links language studies and GVTs and influences a variety of
related topics such as choice of communication channel, knowledge management,
productivity and team member relationships. Communication is essential for
teams and teamwork and yet can be considered one of the main challenges of
GVTs along with cultural differences, accents and motivation and implication of
members (RW3 LLC, 2016). Communication is an integral team process by which
two or more members exchange messages, and it can be seen as the basis for
other team processes, such as coordination and negotiation, that improve team
performance (Marlow et al., 2017).
As communication depends on language, highly-developed language skills
support high quality communication. In IB, language can be regarded as â€œa measurable skill and capability that the individual (rather than the organisation)
possesses to perform the jobâ€ (Angouri & Piekkari, 2018, p. 14). As a majority
of international teams employ English as the teamâ€™s common language, English
proficiency can act as a baseline or gatekeeper to developing a more expansive
communicative ability (Lockwood & Song, 2020). However, additional languages
can assist high quality communication, and it may be helpful for team members
to share languages besides English. Multilingual individuals can link groups by
sharing their knowledge and assisting both sides to reach a mutual understanding.
These multilingual individuals are known as language nodes or bridge individuals
(Harzing et al., 2011). They assume an important position based on their language
skills and can work flexibly between multiple languages.
Considering the tools by which team members communicate, media richness
theory (Daft & Lengel, 1986) and media synchronicity theory (Dennis, Fuller &
Valacich, 2008; Marlow et al., 2017) deal with the choice of communication
channel in regards to the teamâ€™s needs. Media richness theory states that team
members communicate to reduce task complexity and they choose media that
corresponds to this complexity (Daft & Lengel, 1986). In general, a richer media,
The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits 22
e.g. a media such as video conference that is as close to face-to-face communication as possible, is used for complex communication, while a leaner media,
e.g. a general document or email, is used for simple or explicit messages
(KlitmÃ¸ller & Lauring, 2013). KlitmÃ¸ller and Lauring (2013) present a paradox
by proposing the inverse for teams characterized by a low degree of language
commonality; for them, lean media is more effective for complex communication,
while richer media is more effective for simple or explicit communication. Lean
media allows team members to use spellcheck, take their time to respond and
avoid confusion resulting from accents or verbal, cultural signals. In other
words, written media such as email allows people to overcome differences in
verbal style (Shachaf, 2005). KlitmÃ¸ller and Lauringâ€™s (2013) findings also support
studying language as separate to culture; both are important, but affect communication in GVTs in different ways.
Likewise, media synchronicity theory (Dennis et al., 2008) considers the different cues and the immediacy of the required feedback for choice of communication channel (Marlow et al., 2017). Media synchronicity is â€œthe extent to
which the capabilities of a communication medium enable individuals to
achieve synchronicityâ€ (Dennis et al., 2008, p. 581). Like media richness theory,
the core idea of media synchronicity theory is also reversed in the multilingual
context. Tenzer and Pudelko (2016) found that synchronous media overwhelmed multilingual GVT members with low proficiency in the common language and that asynchronous media better allowed a convergence of ideas
over synchronous media where messages tend to arrive quickly and require a
quick response. Asynchronous media, such as email or text messages, allow a
person to open a message privately and carefully consider their response before sending it, thus reducing cognitive effort and â€œfreeing upâ€ cognitive resources in multilingual settings (Tenzer & Pudelko, 2016). In light of these
paradoxes, Tenzer, Terjesen and Harzing (2017) call for a further examination
of theories on choice of communication channel and communication effectiveness in the multilingual GVT context.
Communication Processes Linked to Both Task and Relationships
in Multilingual GVTs
Team processes are â€œmembersâ€™ interdependent acts that convert inputs to outcomes
through cognitive, verbal, and behavioral activities directed toward organizing
taskwork to achieve collective goalsâ€ (Marks, Mathieu & Zaccaro, 2001, p. 357).
Team processes include task-related processes and socio-emotional processes.
Task-related processes (i.e. â€œprocesses that occur as team members work together
to accomplish a task or goalâ€; Powell et al., 2004) include planning (such as mission
analysis, goal setting and strategy formulation) and action processes (such as
communication, participation, coordination, knowledge sharing and monitoring
the groupâ€™s progress; Martins, Gilson & Maynard, 2004). Socio-emotional or
interpersonal processes refer to social interaction and developing relationships
and include building positive relationships or rapport, trust, cohesion, social
integration, conflict, and tone of interaction, for example (Martins et al., 2004).
These processes are closely related to â€œrapport managementâ€ (Spencer-Oatey,
2008) which refers to â€œthe use of languageâ€”verbal and non-verbal strategiesâ€”to
promote, maintain or threaten harmonious social relationsâ€ (Cohen & Kassis-Henderson, 2012, p. 193). Interpersonal processes have been cited as important to
consider in future research on language diversity (Tenzer & Pudelko, 2020). While
communication sits on the side of task-related processes according to Powell,
Piccoli and Ivesâ€™ (2004) model, it clearly exhibits a direct influence on socio-emotional
processes, as relationships, trust and the like are related to both actions and
feelings resulting from those actions. For example, Marlow and colleaguesâ€™ (2017)
study demonstrated a relationship between communication, trust and performance.
Table 1 provides a more complete literature review by expanding upon the themes
included in the notion of task-related and socio-emotional processes and the main
research on these themes within the context of multilingual GVTs.
