A lot of us know the joys of working with people based in different locations. Especially those of you who have worked in or with bigger companies. There are lots of calls and virtual meetings involved in such cooperation, but also a lot of misunderstandings and challenges related to this kind of work.
Let’s take a closer look at the most common challenges and how we can approach them to improve the quality of our work.
Whenever I think of working with remote teams, the first things that comes to mind is the scheduling drama. It’s easier if the teams are spread across one country, or two adjacent time zones. However a lot of the work that is done remotely nowadays is done between Europe and India, or Australia and US etc. And that itself is an additional challenge.
The window where you can schedule meetings at reasonable times narrows down to just a couple of hours and on top of that we of course all have our own things to do in those time slots as well.
So how can we make it work?
First of all, I will always encourage team meetings before the start of the project or a long-term cooperation. It’s important to establish the team rules and include personal priorities in there as well. If you want to read more about leading remote teams you can go to one of the earlier blog posts: Top tips for managing cross-cultural projects.
Let’s say one of the members of either teams has children and simply can’t sacrifice every other evening to do the 7 pm call. Or the law in the country you work with doesn’t allow employees to work longer than X hours a day and you just need to adjust. These are the kind of things you need to discuss and flag to avoid disappointments later on.
It’s good to agree on a time that works for all time zones and all team members (some of us might need to flex our schedules a bit though, so be open about it when you work internationally) and already schedule the meetings in your calendars for the whole duration of the assignment. Of course, occasionally it might happen that you will need to move things around, but scheduling in advance gives all team members the clarity and helps plan their other commitments around it.
A tool that I find helpful when scheduling these types of global meetings is World Time Buddy – it allows you to type in all the locations you’d like to connect and find the times that are reasonable for all of them!
Conference calls with more than three people on them are a challenge themselves. Oh the joys of the line breaking, delays on the line, people talking at the same time (‘You go’, ‘No, no, you go’, ‘No seriously, you go ahead’), people being late and unprepared, the beeps when someone joins or drops off…and the list continues.
Very often what started as a smaller team now needs to include various people who want to learn more about the work you do and get updates. That means there is a chance of more and more people joining your calls. That also means that the conversations and agenda might start getting a little bit out of hand. What can you do to ensure that it goes smoothly on the logistical side of things?
– Send an agenda and any materials for review before the meeting
– Take the first 2 minutes once the majority joins to set the rules and plan for the call, especially if you have limited time for it
– Switch off the beeping sound of people joining and dropping out if there are lots of people involved in the call to avoid distractions during the conversation
– Ask everyone to go on mute to avoid background noise
– Be more directive than you would have been during a face to face meeting (‘Person X, what do you think about it? Person B, could I ask you to take notes while we generate ideas?’ instead of ‘So what do you think about idea X? as that’s when the whole You go, No you go kicks in => If you’re thinking Yeah sure, be direct, but what if in some cultures it’s rude to be direct? See point 1 and continue reading.
In general, where possible it’s always best to schedule a video conference where you can see each other to limit the above challenges.
If you read my blog, you know that I do care about the nuances related to intercultural communication. How to build trust among people of different backgrounds, especially if you’re not based in the same location, is one of those.
In the context of challenges connected to working remotely it’s especially visible and necessary to mention. Every one of us has our own personality and own way of building rapport with others. However, the intercultural research shows that there exist differences in how the society works in various places in the world that influences our preferences towards various behaviours.
The challenges here are that you’ve never seen each other, you might as well never meet at all, but you need to work together on a common goal for a certain amount of time. And to do that you need to get to know each others’ work styles and preferences.
Take the time to do the small things when working with people remotely, such as remembering their birthdays, asking about the plans for weekend, asking how they are (but r e a l l y asking and probing, not just using the general English ‘How are you? Fine, how are you? Great.’ And moving straight on to business.). Even with more direct cultures that do tend to go straight to business you can still send them an interesting link, call them with your questions instead of writing emails back and forth, wish them all the best for their birthday. Small things make a difference!
The more one-on-one conversations or video conference conversations (where you can actually see the person) you will have, the bigger chance that you will start treating each other less transactionally faster.
Language and accents
As trivial as it might seem, you need to consider this challenge when setting up the structure for your team. Especially when communicating in English, like most of the international teams do, and especially if most of your communication is done via calls. You need to think about making sure that everyone understands correctly.
The best way to do this, although it takes up some of the call’s time, is to reiterate what the other person is saying. Not every sentence of course (that would be annoying! :D), but if you are setting up next steps or agreeing on certain tasks and how they should be done try to say something like ‘Good, so just to make sure we are all on the same page, by next week we will do A B and C’. It will help you put your thoughts together, help the person taking notes to pick up on the things they missed as well. But it can also help the rest of the people on the call to understand correctly in case the line was blurry or they simply didn’t get it the first time. Probably a good idea to send out update emails to the team whenever it’s useful for everyone to be on the same page with the progress.
Another useful resource to read is the post about how the understanding of leadership differs across cultures. Bear in mind that the local team might have a different understanding of what needs to be done and how often the updates need to be given and in what way. Agreeing on the ways you will catch up about the progress, whether you need daily/weekly/monthly email updates, whether one person will be a point of contact or not, who will that be, how the reporting would look like – are all important and should happen during the initial team meeting.
Having the awareness that there are certain preferences that differ among people in your teams depending on where they come from is important. Their attitudes may differ towards the working flexibility, the right to say your opinion or express an opposing opinion. It’s crucial to foresee any potential risks and address them during the initial team meeting where you will agree on the flow of your cooperation.
I wonder what are your experiences with working remotely, especially in international teams?