Tips for Staying Connected While Working with Colleagues Overseas

As the business world becomes increasingly globalized, international workforces expand. Working on distributed teams with people dispersed across the globe is the new norm. With diverse and multicultural teams, new challenges occur — time zones, communication barriers, and social differences. Here are a few strategies to cohesively work with colleagues in different regions.

Up Your Communication Game

When you’re working with colleagues that aren’t in the same office, whether you’re remote or in-house, communication is the foundation of every successful working relationship. When you’re ‘on the clock’ a simple acknowledgment of an email, message or call can go a long way.  

Briana Hartzel is USAA community manager who works with military clients stationed across the globe. Her communication strategy? “I try to acknowledge or respond to an email as soon as I read it. Even if I don’t have the answer, data or document that is being requested. I send a quick note of acknowledgment and provide a timeframe in which I will be responding with what they need. [When] there is no opportunity to do a ‘drive-by’ to discuss the things the team needs; it is important to me to let my coworkers know I am present, listening and taking their item for action.”

Communication is even more critical when you’re working in different time zones and with language barriers.

Respect Local Cultures

Local cultures differ by region, if you’re consistently collaborating with co-workers in specific countries, take the time to learn about their customs. When you start a new working relationship, don’t be afraid to ask how their name is pronounced and inquire about local behaviors. Author, professor, and global business expert, Erin Meyers, suggests starting conversations about culture. “People love to talk about cultural differences, as long as you make it sound like you think the other culture is positive and you talk about your own culture in a humble way.”

If you’re working with people in multiple countries and can’t learn about every cultural norm, play it safe. In your correspondence avoid colloquialisms, slang, or abbreviations. Even widely used phrases might not translate, causing confusion and possibly delaying communications.

Prepare Meetings Differently

For those that schedule conference calls with an international audience, consider your colleagues abroad and set up meetings with them in mind. To start, chart the time zones of your participants. If meetings are on a consistent basis, make sure to split the burden of off-hours. Nigel Blythe-Tinker, Executive Chairman for Chumba Casino, shares that their conference calls rotate in time. “We have an international team that travels frequently, we always switch up meeting times, so no one person has to wake up exceptionally early, or yawn through a meeting at 11 pm.”

With international colleagues, you may want to reconsider how you’ve traditionally conducted meetings. Meyers wrote a piece for Fast Company about coaching executives on cross-cultural differences in China, using an example of how she incorrectly ran the training. In Chinese culture, meeting participants wait until they’re called, they feel western meetings are too often interrupted by participants. She recommends understanding the differences in business and office practices in Asia and Europe. A large part of this is preparing colleagues about meeting expectations ahead of time, as well as calling on individuals to speak or present.

No Last Minute Decisions

The business world moves fast. Decisions sometimes have to be made on the fly. However, this is not the best practice when working with an international team, as it is inevitable that not everyone can be involved in the decision-making process. Project management company Trello, addressed this issues with a commandment for their distributed team. “No decisions are made last minute. If you have an item that requires input and decision making, then you are sourcing feedback well before the second you need to ship it. You can’t expect immediate answers because your co-workers inevitably don’t work the same hours as you. While this may seem like extra work, asynchronous communication ends up being more efficient. Meetings are pre-planned, often weekly standing times when everything is discussed as a team.”

Don’t Forget Social Pleasantries

When you aren’t working in the same physical office, it can be easy to forgo social banter. Camaraderie can strengthen a working relationship, so don’t forget to be social with your international colleagues. Simple gestures like asking about a coworker’s day, thanking them for task completed, or congratulating them on successes, can go a long way. Messaging and chat programs make it easy to connect.Consumer Resource Guide

“Frequent, quick chats over Slack can be incredibly effective for getting know personalities, clarifying questions, and strengthening important relationships. There’s a reason that Slack and Hipchat are exploding in usage. They’re filling a gap that email never could. Besides being great ways to ask quick questions or make small announcements, they do a good job of replacing some conversations that used to happen around the water cooler.” says Michael Freeman of Highfive.  

You can even go one step further and start virtual team-building/social activities. Ryan Rogowski, CEO of Waygo began a ‘virtual happy hour’ for his team. “The key part is really focusing on getting to know each other outside of day-to-day work tasks and keeping up with each other on life outside of work.”

If you work with an international team, what are some of your tips for staying connected?

Bio: Richard Burrowes, Senior Director of Operations, Rose Hall Developments Ltd.

My career foundations began in Vancouver, Canada where I studied hotel management and obtained a Bachelor of Commerce while working in AAA 4 and 5 Diamond hotel properties. The journey continued when I returned to my birthplace of Jamaica and began a career in the hospitality industry. This experience has allowed me to manage first-class resorts and people in Jamaica, St. Lucia and the Bahamas. Today, I am fortunate to be a part of the Rose Hall Developments team. A diverse and historically rich company. Every day my education continues.

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