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I work with a geographically distributed team (different timezones) with people from various cultures and background. Some of us have never met each other in person but we communicate with each other over phone, chat and email almost on an hourly basis.

Most of our meetings and discussions are dead serious and boring. What's worse, any attempt at humor is not very well received because of cultural differences.

I feel that we are all taking our work a bit too seriously. We don't shy away from painful arguments, nasty emails and heated discussions when things go wrong but never attempt to develop camaraderie or friendships in better times.

I would like to know your experiences with such situations and what, if anything, did you do to lighten things up at workplace.

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    What's worse, any attempt at humor is not very well received because of cultural differences. Have you considered the possibility that it's not because of cultural differences but just bad humour? – user1326 Nov 28 '11 at 2:36
  • YEH! Tell better jokes! – Morons Nov 28 '11 at 2:49
  • About bit too seriously work, looking from another perspective, there's a slightly possibility that the seriousness is culturally inherited. I'd suggest this video @Pawel shared with me a while ago: vimeo.com/12021592 – Tiago Cardoso Dec 2 '11 at 18:34
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Working with remote teams from different cultures always has difficulties. Over the years I have developed strong professional relationships with developers in various remote offices. These a build on professional respect first and foremost. You say "lighten up", but from what I have read in your question, "behave professionally" would be the first step. Drill down and finds out where the animosity is coming from - are your deadlines too tight, are you expecting too much from others, or they too much from you. Be honest. If they are 'idiots', accept it and work within their capabilities. If your the 'idiot', let them know what you can and cannot do.

Develop a culture of keeping emotion out of non-verbal communications. Use the phone instead of email where possible, follow up detailed or complex email discussions with phone calls. The more verbal communication you have, the more of a person, and less of a machine you will perceive the others to be (and vs versa.). That said, ensure all verbal agreements are followed up with emails summarizing decisions made.

Smile when you talk on the phone - it makes a difference even though the other guy cannot see you, but keep it professional. As a rule, jokes etc should be avoided untill you have a strong professional relationship.

If you do have a chance to meet them, make sure you go out to a meal or drink together, and avoid talk about work. Bump into the them at the water cooler if you have to.

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There are two ways to get work done in a distributed set up

  1. Black Box - The offshore team is responsible for a sub set of work. In software development, most of the time, coding or testing. The offshore team has less say in overall design, architecture, and processes.
  2. One Team - The distributed teams have shared responsibility, share the same set of standards and equality in the team is maintained. This model is more than taking Cost advantage, it is based on getting the best/suitable team members anywhere in the world.

I believe you need to evaluate, which category your team falls in. And if somehow you feel your team belongs to 'Black Box' model, it's going to be a lot of work for you before you actually create the team environment you are looking for. My advice, in that case is

  1. Motivate your team to know more and more about the project/product/work you are doing.
  2. If possible, do more than what you have been assigned.
  3. Work hard to add value, where ever you see things are not so good. Every project has areas of improvement.

By doing this, chances are that you will gain more trust and respect, which will eventually lead to somehow Lightened-up workplace.

Not understanding jokes from other culture will not be a big deal if you are able to create an environment of rich communication, shared responsibility, and same goals. This will be an environment where associates do the same work and are dependent upon each other for the team’s success. This will be an environment where team members strengthen each other. This will be an environment where Joy and Enthusiasm lives everywhere!!

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Ask yourself WHY you want your teams to lighten up. It's important to think about this, because it will help you clarify existing team collaboration/communications problems and how this may affect your team: beyond the fact that yes, it is nicer when people are friendly and share a joke or two, how does the current situation actually affect your project? Are people not sharing information, not collaborating efficiently, don't feel free to speak and raise issues, are at risk of leaving the project, etc.?

Talk to your team about it. Once you can articulate reasons for changing the way things are (eg. "if we build collaborative, friendly, positive relationships, we will be able to go through difficult times in a more effective way"), address it directly with you team. Do it in an informal way, one-on-one. Ask them how they feel about the way things are going, what would they like to do differently when it comes to team collaboration and why.

Create opportunities to introduce collegiality. It could be making things more personable like having a directory of people with photos and a little about themselves, using social media to help people connect quickly and in a more informal way, congratulating people for resolving a problem or completing a task together, celebrating project successes, wishing happy birthdays or personal congratulations, showing a funny or inspiring video (TED is a good source) or sharing an anecdote as an introduction to a topic, etc.

Be funny and respectful. Humour can be difficult across borders, and even between different personalities. Something funny to someone may be disrespectful to another. Work out who will share a joke and who won't and when using humour, stay clear of the un-politically correct stuff.

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If, by any chance, you can meet your team face to face at least once it would totally change the game.

In general, it is easier to go harsh over someone when it is just a signature under email or voice on Skype than it is when you've actually met the person and possibly have had a couple of beers with them (or whatever is acceptable way of collective leisure activity in your group). It is easier to be correctly understood when you throw in a joke, when others had a chance to see you joking in real life, when they hear the tone of your voice, see your mimic etc.

I know it can be costly for the company and difficult to organize, especially when a team is spread over several different locations but it's well worth the effort. Such team retreat in the same physical place pays off in the long run, thus I'd start convincing my bosses to allow me to organize such thing.

Not only would your atmosphere be improved but also people would be more open and transparent with each other, more willing to help and would generally act more like a team and not as a set of individuals.

If that isn't possible at all, then angeline gives a good answer with ideas you might find useful.

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If your meeting are "dead serious and boring" you cannot fix that by introducing humor and I think it may even hurt more than help. Humor cannot be designed in, it needs to happen naturally. You first need to do some root cause analysis. People will be bored if: a) they are not passionate; b) they are not included; c) they are not respected and many many other reasons. Use your retrospective to explore this topic.

I like Pawel's suggestion a lot.

You might also like to investigate the facilitation skills of those running the meetings. Poor facilitation can really impact your meetings. This is a topic that is too large for a simple post but you might like to investigate the Art of Focused Conversation by Brian Stanfield; Collaboration Explained by Jean Tabaka; Project Restrospectives by Norm Kerth or Coaching Agile Teams by Lyssa Adkins.

If there is no passion in the team then perhaps the team is not understanding or buying-in to the vision for their product. This is a difficult one to fix and may need active support from senior management.

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If it were me? I'd create a "walled off" area, and use it myself. Then let people know it's out there, and try and get at least one other person to post some content there.

Maybe do stuff like: 
  - a "show me a funny picture from the web you saw this week" thread
  - a "what cultural holiday is coming up soon near you" thread
  - a "I can't believe they call this junk **news**" thread
  - a "pretty pictures from the area I live in" thread
  - a "crazy weather photos from the area I live in" thread

and other plain, boring attempts at lighthearted communication.

Really, the best folks can post offensive, horrible things and just laugh at it...but if the group is how you're describing them here...don't do anything like that. Just stick with "funny animal" videos and it'll be enough to at least start an effort at reaching out to them.

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