By Andie Burjek
Jul. 29, 2020
It’s easier for companies to operate internationally, thanks to various technology innovations. But for organizations that want to go international, global workforce management is not a task to be taken lightly.
So many details go into hiring just one person from another country, including compliance with a different set of laws and setting up a management structure that allows workers across the globe to be managed efficiently. But with remote work becoming more prevalent during the pandemic and sounding like more of an acceptable option after the crisis ends, learning the realities of having a truly global workforce will help organizations decide what the right decision is for them.
Global workforce management is more complicated than simply managing a local or national workforce. But for some organizations, it may be worth the extra complexity.
The expansion of the remote workforce
Remote work has allowed organizations to expand who they can consider an employee. The more widespread switch to remote work makes the labor markets thicker, meaning that employers have more options for employees and that employees have more options for employers, said Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice.
While many organizations have thought about expanding to other cities and states in the U.S., others have realized they can cast their net even wider. In the past it could be difficult to get international candidates to move to the United States or American candidates to move internationally, Kropp said. Dealing with employment visas could get complicated.
Remote work from outside the United States, alternatively, allows American employers to not worry about visas, Kropp said. They could have access to high quality international talent that require less compensation than American employees, which is undoubtedly a good thing for employers, he added.
The complications of a globally dispersed workforce
Collaboration can be difficult with workers in several different time zones. This is one of the more intuitive difficulties, but employers should not underestimate it, Kropp said. The number of overlapping hours between coworkers and team members can be limited when they live in different countries.
Further, employees in different countries have varying leave policies and vacations schedules. At worst, this could breed a sense of unfairness among employees who get less time off than others. Ultimately, what’s important is that team members in different geographies keep each other in the loop and let people know when they’re taking time off, Kropp said.
In addition, while most companies get excited about a wider talent pool and potential cost savings, what they forget about is how a dispersed workforce might impact company culture and employee engagement, Kropp said.
While employees are generally just as productive working at home versus in an office, many employees find it more difficult to form a relationship with their coworkers and managers when they are remote. Managers may have a concern that these employees don’t have the same company loyalty or that they’re more likely to quit.
There’s an enormous social component to work, Kropp said, and the decision to leave a company may be different if someone is thinking about leaving their friends rather than leaving coworkers.
“When you’re more broadly expanding who can work for you in your work from home approach, it’s harder to create loyalty amongst those remote employees, and it’s even harder if they’re in different countries, let alone in the same country. There’s even less social attachment from that perspective,” he said. “The key thing you have to think about if you’re going to radically expand your work from home strategy is, ‘How do you build social connections and emotional ties to your organization?’ ”
“The last thing you want to do is hire these employees and spend a lot of time and energy training them, and then they quit,” he added. “The advice we have for companies trying to expand their work from home strategy internationally is that the strategy must have a huge retention component.”
Workers’ rights and benefits in different countries
Benefits and workers’ rights are dependent on the geography where the employee lives, not where the company is headquartered. Companies need to make sure they’re partnering with third parties that know the labor laws in the cities and countries where new international hires live. There are, for example, companies that help with this, Kropp said. These companies help not only with the benefits and rights but also with tax systems and compensation rules.
A company will have to have a unique infrastructure based on these rules for each separate country in which they find a new employee, Kropp said. Creating this infrastructure is time-consuming and may require outside expertise. He suggested that an organization looking to expand starts by choosing one or two countries they’d like to hire talent from, build infrastructures from there and don’t fall in the more complicated trap of hiring people from anywhere in the world.
While differing laws and time zones may make successful global workforce management difficult, a well thought-out management structure can help.
Kropp has seen companies that hire both a work manager and a person manager. The person manager lives in the same geography as the international talent and has knowledge of the local situation. The work manager manages the work itself — whatever tasks or projects the international talent is working on.
This is the most common way for companies to address this, Kropp said.
Kropp also has seen companies have managers supervise more people, which may not be a positive trend for organizations going global.
“You can accomplish that if your employees are more similar in terms of jobs, roles and responsibilities,” he said. “But manager performance starts to struggle when they have a greater complexity of the type of person they’re trying to manage, and [managing] people in different geographies just makes that harder.”
“From a manager perspective, you want to think about it as not just the number of people they’re managing but the variability and needs of all the [employees] to get a good sense of how much harder you’re making it for your managers,” he added.
As organizations consider whether going global works for them, there are a few questions and considerations to help make the decision.
One metric organizations can look into is how much time a manager is spending on solving problems versus providing support, Kropp said. Especially as management duties expand as the talent pool does, it’s important to consider how to minimize the frustrating work managers have and maximize the productive work they do.
“You don’t want your managers caught up in frustrating details. You want them caught up in overseeing the big picture,” he said.
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