In this blog post, I would like to share my experience of managing a team of four people located in different countries, one of whom had just joined the company and needed full training. This kind of remote working has exploded in popularity over the last couple of years, and there are of course many great aspects of working from home, but it undoubtedly comes with many challenges too, especially when you throw the international element in there. This blog post will focus on the challenges of managing an international team remotely, and how to overcome those hurdles!
Working with people in different locations and time zones
Webcertain is an international company, and we have therefore always had some colleagues working from different countries. But, with remote working becoming the main model of the company’s operation since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we now have significantly more people scattered around the world. Whilst this helps with employing people with a deep understanding of local markets and allows us to tap into a bigger talent pool, it has also highlighted some rather significant challenges which need to be taken into consideration when working with colleagues in different locations and time zones.
Schedule meetings in a way that is inclusive
Be prepared to schedule your meetings at different (and sometimes unusual) times to include all your team members and key stakeholders regularly in meetings and live discussions.
I personally witnessed a situation with one of our clients, where the performance of their Asia-Pacific website was declining, because all the meetings were constantly scheduled at a time that best suited their US team. This left their Asia-Pacific team feeling disconnected and left behind, since the time difference meant they could not join these meetings. This led to them becoming disengaged and losing their drive, as a result of not being able to participate in live discussions or influence important decisions.
Eventually, the client decided to hold meetings at least once a month at a time that better suited their Asia-Pacific team, and as far as I know, this led to a significant improvement in the collaboration and drove a higher level of marketing activities, resulting in improved performance of the Asia-Pacific website.
This shows how important it is to make sure that every team member and stakeholder feels included, so make sure you schedule your meetings in a way that includes everyone – even if that means sometimes having meetings at unusual times. I find that having a separate clock for each team member with their time zone’s time is helpful for me. I hate changing those to and from summertime though, especially since the US and the UK have different dates for that time change!
Accommodate for time zone differences when managing your workload
There will inevitably be some delays in communication if you have team members in different time zones. Prioritisation is the key here. A good tip is to deal with tasks involving people working in the time zones ahead of you first thing in the morning and prioritise communication with them, to utilise that short time when you are all online.
Another good tip is to use shared-access project management and communication platforms like Trello, Slack or Wrike for internal communications within your team, to allow team members to respond at a time that is convenient for them. You can also ask to be added to clients’ communication platforms.
You should also make sure to review estimated times of arrival and service-level agreements to make sure they reflect the time realistically needed to deliver the work, taking into account the fact your workforce is located in different regions. Here at Webcertain, we like to share a detailed step-by-step time plan at the very start of a project, to help our clients plan their work based on realistic expectations.
Create space for spontaneous conversations to occur
In the office, it is much easier to ask for help or a second opinion from the person sitting next to you, without feeling like you are interrupting them. For managers, it also feels very natural to check on a team member’s progress by casually asking them a question or popping over to their desk.
However, if you are working remotely, you have to think about how to compensate for the loss of this instantly available support. In my team, we agreed not to ask “Can I call you?” on Skype/Teams and then to wait for a response, but instead to simply call. If someone is busy, they can just decline the call and call back when they can. I believe this helps to cultivate a closer sense of connection, by removing that small yet common barrier to communication.
You should also ensure that there is an element of regular and predictable communication, such as weekly catch-ups or virtual team coffee chats planned, to compensate for the lack of chances to have spontaneous conversations due to the difference in location and working hours.
One of my clients recently told me about their “Kitchen Katch-ups”, a permanently working virtual meeting room, where people having a coffee break or just needing a five-minute switch-off can pop in and chat with whoever happens to join at the same time. The randomness is quite fascinating, and mimics the way people communicate in the kitchen whilst making their drinks in an office!
Group chats are also good for informal, easy-flowing communication and quick questions, for people working on the same project. I have a contact working at one large UK company who told me they even have different hobby group chats set up. I guess you need a relatively high number of employees for that to work, but I personally would be thrilled to discuss my beekeeping passion with colleagues in such a chat!
Working with people from different cultures
Working with people from different parts of the world can be extremely enriching and rewarding, but cultural differences mean it also requires awareness, sensitivity and effective communication skills.
Differences in communication styles can sometimes cause frustration or distress. This is especially true for written communication, which may appear abrupt or different to what you are used to. I recently discussed this subject with a contact working in a global team and dealing with a lot of regional marketing units across the world. Whilst all their meetings have a very friendly, respectful and supportive atmosphere, the way the same people write emails is often perceived as being harsh and confrontational. Without having the opportunity to take non-verbal cues, and without knowing the person well enough to understand their cultural or personal specifics, we can be more inclined to be judgemental and, at the same time, vulnerable.