This qualitative study on communication processes in multilingual GVTs was
exploratory in nature. Qualitative, semi-structured interviews are consistent
with the dominant methodological paradigm in research on language in IB and
allow us to better understand subjective perceptions (Pudelko, Tenzer & Harzing,
2015; Tenzer & Pudelko, 2015). The focus of interviews was on individual strategies
and perceptions within the team context.
The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits 23
Semi-directive interviews of 20 individuals with professional experience in
multilingual GVTs were completed. Interviewing occured in two phases, in early
2019 and early 2020, with two interviewees being interviewed during both phases.
The intentionally diverse sample includes professionals in different fields, types
and sizes of companies and teams, and hierarchical levels/ positions, such as
managers, employees and researchers. However, due to the researcherâ€™s ties
to the U.S. and France, the majority are from Western Europe or North America
and work in French or American organizations. This variety is interesting because
it allows a better understanding of how language diversity influences people in
different companies and positions.
The selected individuals all reported language diversity within their team(s),
but specifics varied widely. The majority of the interviewees speak at least two
languages at an intermediate level or above, and so could be potential language
nodes. All interviewees speak advanced or native English, and French is also
widely spoken. The language capabilities of the individual were considered within
the context of the teamâ€™s language diversity. Because the interviewer was
bilingual, interviews were conducted in both English and French. One of these
languages were either the intervieweeâ€™s native language or a language so that
they spoke fluently (often the functional language in the workplace). This was
meant to â€œopen doors,â€ build rapport between the interviewer and the interviewee
and allow the collection of richer data (Welch & Piekkari, 2006, p. 425). See
Table 2 for a summary of the interviews.
Task-related and socio-emotional processes in multilingual GVTs
Process Definition Themes Examples of research
Examples of research
– â€œProcesses that occur
as team members work
together to accomplish
a task or goalâ€ (Powell,
Piccoli & Ives, 2004)
– Includes planning and
– Mission analysis
– Goal setting
– Strategy formulation
– Knowledge sharing
– Task-technology-structure fit / media choice
– Monitoring of the groupâ€™s progress
– Chudoba, Wynn, Lu & Watson-Manheim
– KlitmÃ¸ller & Lauring (2013)
– Li, Yuan, Bazarova & Bell (2018)
– Lockwood & Song (2020)
– Shachaf (2005)
– Tenzer & Pudelko (2016)
– Tenzer, Pudelko & Zellmer-Bruhn (2020)
– Fleischmann, Aritz & Cardon
– Gibson & Gibbs (2006)
– Jawadi & Boukef Charki (2011)
– Karjalainen & Soparnot (2010)
– Kassis-Henderson (2005)
– KlitmÃ¸ller, Schneider & Jonsen
– Marlow, Lacerenza & Salas (2017)
– Maznevski & Chudoba (2000)
– Zakaria, Amelinckx & Wilemon
– Processes related
to social interaction
and development of
– Also known as
– Relationship building
– Rapport establishment/ building
– Team cohesion
– Tone of interaction
– Social integration
– Charles (2007)
– Cohen & Kassis-Henderson (2012)
– Hinds, Neeley & Cramton (2014)
– Jarvenpaa & Leidner (1999)
– Kim, Roberson, Russo & Briganti (2019)
– Tenzer & Pudelko (2015)
– Tenzer, Pudelko & Harzing (2014)
The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits 24
Summary of Interviews
Interviewee Primary team
Country of Birth1
– English level
– French level
Dispersion (# of
A1 M Employee Analyst US US Native None 1 1 Legal 21â€“30 US 3 English English
U2 M Employee Analyst UA UA Adv. Begin. 3 3 Project 6â€“10 USA 4 English Multiple
F3 F Employee Translation Fr Fr Adv. Native 3 3 Project 1â€“5 US 2 English English
A4 F Manager Service US US Native Begin. 1 1 Service 31+ US 7+ English English B7 F Director Service BE BE Adv. Adv. 5 5
F5 F Manager Project mgmt Fr US Adv. Native 2 3 Innov. 31+ US 6 English English
F6 M Manager Admin. FR FR Adv. Native 4 4 Admin. 11â€“20 DE 1 Multiple English
A8 F Director Sales US FR Native Int. 1 2 Sales 1â€“5 FR 2 French French
F9 F Director Change mgmt FR FR Adv. Native 2 3 Project 21â€“30 US 5 English English
F10 M Director Research FR FR Adv. Native 2 2 Project 6â€“10 FR 2 French French
Y11 M Employee Research YE FR Adv. Int. 2 4 Research 21â€“30 FR 1 French French
U12 M Manager Research UA FR Adv. Int. 3 5
Research 6â€“10 FR 4 English Multiple G15 F Employee Research GR FR Adv. Adv. 3 3
S17 M Employee Research SE FR Adv. Adv. 3 3
B18 M Employee Research UK FR Native Int. 1 2
F13 M Manager Service FR FR Adv. Native 2 2 Maint. 6-10 US 4 English English
F14 F Manager Quality manager FR FR Adv. Native 2 3 Project 31+ CH 7+ English Multiple
I16 F Employee Analyst IR FR Adv. Adv. 3 3 Project 31+ US 5 English Multiple
F19 M Director HR FR FR Adv. Native 2 2 HR 31+ KR 4 Korean English
A20 M Manager Operations US US Native None 1 1 Executive mgmt 6â€“10 GB 6 English English
1. For country abbreviations, see ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 codes
The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits 25
Interview questions explored language diversity from the individualâ€™s point of
view, but also aimed to learn about team practices and organizational strategies.
