Employee Engagement

The New Rules Around Communication to Engage Global Teams

By Nicole Sahin

May. 20, 2019

For managers who are building or inheriting teams in today’s fast-paced, digitally enabled business environment, things are far more interesting, productive and creative. But that doesn’t simplify managing a modern global team.

Most enterprise companies now do business overseas, and they employ teams that span many boundaries: cultural, functional, geographic and global teams are becoming more of the norm. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, worldwide employment by U.S. multinational enterprises increased 0.4 percent from 42.1 million in 2015 to 42.3 million workers in 2016 (the latest year available).

The good news is that people typically enjoy working on global teams. Based on data from a 2019 “Global Employee Survey” conducted by my company, professional employer organization Globalization Partners, 72 percent of people said they like to be part of global teams but like them even more when they feel listened to and treated fairly. Also, the flexibility in work locations lets companies hire the best talent anywhere in the world, and the diversity that comes from global teams can be a huge benefit.

But there are challenges that generally fall into three types: communications, logistics and culture. Communication issues are no surprise, but if not tended to can snowball to become serious problems. Also, the same diversity that brings new ideas into the mix and inspires us can cause conflict and disagreement, or misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

What does it take to succeed in managing a global team? It rolls up to two kinds of activities: establishing good systems and establishing trust.

Establishing good systems means following the laws and knowing the customs in the places where your organization does business, taking the time to understand how your team will need to work together and then acquiring the technology to support it. It also means communicating with your team — in a firm, clear and inclusive way — to help them adhere to those systems and use those tools. Here are some best practices.

  • Understand the law. Work with finance, legal and HR teams to be sure you are always operating according to local laws.
  • Set up centralized information sharing. Make sure your team can all access the same files and tools, and establish centralized, cloud-based sharing to save yourself endless headaches and revision nightmares.
  • Establish strong communications methods. Choose your tech wisely and stick to it. Plan for differences in schedules and augment text-based communication (email, instant message, text) with face-to-face meetings whenever possible using online video tools. Difficulty with languages or accents? Try more text-based collaboration.
  • Rotate time zones fairly. Introduce your team to tools like world clocks, which tell you what time it is anywhere in the world. When scheduling meetings be sure not to eat up all your “golden hour overlap” time when everyone is available with meetings, leaving no time for spontaneous collaboration. Also, be aware and respectful of holidays, which of course differ from region to region.
  • Encourage participation and communication. Make sure the processes and tools you put into place encourage people from all backgrounds to have a voice in the conversation. People who connect daily with global team members feel more connected, engaged and involved than those who don’t.

It’s a lot easier to build processes than trust, but you will need both to be successful. In terms of establishing trust, global virtual managers don’t get the benefits of managing by walking around that local managers get, so you’ll have to make up for it in other ways. Here are a few.

  • Do your culture homework. The very act of expressing genuine interest in an individual and their background improves morale and understanding. According to our survey data, more than two-thirds of employees (68 percent) say their companies struggle at least some of the time to align with, be sensitive about and adhere to local laws, practices and cultures.
  • Understand working styles and communications. In addition to understanding cultures, get to know your employees as individuals. Be sensitive to how people from a “dominant” culture within the team may frustrate team members from a region that is less represented or that has differing cultural norms and values.
  • Set goals, communicate, motivate and inspire: This is Manager 101, but with all the unique challenges of managing a dispersed team it can fall by the wayside. Be sure you’re working with those team members, not just on deliverables but also on their development.
  • Know your tech. Be willing to tailor your communication style and medium to the needs of different employees, based on things like time zones and language barriers.
  • Be available. The most successful managers make themselves available across multiple time zones and through different means of technology (IM, Slack, Skype, email, phone and text).
  • Check in frequently and consistently. Global team members who connect daily with their co-workers feel more engaged and involved than those who don’t. Employees who feel like they belong are 93 percent more likely to say they feel optimistic about their company’s’ future.

 As more companies continue to enter the global game, they will need to make it a priority to build and nurture a local team, set them up with compliant, equitable systems, demonstrate an understanding of local culture, and establish communications practices that make them feel valued and heard. If not, they risk losing the much sought-after international employees that can be so hard to find.

Nicole Sahin is CEO of Globalization Partners, a professional employer organization based in Boston. Before launching Globalization Partners, Sahin was a managing director at financial services company High Street Partners and also co-founded the Sweet Life School in rural Cambodia, which was designed to help children in one of the poorest countries in Asia leapfrog to a modern education by providing access to English language teachers, electricity, and the internet.

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