Learning about different cultures and people’s backgrounds is the key to building rapport, as well as being lenient and patient with colleagues, even when they express their thoughts and concerns in a way that is different from how we personally would. In my team, we continuously work on developing our professional communication skills by running role plays in our team meetings, going through different mock-up scenarios to practice our crisis management skills. This gives us invaluable lessons in seeing how different people may approach the same situation.
Remember, misunderstandings may occur, and it takes time and a willingness to learn to develop effective working relationships. But I believe it is brilliant to work with people from across the globe, as it broadens your horizons and improves your adaptability. Plus, you can always ask these international colleagues for advice on what to see when visiting their country on holiday!
How to form bonds with international colleagues working remotely
Forming bonds with international colleagues whilst working remotely may require slightly more time and effort, but it is totally possible to build strong relationships.
My favourite, but rather radical, method is to combine holidays with work. For example, when I was travelling to Singapore with my husband on holiday, I set aside one day to arrange meetings with a couple of clients, who it would be impossible to see face-to-face otherwise. Likewise, Webcertain’s Social Media Manager recently extended her holiday in Japan for a few weeks, to work together with her Japan-based colleagues. Even if you are planning a shorter holiday abroad, it is worth checking to see if any colleagues are nearby to meet for a meal. When I was working from Spain recently, I met with a colleague from our SEO department for dinner, as they just happened to be in the same town whilst on a business trip.
Professional conferences offer another great opportunity to meet up. You just need to remember to plan all lunches, dinners and drinks in advance! For example, at Webcertain’s International Search Summit, which is a conference we run annually in Barcelona, there are often multiple people from the same company who travelled in from different locations and used it as an opportunity to catch up. One of my colleagues, who was presenting at the International Search Summit, arranged a meeting with one of her clients the day before, as they were also attending the conference, and they had a very productive discussion. Many Webcertain team members from different departments and locations come to the International Search Summit, and we always use this as an opportunity for team-building and getting to know one another better.
I also love how Webcertain celebrates the cultures of different countries. It could be an online quiz at lunchtime on interesting facts about India (I personally hosted that one, so let me know if you want me to share the questions with you); or we may sing the Happy New Year song in Mandarin (our colleagues from China were adamant it was a good attempt, but could not stop laughing for a long time afterwards at the memory of it); or we may do a cake-baking competition over video call for St Valentine’s Day. Informal, playful activities like these can create a real sense of camaraderie and connection.
How to train a new international team member remotely
I have a couple of special notes in regards to the training of new employees, on top of what has already been mentioned above.
I find that scheduling a certain time for shadowing is the best option, as opposed to trying to catch the new employee when a specific task that we want to explain crops up, as the latter option often comes with timing issues with the new employee being busy with something else. Shadowing ideally needs to be split between a few team members, as hosting a shadowing session usually slows down the progress of the work being done and explained, and it can also be quite tiring for one person to have to host all the shadowing sessions.
Another thing I recommend is to work with a shared screen for a prolonged period of time (like an hour), or at least to be connected via Skype or Teams. New employees usually need a lot of friendly managerial support. In my team, we found that this is actually quite a nice exercise, and not as oppressive and controlling as it may sound.
How to recognise the successes of your international team members
Celebrating success is absolutely crucial for team motivation and job satisfaction, so every opportunity needs to be taken to recognise team members’ contributions. This could be by mentioning them in your company newsletter or on your company’s social media pages.
Here at Webcertain, as we are an international team, we aim to foster cultural sensitivity and develop cultural intelligence. Take the time to discover what style and type of feedback will be most appreciated by different people. For example, do they prefer to get feedback in public or private? Do they prefer an emphasis on individual achievements, or an acknowledgment of the contributions of the entire team?
Little things like giving an extra day off or a personalised cup or just a note of thanks can also be very much appreciated. Of course, the majority of tangible rewards come from the company, but sometimes doing something small such as sending a box of chocolates to a colleague who did extraordinarily well can close that gap that remote working sometimes creates. As we know, giving gifts is often even more joyful than receiving them, so do not hesitate to add this joy to your life!
Sharing any positive feedback received from customers and third parties with the person and their manager is another great way to celebrate success that boosts morale and motivates team members to keep up their good work.
Engaging in joint work with team members scattered across the globe requires specific considerations to ensure effective collaboration, but by adapting your approach, you will be able to overcome the challenges of working with a remote international team, and experience the joy of a truly diverse and enriching environment at work, with ample opportunities for cross-cultural exchange and learning.
Being part of an international team gives you the chance to expand your professional network and establish global connections. It also provides companies looking to thrive in a globalised marketplace with access to valuable insights into different markets and regions first-hand, as well as increased flexibility and round-the-clock productivity.
I strongly believe that, here at Webcertain, our international and multicultural team is fully equipped to deliver our mission “to empower global brands with digital marketing and translation solutions, which speak to local populations offering them choice and opportunity”. If that sounds like something you are interested in, feel free to get in touch with us today, and our friendly international team will get back to you soon!
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