Semi-structured interviews provided some consistency while also giving freedom
to change between topics or expand more or less on issues considered as more
or less important (Myers, 2008; Tenzer & Pudelko, 2015). The four parts of the
interviews focused on the organization, the individual and their background, the
teamâ€™s characteristics and functioning, and more specifically, the influence of
language diversity on team effectiveness. Regarding the organization, the internationalization strategy and HR practices concerning languages were explored.
The individual was questioned about their feelings about virtual work, specificities
regarding how they greet colleagues in person or by email, and the techniques
they use to communicate with their team. To learn about the team, the interviewer
asked about the team configuration, principal means of communication, situations
in which members of the team experienced difficulties or misunderstanding, and
finally if (and how) the teamâ€™s language diversity affected its effectiveness.
The 22 semi-directive interviews were recorded and transcribed in their entirety
(see Miles & Huberman, 2003) before being put into the NVivo software for analysis.
Recognizing the multilingual reality of this study, the interviews were transcribed
and analyzed in their original language to guard against a loss of meaning but
quotes are translated into English to be shared with a wider audience.
Inspired by input-process-output (IPO) models of diversity and language
diversity from Kochan, Bezrukova, Ely, Jackon, Joshi, Jehn, Leonard, Levine
and Thomas (2003) and Church-Morel and Bartel-Radic (2014) respectively, data
was organized in a first round of coding into four main areas including the team
characteristics (input), team processes, team effectiveness (output) and organizational context (mediator). Subtopics were designated based on previous literature. During the first round of coding, new conceptual elements emerged,
which were explored in a second round of coding of the full set of interviews.
For example, these additional conceptual elements include fluidity between
multiple GVTs, local virtuality versus global virtuality, multilingual greetings as
complementary to a primary functional language, and the importance of cultural
diversity alongside language diversity. Fluidity between multiple GVTs and local
virtuality versus global virtuality reflect the evolving work practices in todayâ€™s
virtual environment. Indeed, many people who participate in GVTs participate
in more than one, so team boundaries can be difficult to identify. Local virtuality
refers to a lower degree of virtuality, where individuals participate in virtual
work punctually (e.g. teleworking). Functional languages and multilingualism
are especially at the heart of this study and will be presented in depth in the
next section. Finally, all interviewees referenced culture without being prompted,
which implies the interconnected nature of culture and language.
In addition, team processes were further divided into task-related and socioemotional processes, as proposed by Powell, Piccoli and Ives (2004). Task-related
processes include communication and coordination, while socio-emotional
processes include trust, cohesion and belonging, but also confusion, frustration
and anxiety. Table 3 specifies the data coding structure.
The teamâ€™s functioning is clearly influenced by the functional language, choice
of communication channel, and communication content. Furthermore, aspects
related to task processes (i.e. that are necessary for completing team objectives)
also influence socio-emotional processes (i.e. team member relationships). The
following section presents the research findings with a focus on team processes
in multilingual GVTs. See Table 4 for an overview of the findings.
Language Issues: Implementing a Functional Language
The teamâ€™s functional language(s) is/are the language(s) that are employed by
team members on a day-to-day basis within the work environment, both formally
and informally. Functional languages are influenced by the prescribed corporate
language (if there is one), but also by the teamâ€™s linguistic and geographical
configuration. For most of the cases studied, English is the functional language,
however there is variation in the level and type of English. While many interviewees
simply discuss proficiency, others qualify the type of English used as being
â€œbroken Englishâ€ [I16] or a version of English influenced by other languages: â€œthe
Czech people will say that they speak Czenglish, which is part Czech/ part Englishâ€
[A20]. Interviewees find that a common language is advantageous for teams
composed of members with differing native languages: â€œI donâ€™t speak Italian, and
they donâ€™t speak French, so we speak in Englishâ€ [F13]. Besides English, French
The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits 26
First-level codes Second-level codes Third-level codes
Company strategy Multinational company structure
Designation of corporate language
Focus on increasing teamâ€™s language proficiency during recruitment and trainings
Organized team building events
Linguistic and geographic configuration Disparity of proficiency levels in common languages
Physical location and proximity to others
Individual competences Language and communicational competence
Empathy and openness to others
Team processes related
(see Table 4 for details)
Team linguistic practices Flexibility in using a functional language
Other language management practices (adaptation, code-switching, redundancyâ€¦)
Virtual communication practices Importance and frequency of virtual communication
Choice of media for one-on-one and team communication (see Table 5)
Language nodes Leaders or managers with language and/or (inter)cultural competence
Colleagues with language and/or (inter)cultural competence
Emergent positive emotions
Emergent negative emotions
Anxiety and frustration
Lack of sense of closeness
Goal completion Efficiency and time concerns
Ability to address a complex task
Development of individual skills Language and communicational competence
Individual satisfaction Satisfaction with team interaction and intercultural context
Dissatisfaction with inefficiencies due to language and virtual context
The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits 27
Verbatims to illustrate team communication processes
code Third-level code Verbatims
Flexibility in using a functional
â€œmy requirement for my team for instance isâ€¦ if in a one-on-one conversation, we can switch to the native language of one of the
twoâ€¦, but when thereâ€™s multiple people speaking multiple languages, we automatically all switch to English out of respect and to
make sure that everybody just can follow the conversation.â€ [B7]
Other language management
practices (adaptation, codeswitching, redundancyâ€¦)
