Why Having an International Team is Like Magic
International team members can provide invaluable perspectives and magically keep business moving while the rest of your team is asleep. Leigh Hall, based in Japan, discusses best practices with international workers.
The pandemic has taught all of us a variety of lessons, but one of the more unexpected truths it has highlighted is how greatly globalization impacts us all. For me personally, globalization has touched my life in the most positive and influential ways. It has afforded me the opportunity to make international friends while on vacation, study abroad in China (coincidentally where I met my husband), and now live in Japan for three years. Being that I don’t speak Japanese, continuing to work for an American company was pretty much my only option. But, having international team members is not every company’s cup of green tea.
While living abroad has made my personal life highly Instagram-able, it has made my professional one much more challenging
Just before coming to Japan nearly two and a half years ago, the market research firm I was a contractor for decided to drop me due to the relocation. They thought communication and task management would be too taxing on the team. They cited the major time difference, contrasting holidays, limited real-time communication, and mismatched software and tools I had at my disposal. However, the recent surge in remote work due to COVID-19 has required many businesses to work with international remote teams. With the right attitude, technology, and practice, a seamless, effective partnership with international remote teams is achievable. So, my old company obviously missed out.
1) Establish Common Ground
Keep teams on the same page by writing a communication rule book. Include the big picture of the company, including mission statements and company culture. Also make space for the details such as daily practices and expectations. For example, ensure all employees are aware of the company’s value on quality control over speed or innovation.
Update your software! I can’t stress enough how frustrating it was for my project team to have a less updated version of PowerPoint than I had. All those tedious hours of formatting and animation went right out the window when they opened my presentation. On the flip side, the team shared sample templates for everything from proposals to focus group discussion guides. This meant that when I sent an assignment for review, they were able to spend less time editing. The moral of the story is, sharing is caring.
2) Develop Empathy and Trust
As a remote international team member, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to build real relationships with my coworkers. I have found that the better you know someone, the better job you want to do because you actually care about their opinion. You also gain a more holistic perspective of their motivators, strengths, and communication style. This makes teamwork one-thousand times easier and more enjoyable. In an article focused on what makes global teams work, HBR found the key ingredient for success lies in the level of social distance. In other words, the greater the emotional connection between team members, the more effective they become.
Develop emotional connections through empathy and trust. Companies need to increase facetime, encourage informal communication, and value productivity over perfection. While the time difference does make communication challenging, virtual face-to-face meetings are crucial. Can’t synchronize? Send video messages instead of text. It’s easy to feel detached from someone we only talk to on the phone or send e-mails to, but once we know their face we become significantly more engaged and trusting.
3) Encourage positive interactions
All work, all the time makes people antisocial. Promote small talk to build trust and empathy. Companies should lead meetings with five minutes of informal conversation or create a Slack channel where coworkers can talk about their vacations, tv shows, or pets. When we find out a coworker has similar hobbies as us, has an anniversary coming up, or is even going through family hardship, we are more likely to be understanding.
Lastly, trust is the consequence of empathy. Stress to employees that perfection stifles productivity and we can only produce great work across teams with practice. Ripping someone to shreds if they make a mistake is counterproductive. Instead, using empathy will incite your coworkers across the globe to complete tasks without unnecessary hesitation. This also leads to trusting one another’s critics as constructive rather than superfluous. Remember, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
4) Communicate Frequently While Maintaining Boundaries
Without desk-side chats or impromptu meetings, you need to communicate frequently and with intention. Reinforcing the same message in a variety of ways helps to minimize confusion. If a task is lost in translation, completion can be delayed not only for a couple of hours but for days due to the time difference. I found it incredibly helpful to practice active-listening with my boss at the end of meetings. First, she would summarize what my responsibilities were. Then I would restate what I heard to make sure I didn’t forget or misinterpret anything. It is also helpful to have team members acknowledge the receipt of an email or message. Even though this might seem excessive at first, it gives the team member on the other side peace of mind that their message was seen.
Setting boundaries for communication is important, since working with team members in different time zones can have your phone buzzing with notifications late into the night. Let’s be honest, our anxiety is heightened the moment our screen lights up with a work email and ruins date night vibes. Especially when working from home, it is difficult to separate personal time from work. The National Association of Foreign Student Advisors (NAFSA) recently wrote an article about managing remote and global teams. They emphasized the importance of tempering demands for communication too far outside of “normal” working hours by clearly defining rest periods to safeguard team morale. Peer pressure to respond at all times of the day is real. Leadership being transparent about taking breaks or time off is necessary to instill work-life balance for international remote teams.
5) Share the Burden
One thing that can be really irritating as a foreign team member is always having to assume the burden for the time difference. If you need to have two team meetings a week, try to make one more convenient for the east coast team and the other more convenient for the west coast team, so everyone feels there is a balance.
Preplan as much as possible so that one team is not always bearing the brunt of a tight deadline. When I was working in market research in D.C., I remember our L.A. office always complaining when a presentation was due “end of day” east coast time. It left them scrambling to fit 8 hours’ worth of work into 5. To prevent the overseas group from always working under a time crunch, set them up for success by creating deadlines with their time difference in mind.
6) Brainstorm the Benefits
Finally, attitude is everything. Help team members get excited about the perks of working with international remote team members. As an aspiring social worker, I have become very familiar with cognitive restructuring (a fancy term for changing a negative perspective into a positive one). For example, you can view working in different time zones as an inconvenience, or as an added bonus since work can continue while you are asleep. Try not to complain about having to wake up early for a meeting at 7 am. Instead, think about how this allows you to clock out 2 hours earlier and make that Pilates class you have been wanting to try.
International teams also bring fresh and diverse perspectives, voices, and inspiration. Take working for a branding company, for example. I would be able to incorporate the Japanese attention to detail, floral patterns, and origami into new packaging designs that others may not have ever been exposed to. Culture fosters creation which is something all businesses can capitalize on when having team members from a mixture of countries.
Lastly, having global teams expands your reach. In this vast, remote world we now live in, everyone—and I mean everyone—is a consumer. The other day, an ad popped up on my computer for a designer bag that I had never heard of. Turns out the company was based in Kenya. Having international teams can help you tap into a wider market by providing insight on how to appeal to them, ultimately leading to an increase in revenue.
Neeley, Tsedal. “Global Teams That Work.” Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Publishing, Oct. 2015, hbr.org/2015/10/global-teams-that-work.
Sandberg, Jessica. “Best Practices for Managing Remote and Global Teams.” NAFSA: Association of International Educators, 1 Apr. 2020, www.nafsa.org/ie-magazine/2020/4/1/best-practices-managing-remote-and-global-teams.
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