Virtual Expatriates


While it’s never easy to develop a new skill, it is relatively easier to do so when you’re immersed in the environment in which you need to use that skill. Thus, the four key cultural skills – cultural due diligence, style switching, cultural dialogue and mentoring – are easier to master when you’re living and working full time in a different culture, because using the skills is a necessity, and the more you use them, the better you get.

But while it’s always better to immerse yourself in the new culture with which you’re dealing, companies are sending employees on longer-term international assignments less often than they were in the 1990s, or even at the beginning of the 2000s, before the international recession hit. There is much less physical displacement of employees now, and much more use of virtual communication technologies.

Unfortunately, with virtual communication, it is all too easy to overlook cultural differences, which would be harder to do if you were actually based in a different country. Whereas using the four key cultural skills is just as important when you’re working virtually with people from other cultures, the need for them becomes less apparent. Whether it is through sending emails, attending conference calls or holding videoconferences with people from locations across the globe, many of us are in effect virtual expatriates, and it is important to remember that making use of the four key cultural skills is just as important online as it is when you’re face to face with your colleagues abroad. 

Lynne Putz