â€œWhen they spoke to us in a video conference, they spoke English. They spoke at a very advanced level. But when we arrived at a
difficult point and we asked them a question, they would very often switch into German between them.â€ [F5]
â€œAs much as possible we try to really talk, but then following up in written form sometimes helps specifically because not everybodyâ€™s
level of English is at the same level really. Sometimes it helps to send them a summary of what you have discussed afterwards in
English so that they have the time to digest it afterwards.â€ [B7]
Importance and frequency of
â€˜I think the one thing youâ€™ll you always learn in the business world or any kind of organization is â€œcommunicate, communicate,
communicate, communicateâ€â€™ [A20]
Choice of media for one-on-one
and team communication
â€œWeâ€™re miles apart. We just try to operate like weâ€™re next door to each other, and everybodyâ€™s gotten fairly used to working at a
distance… I think I really try to exploit the mediums that we have today.â€ [A20]
(see Table 5 for details on specific media)
Leaders or managers with
language and/or (inter)cultural
â€œI had kept the gal from China right next to me because I know her English is not as goodâ€¦ I would end up being her mouthpiece
to tell people.â€ [A4]
â€œMore serious for me was to be responsible for a group of people. So I should at least be able to understand that group of people.â€ [U12]
Colleagues with language and/
or (inter)cultural competence
â€œWhen I have a client, sometimes who would write to me in Italian. Not speaking Italian, I would look at Google Translate. Or, if
I needed further clarifications, I ask one of my Italian colleagues so that he translates exactly what it means in English.â€ [F13]
Trust â€œI guess they just become more relaxed so itâ€™s not like their level of English has gotten better. They just feel more relaxed […]
Because they donâ€™t worry.â€ [U2]
Cohesion â€œFor each request, each message, I will try to say â€˜Thank youâ€™ in the personâ€™s languageâ€¦ So, that definitely creates a strong
connection. â€ [F19]
Appreciation â€œIt makes the work more interesting to be able to discuss with other people from other cultures.â€ [F3]
Confusion or lack of
â€œWe realize that there is a very important loss online, because people are only partially there.â€ [F9]
Anxiety and frustration â€œOf course, we know that multiculturality brings a certain richness to the project, but regarding communication, sometimes you
are fed up of it.â€ [F5]
Lack of sense of closeness â€œItâ€™s less engaging to not see our interlocutors in any case, even if weâ€™re really conscientious.â€ [F9]
The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits 28
remains a functional language for some dominantly French teams or teams
located in France. For example, a Swedish researcher states, â€œone of [my teams]
is pure French-speaking. So not only with French people, but the language of choice
is French because weâ€™re all situated in Franceâ€ [S17]. The use of a functional language
allows teams to be more efficient and share access to the same information.
While a common functional language is meant to create a space of equal
understanding, it can cause disparity between those of different proficiency levels.
For example, a Greek employee describes that despite her advanced proficiency
in the functional language, she feels that promotion within the organization is not
possible because she does not speak the functional language at a native speakerâ€™s
level, and that she would consider leaving if changes are not made [G15]. Furthermore, differing proficiencies in the functional language result in adaptation
techniques, such as speaking more slowly or using simplified vocabulary. While
this can be a positive point to aid communication, these techniques should be
used carefully as to not reinforce differences: â€œwe didnâ€™t change the vocabulary,
because we donâ€™t want to infantilize anyoneâ€ [F5]. Overall, the findings show that a
functional language aids understanding and goal completion, but disparity may
prevent relationship building or opportunities for promotion.
Capitalizing on Multilingual Communication Alongside
a Functional Language
While the vast majority of teams adopt a functional language, many also capitalize
on additional supporting languages to increase understanding or improve
relationships. Teams that work in organizations with multiple corporate languages
or that work with colleagues from a specific geographic area while the corporate
language comes from elsewhere (e.g. a cluster from an American multinational
located in France, F3, I16) tend to use additional languages more freely. Teams
with greater language disparity in the functional language practice code-switching, especially in one-on-one conversations when someone has difficulty understanding: â€œI will switch to a language that helps communicationâ€ [G15].
Also, using additional languages in greetings (of an email, for example) or to
recognize a team memberâ€™s cultural holiday is perceived as more acceptable
and allows individuals to get to know each other. One Swedish interviewee
located in France explains, â€œI play around with it a bit because I usually write
â€œBonjourâ€ to people who are not French. Itâ€™s to sort of show where Iâ€™m from and
where Iâ€™m workingâ€ [S17]. Therefore, multilingual communication aids in individual
understanding and may increase group relationships when used in less formal
situations. However, for formal or full-team communication, it is important to
use a language that all group members understand and speak well: â€œwhen
thereâ€™s multiple people speaking multiple languages, we automatically all switch to
English out of respect and to make sure that everybody just can follow the conversationâ€ [B7]. Too much code-switching and side conversations can lead to
subgroups and a lack of cohesion. Indeed, there is a fine line between operating
officially in the functional language and choosing to add other languages for a
more personal touch.
Choosing the Most Appropriate Channel for Effective Communication
Media choice refers to the selection of a certain type of communication channel
in relation to the message being transmitted and the person(s) receiving it.
Email and voice calls are the most traditional media used for professional
communication, while videoconferencing and instant messaging appear to be
increasingly useful. Email is consistently the most used media on a day-to-day
basis. Emails are used to quickly exchange information that can be forwarded
throughout the organization [F3, F14, F19], to confirm and keep records [B7, F9,
S17] and to work across time zones [A4]. It tends to be the simplest form of
communication that requires the least planning: â€œOrganizing a meeting becomes
usually more complicated than writing it. You know the availability of people, etc.â€
[S17]. Email is convenient for groups and formal messages [F18, A20].
