5 Tips for Managing Your Overseas Employees

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If you are a manager who spends all day on the phone with your employees who sit nine timezones away, you are in the right place. In the modern business environment, you, like many managers, will inevitably find yourself responsible for employees overseas.  These employees may directly report to you, or to local in-country manager, but are assigned to you.  

Regardless of your situation, managing employees abroad is one of the biggest challenges you will deal with as a manager for three reasons.  First, there are limited opportunities to see these employees in person, making it difficult for forge relationships and effectively evaluate their performance. Beyond basic 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 can not get a visual on a regular basis, it makes it difficult for them to understand how the employee is really doing.

Second, language barriers can be hard to overcome, increasing 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 yuo can get the information, you’ve lost another day, which often has a trickle down effect. Further, many managers amid busy schedules forget the importance of fairness in terms of meeting times. No one wants to have meetings late at night when it’s 2PM for the other party.

Given these challenges, here are five quick tips for leading a global team:

Create a Picture Chart ­– They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  To me, it’s worth 10,000 when dealing 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. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that you can get all your employees in the same place at the same time due to cost constraints. 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.

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 employee’s culture.  Unlike managing the employees you pass in the hall each day, you have limited opportunities to learn about your overseas employees – their families, their interests and their abilities.  Spending time studying the culture of your employee in China, for example, can help teach you that they have tremendous devotion to their family and 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 can learn about their cultural values.

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 in the work place.  Imagine how good your employees feel when you make the trip. Now, imagine how they feel when you don’t.

Slow Down, Speedy – Just as you may struggle to understand what your employee Taiwan is saying on a call thanks to the language barrier and 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. Further, avoid the use of questions that have ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.  This line of questioning causes 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, by 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 will need to do the work. Finally, ask your employee to take the meeting minutes or actions at the beginning of the call.  At the end of a call, ask them to recap the actions so you can verify they absorbed everything discussed.

Watch the Clock – How frustrating are meetings that pop in over your lunch break because it’s convenient for the other party?  You set your staff meeting up for 1PM your time, which is 1 AM for your employees in Beijing (this actually happened to me).  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.  The Beijing team asked for a change of time but the group manager never did anything about it.  He later struggled to understand why we eventually stopped showing up.  If it is simply not possible to avoid meetings at inconvenience times of day – it’s guaranteed to happen in a global economy at some point – find a way to share the pain.  Alternate who does the early morning or the late night every other week.  Sharing the burden of inconvenience helps reinforce a sense of equality and mutual respect.  Regularly scheduled discussions can help prevent last minute cancellation of dinner plans or lunchtime workouts.

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 have to be impossible.

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