How to manage staff from a distance

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Overseas placements can be good career stepping-stone 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, learn how to operate in a different culture etc. At the same time in our global market companies obviously recruit local people to manage their overseas locations.

But how do you manage people if they are such a long distance away? How do you set the boundaries so that they understand when they can take a decisions and when they need to defer to corporate headquarters? And how do you do you ensure that they are acting responsibly in the interests of the company?

1. Do the basics right

The basic conditions through which an employee makes an adequate contribution do not change whether the person works remotely 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 to meet. And they need regular, objective feedback.

They need to understand the limits on their discretion and the rules of operation.  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 minimize any confusion. 

This having been said, once those materials are in place and have been effectively communicated, local employees should 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.  Being over managed or 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 will become resentful.

2. Know and trust every team member

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.  An organization simply cannot cooperate without absolute integrity in its international operations. Controls are, as previously stated, essential but if they have to be put in place to compensate for a lack of confidence in the honesty of remote workers then firm action needs to be taken to deal with the situation.

The processes in themselves can never ensure compliance from a distance - if employees are fundamentally dishonest they will find a way to work around the system. 

There is no alternative but to know everyone and to feel absolutely confident that they will maintain the highest standards of professionalism and integrity. If you don't know who they are, you simply don't know them well enough.

3. Plan the contacts

Knowing your international staff begins with careful selection, induction, training and company orientation as it does with employees sat 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 even videoconferencing.  If possible try to impose a strict routine towards these planned communications in order 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.

4. Communicate, reward and acknowledge

Staff working in a distant location respond very positively to being involved in communication and decision-making, particularly when they realize 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.

Whilst it is always convenient to use team members working locally, the opinions and input from abroad will inevitably result in a better outcome and one, which they are committed to.  The technology available to us today through conferencing either by telephone or video offers no excuses for lack of consultation across the business.  Go the extra mile to acknowledge special successors and to offer support when they are experiencing difficulties.

5. Keep it personal

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 a serious accident and was in hospital 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.

6. Be sensitive to local customs

In the way that you hand over a business card through respect for local customs and even dietary requirements you will generate immediate respect from international employees.  Everyone who has worked in a multinational business has learnt the hard way that humor 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 behavior, the other is "coercive" which states "this is a UK-owned business so our rules count". 

To engage with your international employees, to maintain their respect, enthusiasm and commitment towards your company's objectives it is essential to demonstrate an adaptive approach. Even minor sensitivities towards local culture are warmly appreciated. It is even important to remember sub-cultures within a particular community. For example Chinese employees working in Malaysia have a very different culture to ethnic Malaysians. So do your homework and seek advice from someone who knows the territory perhaps better than you.

Summary

The three "Cs" of managing from a distance are Common-sense, Courtesy and Culture.

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.

When did you last speak to your staff overseas? How often have you written to them recently?  Have you kept them involved and up-to-date with developments within the business? Have you acknowledged their successes and offered support for their challenges? Have you been sensitive to personal issues affecting the international team? By assessing your own performance in these regards you can go a long way to anticipating the reception you will get on your next visit.

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Many thanks to CUBIKS for giving FairNets the opportunity to publish this article. The original can be studied here

Cubiks is an international assessment and development consultancy that combines business psychology services with an advanced portfolio of online assessment products. Please contact CUBIKS for further on info@cubiks.com