5 Tips for Managing Your Overseas Employees

Managing a Virtual Staff

If you are a manager who spends a lot of time on the phone with your employees who sit nine time zones away, you’ve come to the right place.  These days, many managers find themselves responsible for employees overseas.  Whether these employees report directly to you, or to a local in-country manager, the challenges of working with remote workers are the same.  Further, with limited overlapping time, late night meetings, or early morning conference calls, it can seem like we’re always on the clock.  To help you manage an overseas staff, we wanted to provide some tips and suggestions overcoming the hurdle of distance.

Challenges of Managing an International Team

Managing employees abroad presents three unique challenges when compared to the more traditional setup of having everyone in the same place.

First, there are limited opportunities to see these employees in person.  Lack of face time makes it difficult to forge working relationships as well as hard to effectively evaluate their performance.  Beyond employee performance, body language plays also an extremely important role in the ability for a manager to evaluate things like engagement and job satisfaction.  When managers do not get those visual clues on a regular basis, it makes it difficult for them to understand how the employee is really doing.

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Second, language and cultural barriers are often hard to overcome, which only increases the communication gap.  It can be frustrating for some, embarrassing for others.  Repeating oneself, poor phone connections, and miscommunication are all commonplace and discourage building relationships with employees.

Finally, time zones cause delays in the flow of information.  Anyone working in a global setting has experienced it.  You walk into the office in the morning and the information awaiting you in your inbox is missing some key information you needed.  By the time you realize this and ping the person at the other end, they’ve left the office.  As a result, you’ve lost another day, and maybe missed a deadline.  Further, overlapping time that’s reasonable for everyone is hard to find, especially when you have three or more time zones to accommodate.

Given these challenges, let’s take a look at five quick tips for leading a global team:

1. Create a Picture Chart ­

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  Here at MRH, we like to say that a picture is worth 10,000 words when working across cultures.  There’s an inherent curiosity about what people look like when you spend all day on the phone with them, or swapping emails with them over weeks and months.  Unfortunately, it is unlikely that you can get all your employees in the same place at the same time due to cost constraints.  Instead, create an organization chart with everyone’s picture on it to help make your employees feel like they’re part of a team, and not just pen pals.

Bonus Tip: How to Introduce New Employees

Every time a new employee is hired into the team, have him or her create a single 1 page introduction about themselves that you distribute to your entire organization.  Things they should include:

  • A few photographs of them, their family or their hobbies
  • The education background
  • Their work history
  • Personal information they want to share
    • “Married with one child and a dog.”
  • Hobbies and interests

Sharing of this type of information helps employees learn about each other, and serves as a source for building relationships.  (e.g. “Hey, I have a dog, too!”)

2.  Go Back to School 

Having spent most of my career working with clients and employees abroad, I’m continuously surprised by how little time leaders spend learning about their employees’ cultures.  Unlike managing the employees you pass in the hall each day, your overseas employees live and work in a completely different environment.  Spending time studying the culture of your employee in China, for example, can help teach you that relationships are more important than tasks.  Understanding your employees’ culture not only helps you build relationships across oceans, it also helps you manage them effectively since you will better understand what’s important to them.

3. Pack Your Bags 

There are a million reasons why leaders do not go to see their employees overseas.  I’ve heard them all.  Too expensive, too far, don’t know what to eat.  These are all true, but still not good enough reasons to get some face time with your people.  After spending a great deal of time with my colleagues in India, I was able to exert far more influence and communicate more efficiently because of the relationships and trust that we had built.  Building these relationships took time, but getting to know them individually paid back dividends when it came to getting things done once I returned home.  Further, imagine how good your employees feel when you make the trip to see them.  Now, imagine how they feel when you don’t.

4.  Slow Down, Speedy

Just as you may struggle to understand what your employee in Taiwan is saying on a call because of their accent, the opposite is also true.  When you are talking to employees overseas, speak slowly and avoid the use of slang.  The use of slang is likely to be misinterpreted.  Use simple words that a non-native speaker of your language will understand.

Bonus Tip: Ask the Right Questions

Avoid the use of questions that have ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers when talking with employees overseas.  This type of question can cause confusion, as in many cultures ‘yes’ can simply be an acknowledgement that the other party heard you, and may not mean they agreed or understood what you meant.

Instead, using open-ended lines of questioning encourages your employee to express themselves.  For example, instead of asking if they could have the task completed in two days, ask how much time they need to do the work. Finally, ask your employee to take the meeting minutes or actions at the beginning of a meeting.  At the end of a call, ask them to recap the actions so you can verify they absorbed everything discussed.

5.  Watch the Clock

How frustrating are meetings that pop in over your lunch break because it’s convenient for the other party?  For the same reason, don’t set your staff meeting up for 1PM your time, which is 1 AM for your employees in Beijing.  Is there really no other time to meet?   When managing and working with people in other time zones, show some respect for one another’s personal time.  If it is simply not possible to avoid meetings at inconvenient times of day, find a way to share the pain, and schedule meetings in advance so people can plan around them.  Alternate who does the early morning or the late night every other week.  Consider splitting up the discussion into two smaller groups if more appropriate.  Sharing the burden of inconvenience helps reinforce a sense of equality and mutual respect across the team.

“…Imagine how good your employees feel when you make the trip to see them.  Now, imagine how they feel when you don’t.”

Final Thoughts

So there you have it, five ways you can improve your ability to manage employees overseas.  If there’s a main theme that summarizes all of this, it is to get to know your employees, and demonstrate you support a true team environment.  Working across continents and time zones is unavoidable in the global economy, but it does not have to be impossible.

 

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