How to manage an international workforce

Having team members dispersed around the globe with some never meeting face-to-face is becoming the norm in many organisations. According to a report last year by Virgin Media Business, 60% of UK workers could be working remotely within the next decade.

This change brings new challenges for managers who need leadership support, training and development to lead remote teams successfully. Leaders today have to engage, motivate and encourage innovation across the team. They must communicate aspects of the business and work, and drive performance and results through others. And they have to do all this with little or no face-to-face contact with staff.

Research published in June 2012 by Lynda Gratton, Professor at London Business School, found that being separated physically means teams fail to develop the “chemistry for success” – a theory recently deployed by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who in February 2013 banned staff from working remotely to encourage better interaction and communication.

Managing remote teams

But, other research shows that in today’s global society, where some members of a team may be based at different sites, location need not have a negative impact on performance. In fact, remote teams can actually outperform office-based colleagues. A study by Harvard Business Review in May 2004 of nearly 300 people in successful remote teams found that 96% of them never met face-to-face with all of their team and only 17% met with a subset of them.

Whether teams are based locally or overseas, successful leaders use the same management techniques, but with a few differences.

For example, scheduling conference calls to suit everyone is hard enough without contending with different time zones. Coaching and communicating can be trickier particularly as managers can’t pick up physical cues that reveal problems or learn what’s going on from a casual conversation. It’s harder to ensure individuals fully understand their goals and are working effectively to meet them when there is more distance between team members and language barriers. It can be near impossible to bring the team together physically to share experiences, and managers need to consider how to accommodate cultural differences, both in the office or working remotely.

On the other hand, having a global team has benefits, such as the potential to offer around-the-clock service to clients and the advantage that distance can act as a buffer against strong personalities clashing.

Overcoming challenges

The solution is not for leaders to learn a set of new skills, but to know how to apply the same familiar management techniques in a slightly different way.

Challenges can be overcome by using five tried-and-tested leadership tactics – called REACH – which help managers to “extend their reach” to their team. REACH means:

  • Emphasise responsiveness – be as available to remote staff as to local ones by being flexible and accessible in many ways. Establish the best way to respond to individuals such as by email, phone, text or in person and use this to regularly check in with the individuals while knowing when to step back or intervene. Rotate conference call times so they’re scheduled to accommodate different time zones and to be fair to all members of the team.
  • Use empathy – learn about individuals’ perspectives, traditions, languages and ways of thinking, and encourage team members to learn about one another. Use this knowledge to tune into people’s viewpoints and take these into account in every interaction.
  • Accelerate accountability – clearly communicate who is accountable in the team for delivering which goals to build a sense of ownership for results. Identify any language barriers and ensure individuals understand what is expected of them, explaining what, why and when things need to be delivered. And consider cultural circumstances and differences. For example, religious holidays may mean some of the team are unable to deliver to certain deadlines.
  • Create connection – use technology to build links between the team and the organisation, but know when face-to-face meetings are a must and who needs more close contact to help achieve results. Great leaders create the impact of face-to-face meetings through virtual ones, which also helps to spot any physical cues that could signal problems.
  • Help – anticipate any support that may be needed, ask staff if they need help and respond quickly when they do.

The downfall for many managers is their failure to explore new technologies that help improve communications and collaboration across the team. Many stick to what they know and use systems that they think are the best when, in fact, research published in Harvard Business Review in May 2004 shows them to be the least effective.

The report “Can absence make a team go stronger?” (by Ann Majchrzak, Arvind Malhotra, Jeffrey Stamps, and Jessica Lipnack), found that email is a poor tool to include the whole team in a discussion. It means copying in everyone, which leads to email overload with many ignoring communications.

Aside from face-to-face meetings, virtual meetings, teleconferencing and web conferencing are the best tools for remote teams to interact with each other and for leaders to reach and manage them effectively.

Ensuring that leaders are able to utilise all these tools effectively, through experience, training and development, will help organisations to create strong leadership that can build and sustain high-performing teams whether they are based locally or around the world.

David Robertson is VP for Forum EMEA, a global specialist in leadership development and sales performance training

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