Voice calls, whether they use a telephone or an online platform, are most useful
to quickly resolve problems [F3, F6, S17]. Calls are efficient: â€œa half an hour email
could take five minutes to do over the phoneâ€ [S17]. When a discussion by email
results in too many exchanges or â€œstarts to ping pong aroundâ€ [B7], some teams
shift to an oral discussion to gain time [A4, B7, F9]. However, voice calls do require
an advanced language level and can be negatively affected by accents [F9, F19].
Video calls are similar to voice calls, with the added benefit of seeing facial
expressions and body language. They are established for regular team meetings
and exchanges [G15, B18, F19]. One of the most significant advantages of a video
conference is the possibility to share a computer screen and â€œwork through a
process liveâ€ [A1]. In addition, video can help team members establish rapport
The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits 29
by seeing each other in their environment and by being able to see facial reactions
and body language [F5]. An American sales director shares, â€œitâ€™s just nice to see
a human body now and againâ€ [A8]. However, video requires a good internet
connection, appropriate technology and advanced planning to integrate people
in different time zones [A4, A20]. Also multiple interviewees cited privacy,
security concerns or team norms as a limit to using a video call software or to
turning on the camera [F9, Y11, I16, S17, F19].
Instant messaging aids comprehension, especially with high language diversity,
and allows for more lively team communication. A French HR director recounts,
â€œMessenger is more efficient for understanding the context, for digging deeper on
certain points, especially with the Koreans, for example, who donâ€™t speak English
very well, but respond to written messagesâ€ [F19]. Beyond positive effects on
comprehension, instant messaging has the power to bring people closer together,
share humor and maintain a relationship through informal check-ins [F14, F19].
A French quality manager compares instant messaging as the closest option
to face-to-face communication: â€œFor me, itâ€™s lively. I make it a tool to really try to
reproduce as if we were face-to-face. Mimics that we could have, the non-verbal
that is difficult to translate in an emailâ€ [F14]. Team members that use instant
messaging appreciate the quick feedback (i.e. more synchronous communication)
and the possibility to show more of their personality through informal greetings
and check-ins, as well as emoji.
A combination of communication channels further increases communication
efficiency. The use of multiple communication channels can occur synchronously
(e.g. sharing a screen during a voice call, A8, F10, F13, F14, S17) or asynchronously
(e.g. confirming a work instruction by email after explaining it in a conference
call, B7). This repetition is useful for important instructions and is adapted for
people that learn in different ways, namely visual versus verbal learners. Repetition
in a written form is also helpful for teams with high language diversity: â€œSometimes
it helps to send them a summary of what you have discussed in English so that they
have the time to digest it afterwards. In a multilingual team, that is often very importantâ€
[B7]. A French interviewee working with colleagues in India shares how repetition
across different communication channels allowed her to overcome difficulty in
understanding her Indian colleagues due to accents, â€œI had to practice and mix
[oral] with written communication to make sure I got it rightâ€ [F9].
Overall, written media tends to be used significantly more in multilingual
GVTs. For example, one director estimates that her highly-diverse and
dispersed team communicates 80% by written means and 20% orally [F9].
Written media allow teams to communicate efficiently across time zones
while adapting to accents and proficiency levels. Written media tend to make
individuals with lower language proficiency more comfortable than oral
channels, whereas oral forms of communication seem to help more with
resolving problems quickly. Synchronous channels that replicate face-to-face
communication, with body language, conversational messages or even
arguably emoji, build relationships and rapport among team members. Table 5
summarizes these findings.
Reinforcing Effective Communication With Language Nodes and
If individuals provide essential team coordination thanks to language skills,
they may be language nodes. Language nodes facilitate exchanges between
two parties through translation or verifying othersâ€™ messages. Beyond simply
having the capacity to help, language nodes often feel a responsibility for it.
For example, a Belgian manager that understands seven languages believes
it is her responsibility to adapt to others when there is a communication issue:
â€œI think itâ€™s up to me to make the effort rather than them. So when I find indeed
that either people have trouble explaining something to me or they have trouble
understanding what Iâ€™m saying, I will switch or I will ask them, â€˜Okay, say it in
(whatever their native language is)â€™ and see if that helpsâ€ [B7]. Colleagues that
are physically or emotionally close can be effective language nodes by verifying
a colleagueâ€™s message destined to an external client [Y11, G15] or by helping
interpret incoming messages: â€œI go to my colleagues. Itâ€™s like, â€˜â€¦What do you
understand for this?â€™â€¦these other things are still quite difficult sometimes: to get
to know what the real message isâ€ [S17]. Translating may go beyond simply
understanding the words, to also include cultural interpretations. Lastly,
language nodes but may occupy any role within the team: member or manager.
Due to their language skills and propensity to help, language nodes become
trustworthy, central interlocutors for communication across the team and
hold a privileged role among their team members.
The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits 30
Summary of communication media used in multilingual virtual teams
and Difficulties Details Verbatims
For simple exchanges or information â€œWhen itâ€™s a simple one-off question, itâ€™s easier to answer via emailâ€¦â€ [A1]
For confirmations â€œWe confirm in writing to assure that we understood wellâ€ [F9]
For descriptions of a complicated
â€œIf, for example, I ask them to do something, a task that requires a few days,
I will more so write an email, to explain well what I wantâ€ [F13]
For communicating information
throughout the organization
â€œIf we want to send a mass message, email is perfect. If we want to send a formal
message, email is perfectâ€ [F19]
Appropriate for temporal dispersion â€œEmail tends to be the mode because weâ€™re all in different time zonesâ€ [A4]
Possibility to evoke other languages
in greetings or closings
â€œWhen I speak to Italians, I start with â€˜ciaoâ€™ and after that, I speak in English.
