Companies with a global presence and offices and remote workers in multiple countries face a variety of challenges in maintaining productivity to ensure outcomes while managing employees and teams in multiple locations. Today, as organizations of all sizes transition rapidly to remote work, lessons from these organizations can help leapfrog them into the new mode of virtual work necessitated practically overnight by the coronavirus (COVID-19).
Primary challenges include ensuring productivity from afar, establishing methods for effective communication, and streamlining project objectives and collaboration with multiple teams in far-flung locations. Broader challenges include differences in time zones, language fluency, navigating regulatory variations, understanding cultural norms, and bridging the gap between corporate and individual office policies.
Key differences between managing an international team vs. a team based locally:
- Reliance on electronic media communication. If phone or video components fail, teams are not able to effectively communicate and productivity is diminished.
- Differences in time zones may require one or more individuals or teams to compromise with an unorthodox meeting time or working hours, which if not managed well, can lead to inferences of disrespect or lesser importance.
- Greater effort and expense needed to have face-to-face interactions that are important to maintain for optimal team productivity and reliability.
- Understanding cultural norms in other countries. For example, some cultures do not encourage bold communication, such as speaking up when multiple people are in a virtual meeting. Understanding that valuable feedback may be lost if cultural norms are not accommodated.
VIRTUAL MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES
Policies and practices that help maintain productivity and accountability:
- Check in often. Employees who have routine check-ins with their manager are three times as likely to be engaged with the work. Create a communication strategy for daily and weekly check-ins, and stick with it. Agree on the tools – voice, video, text, or online “rooms” – and use them consistently. If one individual is left out of the team channel, the entire team suffers and confusion can result.
- Use visual interactions as much as possible, whether video conferencing or emailing. Personal interaction is 34 times more effective than email. Video conferencing (instead of phone calls) encourages focused attention and reduces multi-tasking/distraction.
- Keep teams small, fewer than 10 people. Studies found that teams of 13 people or more were less productive, likely owing to less perceived ownership by individuals, and more opportunity for social interaction. Research shows that people put in less effort if they are less responsible for the results. Smaller groups have better communication and take on more individual ownership of a project.
- Set clear expectations. The more prepared someone is, the better they can meet their goals.
- Stay focused on goals, not minute details. Don’t micromanage. Micromanaging creates an opportunity for excuses; if you empower your managers, they take accountability.
- Avoid “organizational drag” by eliminating unnecessary meetings, long email chains, etc. According to Harvard Business Review, 20% of workplace productivity is lost due to inefficient processes.
- Simplify the structure of productivity by streamlining processes and direct reports.
- Train people to be great leaders in a virtual workforce environment, and cultivate their ability to manage. Managing people is a skill, best demonstrated through empowering employees to understand and achieve their potential. Many people are promoted to management positions based on merit and experience, but may not be naturally suited for a management role, so it is essential to have a system in place that equips them with the tools they need to be effective leaders.
- Trust your team. With remote work, there is sometimes concern that the work will not be completed at the same level as it would in an office. Set rules to stimulate an office structure. Examples: emails must be replied to within 24 hours. Use text for urgent matters. No answering emails during certain hours so that people are not working around the clock.
- Prioritize innovation and technology. Stay on top of technological developments that strengthen the bridge between offices.
Ensure outcomes are achieved and goals are met:
- Ensure the company’s top talent is assigned to its most critical roles—deploy talent strategically.
- Utilize software systems that allow employees to easily track deadlines, schedules, tasks, etc. For example, Microsoft Teams and Honeywell’s Connected Worker Task Management software enable efficient and timely virtual communication and collaboration among employees and teams and ensures that employees stay on task and on schedule.
- Adopt workplace productivity tools to identify “waste” in operations. Improve businesses processes by establishing process improvement goals and identify areas of business where productivity lags. Acknowledge wins across the organization.
Strategies for ensuring teams unite behind project and company goals:
- Unite around a shared purpose. Eliminate a feeling of disconnectedness between offices by highlighting how the team’s work contributes to the company as a whole.
- Recognize specific achievements and contributions as they happen to show that you are engaged in real time. Don’t wait for the annual review or until too much time has passed. Develop platforms where recognition can be facilitated with a remote and/or global workforce.
- Balance participation among offices and employees. Recognize when cultural norms don’t facilitate the impulse to speak up, and understand that language barriers may also hinder the sharing of ideas. Use this awareness to invite people to speak and be heard in ways that they are comfortable to them.
- Cultivate empathy. Nurture connections between employees by allowing time for small talk before/after meetings. Educate the workforce on cultural customs between offices if they are located in different countries.
When to establish a single company-wide strategy, and when to apply a looser approach:
- While the home office may develop the business strategies and policies, managers must proactively understand the needs and limitations of its affiliates in other offices. Some cities and countries may not have access to the resources that the home office enjoys or have different priorities locally, so managers need to feel empowered and supported in expressing their varying needs.
- Effective messaging strategies differ from country to country. A TV advertisement for a medication may be effective in one country, but ineffective in another, where citizens instead rely on key leadership advocacy for guidance.
- Focus local offices on country-specific issues.
- Pay attention to market growth in individual office regions. Achievable objectives may happen at different rates depending on location and the local economy.
Effective methods for ensuring people feel they are not isolated but really an integral part of the organization:
- Treat remote people like local people. Respond to them as quickly as possible, allow them to reach you as easily as if they were in the same building.
- Instead of sending a representative from the home office to the affiliate office, have representatives travel to the home office. When effort is expended to travel between offices, trust is built.
- Listen to all employees, let them know they have a voice with the company and their ideas will be heard.
- Email is great for day-to-day productivity needs, but visual interactions (Zoom, Microsoft Teams) remain really important to show respect and foster communication.
Hewlett-Packard (Source: CIO.com)
Not long ago, HP was in bad shape. Poor decisions by executive management (such as forced work-at-home and forced ranking) decreased employee morale and workplace productivity, which inevitably had far-ranging impacts that affected the company’s bottom line. New leadership was brought in to reorganize the company and resurrect its reputation with massively successful results. Some strategies that led to this turnaround include:
- Eliminating the forced work-at-home and forced ranking policies.
- Devoting resources to provide employees with valuable tools to help them do their jobs, such as establishing virtual HP University for employee management and training, and implementing rewards programs for workplace accomplishments.
- Embracing criticism from within. Previously, employees who objected to or resisted company policies were often forced out or left the company. New policies examine the issues that cause such objections and complaints and examine ways to make improvements, which can include advocating on behalf of frustrated employees to higher-ups who are blocking them from accomplishing their goals.
- HP adopted the NetPromoter system, which measures customer experience and predicts business growth, which engages the company workforce with consumer experience programs.
Author: Catherine Smith