By Barry Spence, CEO, Cubiks
Overseas placements can be good career stepping-stones for talented people. Firms often transfer promising people overseas to allow them to earn their spurs in a foreign environment, demonstrate that they can stand on their own two feet, lead a new team and learn how to operate in a different culture.
However, expatriate placements frequently fail, much to the disappointment of both the company and the individual. The reasons for this can be many and varied, but often come down to factors such as the person’s inability to connect with the local team or their failure to adapt their behaviour to fit in with local customs. Equally, individuals who were previously viewed as highly dynamic can struggle when they have to cope without their trusted support network, both at work and at home.
Managing staff from a distance, whether expatriates or staff who have been recruited locally, is therefore a key management issue and one which can have painful consequences for a business if not handled properly.
If no boundaries are set or they are set too tightly, the business may experience a breakdown of trust between head office and overseas staff. It’s easy to make incorrect assumptions about one another when there is a distance that prevents face-to-face meetings. You might have an overseas office that you think mirrors your own but no matter how big a brand you have, there will always be cultural differences that will affect the way that staff in each office perform. If you don’t understand these differences then you are likely to offend staff and damage both employee relations and potentially the long term reputation of the business in that market.
To get this delicate balancing act right, it is essential that you pay attention to the three Cs of managing staff from a distance – Common Sense, Courtesy and Culture.
The basic conditions through which an employee makes a contribution do not change whether the person works overseas or close by. They need a comprehensive and clear understanding of the role that they are required to perform and the targets that they are expected to meet. And they need regular, objective feedback.
They need to understand the limits on their discretion and the rules of operation. For instance, it must be clear to them when they can take a decision and when they have to defer to head office. Any company employing staff abroad, either as expatriates or as local recruits, needs to ensure that all the documentation and communication is in place in terms of policies, procedures, authority limits, roles and responsibilities in order to minimise any confusion.
Once those materials are in place and have been effectively communicated, local employees should then be allowed considerable discretion to get on with the job and must be trusted to deliver the results.
One of the many reasons that an individual embarks upon such an adventure as an expatriate is to heighten their level of independence and experience. Being micromanaged does much to detract from the learning and growing opportunity offered by working abroad. Similarly, local staff who feel that they are not trusted may become apathetic towards their work and at worse, feel resentful towards management.
Every single member of a remote team has to be trusted. It must be assumed that they are working in the interests of the company and to the best of their abilities. If not, action must be taken quickly and decisively.
If you suspect that an individual is under-performing or acting unethically, it is critical that you gather your supporting evidence and then arrange a meeting with the individual to directly address the issue at the earliest opportunity. This could mean that you have to jump on to the next available flight so make sure you prepared for this possibility.
Control processes in themselves can never ensure compliance from a distance - if employees are fundamentally dishonest they will find a way to work around reporting lines or disciplinary procedures.
A good manager will know everyone and feel absolutely confident that they will maintain the highest standards of professionalism and integrity. If you don't have this confidence in your staff, you simply don't know them well enough.
Knowing your international staff begins with careful selection, induction, training and company orientation. This should be handled exactly as it does with employees who sit around the corner from your office. Thereafter, it is essential to maintain regular contact on a planned basis. This might be through e-mails, telephone calls or video-conferencing. If possible, try to impose a strict routine towards these planned communications so that they become a way of working rather than an uncommon event.
Planned visits are, of course, essential but once you have made several and begin to understand the characteristics of your remote workforce, they become less necessary provided that they hear from you regularly and preferably by voice as well as through written communication.
Staff working in a distant location respond very positively to being involved in communication and decision-making, particularly when they realise that you have gone to extra trouble to allow them to participate. Make sure they receive every ounce of communication that is distributed to your local employees. Do not forget to add representatives from distant locations to working parties or to allow them to assess new product developments or sales initiatives. Taking on board the opinions and input from staff overseas will inevitably result in a better outcome and one which they are committed to.
Managing staff from afar also requires individuals based in the corporate headquarters to develop heightened interpersonal and communication skills. Although advances in telecommunications mean that organisations can now conduct tele- or video-conferencing with great ease and clarity, there is still no substitute for making eye contact with your colleagues in a face-to-face meeting. When you have to rely on telephone conversations, it is important that you are able to pick up on subtle things such as changes in tone of voice or hesitations, as these can be key to helping you gauge exactly what is on the person’s mind.
Remembering remote staff at a personal level, such as sending flowers for a family bereavement or to celebrate a new arrival, makes a huge impact. Remember also to communicate across the business so that employees in Asia, for example, are updated on events in mainland Europe or the USA and visa versa. I was once in regular contact with a Danish employee who had been hospitalised following a serious accident only to discover months later that her Finnish colleagues (part of the same company region) were unaware of the reasons for her absence.
If a new member joins a country team, a telephone call to welcome them and wish them luck is warmly appreciated and helps them to establish a sense of belonging within the group.
You will generate immediate respect from international employees if you pay attention to local customs such as dietary requirements or business card etiquette. Everyone who has worked in a multinational business has learnt the hard way that humour does not necessarily travel and that friendliness can sometimes be regarded as an unwanted familiarity. There are two approaches - one is “adaptive” by respecting and acknowledging local ways of behaviour, the other is “coercive” which states "this is a UK-owned business so our rules count".
If you are to engage with your international employees, and to maintain their respect, enthusiasm and commitment towards your company's objectives, it is essential to demonstrate an adaptive approach. So do your homework and seek advice from someone who knows the territory perhaps better than you.
The rewards of interacting appropriately with staff from a different country or culture are immense. The difference between visiting a remote location, where you receive a warm and hospitable reception as compared to a cool or even hostile one, is down to you.
Therefore, carry out a quick audit to assess your performance to date:
By following some simple rules, you can go a long way to anticipating the reception you will get on your next visit overseas.