Or I finish with â€˜ciao.â€™ Itâ€™s a means to get closer tooâ€ [F14]
Difficulties Time-consuming â€œa half an hour mail could take five minutes to do over the phoneâ€ [S17]
call (phone or
Primary purpose For urgent matters or problemsolving â€œwhatâ€™s urgent, what requires a decision, is by telephoneâ€ [F6]
Advantages Easy to combine with other media or
â€œWe would cut the camera and use the text zone to send documents and PDFsâ€
Accents become obvious â€œOrally, we would have conference calls and their intonation made it so that I did
not understandâ€ [F9]
Lack of body language â€œWhen we speak by phone, we may not convey our emotions. For example, body
language is not visible over the phoneâ€ [F13]
â€œI feel like my first instinct is usually to get on a
call just because itâ€™s
easier to talk about it and talk through issues and questions when youâ€™re faceto-faceâ€ [A1]
For group exchanges â€œIf we want a group exchange, in fact, thereâ€™s no better method to use than video
or teleconferencesâ€ [F19]
Visual cues â€œI do like to use the video as much as you can because then you get to see people
and you get to see the expression and what people are [thinking/feeling]â€™ [A20]
More personal than other media â€˜We always use video, alwaysâ€¦ Because for one, communicationâ€¦ and itâ€™s just
nice to see a human body now and againâ€™ [A8]
Better understanding of interlocutor â€˜By calling, we come to better understand the English level of the person. We
know how and with what words to explainâ€™ [F3]
Privacy concerns â€˜We donâ€™t use the cameraâ€¦ I think itâ€™s a security aspectâ€™ [I16]
Technology dependence â€˜Although [company] is starting to put in that type of technology, at least in our
office, we need it within other offices to actually be successfulâ€™ [A4]
The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits 31
Summary of communication media used in multilingual virtual teams
and Difficulties Details Verbatims
For synchronous, written exchange
â€œMessenger is more efficient for understanding the context, for digging deeper
on certain points, especially with the Koreans for example, who donâ€™t speak
English very well, but respond to written messagesâ€ [F19]
For prelude an exchanging via
â€˜I use Skype for instant messaging for short- â€œAre you around?â€ and â€œCan we
have a call now?â€ and stuff like that, and then usually switch to a phone call to
save timeâ€™ [S17]
For showing availability and interest
â€˜We also want to show that weâ€™re present. Itâ€™s constantly being in contact.
Messenger is great for that because it allows us to be in touch, say â€œHow are
you today?â€, without necessarily making a big deal out of itâ€ [F19]
Instills confidence in team members â€˜For people who are a big less at ease or who donâ€™t dare to speak, itâ€™s easier to
writeâ€¦ I think that messaging has facilitated exchangesâ€ [F14]
Imitates lifelike conversation â€˜I make it a tool to really try to reproduce as if we were face-to-face. Mimics that
we could have, the non-verbal that is difficult to translate in an emailâ€ [F14]
Use of emoticons and smiley faces
â€˜I say â€œhelloâ€ and put a little smiley. After that, there are people that use it more
than others. It depends, and then it also allows us to share a little humor and
things like that that arenâ€™t necessarily easy to conveyâ€ [F14]
Difficulties Lack of record â€˜at the beginning I started the conversation [and wrote]â€¦ important facts in these
things. Then they disappearâ€™ [S17]
of media Purpose
For repetition across multiple media
â€˜As much as possible we try to really talk, but then follow up in written formâ€¦
Sometimes it helps to send them a summary of what you have discussed
afterwards in English so that they have the time to digest it afterwards. In a
multilingual team, that is very often very importantâ€™ [B7]
For illustration â€˜what we use a lotâ€¦ is to be able to share the screen, not to see each other, but
so I can show whatâ€™s on my screenâ€™ [S17]
The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits 32
Discussion and Propositions
This study demonstrates the issues surrounding multilingual GVTs and how the
two variables of language diversity and virtuality are equally important to
consider to understand team processes. For example, the particularities of
multilingual GVTs make the stakes of choice of language and appropriate
communication channel of an even greater importance than for face-to-face
teams. Language nodes and bridge makers are also increasingly important for
highly linguistically-diverse and dispersed teams.
BELF is used by a significant number of multilingual GVTs, but other functional
languages, i.e. French, may also be selected depending on the multinational
companyâ€™s strategy, structure and transnationality (Luo & Shenkar, 2006). This
study confirms the benefits of BELF for multilingual GVTs because a clearly-designated language for official communication reduces confusion. As BELF mixes
English and other discourse practices from the speakerâ€™s mother tongue, BELF
speakers do not aim for native-speaker proficiency, which reduces pressure and
makes them more comfortable speaking and writing (Kankaanranta & Planken,
2010). Focusing on proficiency has been shown to reduce perceived ability-based
trustworthiness (Tenzer, Pudelko & Harzing, 2014). On the other hand, this study
also demonstrates the limits of BELF or other functional languages. Despite
evidence otherwise, non-native speakers have been perceived as less intelligent
or capable than their native speaker counterparts. BELF is not â€œculturelessâ€ and
should not be approached in that manner, by native or non-native English speakers
(Kankaanranta & Planken, 2010). Also, while an international form of English is
accepted for internal communication, native-speaker proficiency is usually the
goal for external communication. So team members that have outward facing
roles may be incited to further develop their language proficiency.
Besides a lingua franca, we also observe the benefits of a monological multilingualism approach, which is an inclusive policy that recognizes a certain number
of local languages, each being allocated for one context or another (Janssens &
Steyaert, 2014). It is not yet at the level of a true multilingua franca approach in
which language is a true bricolage of multiple linguistic resources all being used
simultaneously (Janssens & Steyaert, 2014). In fact, in the 22 interviews, we did
not encounter any team-wide multilingua franca, reflecting that a true multilingua
franca is difficult to establish and that it is more common in social rather than
professional settings (Feely & Harzing, 2003; Harzing et al., 2011). However, informal
communication is essential in teams (Charles, 2007) and thus creates opportunities
to integrate additional languages. Teams that communicate informally and personally
and that are able to spend quality time together, even infrequently, show increased
group capacity, individual satisfaction and trust. Teams that never meet face-toface must address this lack of quality time through other means such as informal
calls and online teambuilding activities. This high quality, interpersonal communication â€œcombats barriers to trust establishmentâ€ and leads to improved team
outcomes (Marlow et al., 2017). For this reason, we propose the use of additional
languages in informal team communication such as in written greetings or small
talk to indicate interest in others and improve group dynamics.
Code-switching has been widely debated in the field of language in IB. Our
results also show that code-switching can increase understanding and efficiency
in completing tasks, but it has the potential to cause intense emotion, tensions
and reduced benevolence-based trustworthiness between team members when
used too much (Hinds et al., 2014; Tenzer, Pudelko & Harzing, 2014). For this
reason, we support Tenzer and Pudelkoâ€™s (2020) proposition that managers
should limit code-switching (in group settings), practice guiding code-switchers
back to the shared language and further reduce misunderstanding through
repetition and regularly summarizing discussion outcomes during and following
team meetings. However, we compromise by acknowledging the benefits of
code-switching for knowledge sharing (one-on-one or via a separate channel
during team communication) or building relationships in informal situations.
To summarize, the findings of this study point to a combination of a designated
functional language with an official recognition of team membersâ€™ language
skills and backgrounds by encouraging switching to other languages in less
formal and one-on-one situations. Such flexibility between languages may be
easier in the virtual environment where team members can use multiple communication channels at the same time without interrupting the main conversation.
For less formal situations, communication will more likely pass through informal
communication channels, i.e. where messages are not usually saved or forwarded
to others, such as instant messaging or texting. This official recognition of
languages outside the functional language may be a step towards the future
acceptance of a multilingua franca.
The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits 33
Which Communication Channel?
Multilingual GVTs use a combination of written and oral communication channels,
privileging written channels for the most important messages and to confirm
what has been previously conveyed orally. While the choice of communication
channel does depend on individual preference and the tools provided by the
organization, some are better adapted to certain messages than others. In choosing
a channel, the team needs to consider language commonality and the type of
message being sent. Our findings are generally consistent with KlitmÃ¸ller and
Lauring (2013) who find that rich media in highly diverse teams makes sharing
complex messages difficult due to accents and that lean media gives more time
to individuals with lower proficiency to reflect and correct their writing. Indeed,
sharing important information in writing (or confirming it in writing) helps accommodate language diversity. Along with media richness, we observe the importance
of media synchronicity. Again, our findings are consistent with KlitmÃ¸ller and
Lauring (2013) and Tenzer and Pudelko (2016) who highlight asynchronous media
in multilingual settings because it eliminates pressure for immediate action.
However, as Tenzer and Pudelko (2016) point out, asynchronous and written
communication is no â€œpanaceaâ€ for all team communication, so teams should
use a variety of media. For example, it is important to privilege lean, asynchronous
media, such as emails, for efficiency and sharing important information, but
also integrate rich, synchronous media, such as video calls, to create a more
â€œpersonalâ€ touch where team members can build personal relationships. Using
media to create a more â€œpersonalâ€ touch through social communication is
especially important in the virtual context where team members cannot build
rapport in face-to-face situations (Powell et al., 2004).
We also promote the use of â€œin-betweenâ€ options that allow team members
to write to each other synchronously, such as instant messaging. In line with
Li, Yuan, Bazarova and Bellâ€™s (2018) study on the effects of language proficiency
in multinational teams, instant messaging allows members with low language
proficiency to feel more comfortable speaking up because social cues and thus
cognitive and social constraints are restricted. This medium should be encouraged
as it imitates lifelike conversation, bringing the benefits of face-to-face communication to the virtual context.
Which Individuals to Build Language Bridges?
Finally, the results highlight the central role of clearly identified language
nodes for multilingual GVTs. People that master multiple languages and that
can improve understanding by facilitating communication between two parties
within the same group are known as language nodes, also known as bridge
makers (Harzing et al., 2011). Likewise, Barner-Rasmussen, Ehrnrooth,
Koveshnikov & MÃ¤kelÃ¤â€™s (2014) study on boundary spanners (that operate
between organizational units), found that language skills are more important
than cultural skills to properly perform boundary spanning functions. We
propose the same for language nodes within a single unit. Thereby, organizations need to identify individuals with pertinent language skills as well as a
desire to help others. This can be done starting from the recruitment process,
focusing on complementary team members based on their language competence. Our findings are consistent with Barner-Rasmussen and colleagues
(2014) who believe that language nodes can occupy any role within the team,
including manager, but should be ideally distributed across different organizational levels and job roles. Managers should also identify the language
competencies already present within the team to understand who can act as
a language node. In the virtual context, team members may be initially unaware
of the language competencies present in the team, so helping to identify them
is an important step to creating a more cohesive team. Table 6 presents the
propositions resulting from the study.
The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits 34
This study aimed to contribute to research at the intersection of language in IB
and GVTs in order to answer the question of how language diversity influences
communication in multilingual GVTs. We distinguished task processes and
socio-emotional processes among team processes and identified related literature. The virtual and multilingual nature of the team influences communication
processes such as the choice of a functional language, use of supporting languages and choice of communication channel(s). Theoretically, we advance
virtual team research by observing emergent states of team processes through
a language lens (Tenzer & Pudelko, 2020). We propose that a functional language
aids efficiency and results in all team members receiving the same information,
but that encouraging the use of other languages in informal and one-on-one
situations aids in building positive rapport between team members. We thereby
further the discussion of functional language (Luo & Shenkar, 2006) by also
highlighting the importance of supporting languages. We specify that effective
communication crosses multiple communication channels, but that written,
synchronous media such as instant messaging are especially useful in multilingual
GVTs for social communication. The choice of communication channel (Daft &
Lengel, 1986; Dennis et al., 2008; KlitmÃ¸ller & Lauring, 2013; Marlow et al., 2017)
demonstrates the importance of written communication to aid comprehension
and additional synchronous channels to emphasize the benefits of informal,
social communication (Charles, 2007). Also, language nodes can be a great help
in bringing team members together and helping to ensure that each team
member understands the same information. In this way, we further the discussion
on language nodes and bridge individuals as â€œlinking pinsâ€ (Harzing et al., 2011).
Finally, we contribute to language research by focusing on language practices
and activities surrounding language use as an alternative to traditional approaches
for conceptualizing management practices (Angouri & Piekkari, 2018).
By understanding team processes, we further propose success factors with
managers and members of such teams and provide strategies aimed at not only
dealing with the challenges of language diversity, but also leveraging its benefits
in the context of new virtual work practices. Managerial implications emerge
from the understanding of the consequences of this diversity. In order to support
multilingual GVTs to complete their task, time and resources must be dedicated
Proposition 1a One designated functional language facilitates teamwork
and knowledge sharing in multilingual GVTs.
Additional languages (based on the teamâ€™s language
configuration), that are regarded as complementary to the
functional language in informal and one-on-one situations,
facilitate relationship-building in multilingual GVTs.
Proposition 2a Code-switching is generally more harmful than helpful during
full team and formal communication in multilingual GVTs.
Languages outside the main functional language in the
context of greetings and small talk improve team member
relationships by highlighting the teamâ€™s multilingual nature
in multilingual GVTs.
Multilingual GVTs that operate across a variety of
communication channels (used subsequently or in
combination, and integrating both oral and written
communication forms) are more effective and have a better
rapport than teams that only privilege one or two
Among the different types of communication channels, written
communication that also allows synchronous communication,
such as instant messaging, is best adapted to multilingual
GVTs with high language disparity.
Language nodes help increase team rapport and effectiveness
in multilingual GVT functioning, so should be identified by
managers and encouraged to share their language and
cultural skills within the team.
Identifying appropriate language skills during the recruitment
process is a means to identify and integrate language nodes
within multilingual GVTs.
The Influence of Language Diversity on Virtual Team Communication: Overcoming Barriers and Leveraging Benefits 35
to replicate the positive aspects of face-to-face work. For this reason, we
encourage regular, informal exchanges, channels such as instant messaging
that allows lively discussion and identifying language nodes who can assist in
these exchanges and who can help build positive emotions and rapport between
team members. Furthermore, organizations and managers need to learn to
support their employees coming from language backgrounds outside of the
primary functional language. Managers can learn about the various management
techniques that aid communication such as being aware of appropriate communication channels depending on the goal of the message, encouraging high
quality, frequent, personal communication, and supporting team members that
have the ability to operate as language nodes.
The limitations of this study lie notably in its exploratory nature, the number
and time period in which interviews were conducted and in the implications of
age and institutional variables. Future work could concentrate on certain sectors
or positions to better understand specific teams, such as innovation project
teams. It could also expand the scope of interviews in order to have more precise,
significant and generalizable results. Additionally, institutional variables, such
as the importance of the French language for national identity, should be considered. Finally, it should be noted that this study took place before and during
the 2020 rapid increase in virtual work as a result of the global health pandemic.
New technologies and the transformation of work should be considered within
the scope of future research.
Future research on the topic of multilingual virtual project teams should go
more in depth focusing on specific teams in particular industries to verify the
findings and propositions of this exploratory phase. Since we have observed a
link between communication channel and the quality, quantity and content of
information shared, future research could explore the preferences and understanding based on oral versus written communication, including emoji. The
influence of language diversity on GVTs should be further explored and verified
using a variety of methods, such as experimental methods, in order to observe
behaviors in multilingual virtual situations.
Finally, the effects of language diversity and virtuality should be further
studied in relation to team outcomes and team effectiveness. Indeed, while the
focus of this study was on team communication and processes, questions were
raised regarding team outcomes such as objective fulfilment and team capacity,
development and identity. Indeed, a Ukrainian manager shared, â€œI think our
diversity (language diversity, cultural diversity, our origins) â€¦ is helping because
there is quite an exchange, there is quite a soup that is prepared out of that, and that
is helping us to confront with the different situationsâ€ [U12]. Therefore, team
outcomes merit further exploration in the multilingual GVT context as an additional means to understand the barriers and benefits of diversity.
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