Stranded in Exile

Remoteness from colleagues is an occupational fact of life for many exporting professionals. Very often, it’s our lot to be the point of connection between the business and its customers in distant places, and even in an age of superfast communications, it can sometimes seem almost impossible to maintain the links.

In colonial times, the term ‘going native’ was sometimes used to describe a representative in another country who adopted the customs or lifestyles of the local community. It’s potentially quite an offensive phrase to use in some circumstances these days, as it seems to imply a notion of inferiority. But organisations who employ individuals or small teams in countries away from their base still risk the consequences of allowing a cultural divide to develop within their own business.

It should be self-evident that, in order to be effective, the employees within an organisation need to work together as a team to shared objectives.  But while any organisation that operates in more than one country needs to be sensitive to cultural differences, it also needs to ensure that they don’t dilute or deflect from overall goals.

In many ways, it is easier to maintain a team spirit across long distances than ever before. Whereas colonialists had to rely on written communication that often took months to arrive, twenty first century facilities such as Skype, teleconferencing and online collaboration make keeping in touch almost as easy, affordable and effortless as getting up and talking to someone in the next office.

But without a special effort to include everyone, the technology can actually increase the sense of exclusion that can be demotivating for remote workers as well as a feeling for managers of such workers that they are unable to control or direct their subordinates. In a single-site operation, a lot of communication happens at very informal levels. Greeting a colleague in the car park, sharing a joke at the coffee machine, such trivialities help to build familiarity in ways that are rarely possible when there is a large physical distance between people.

Even in the best of worlds, communication is hard work. If we are honest with ourselves, we all know that there are often times when we have misunderstood a comment or request from someone, or failed to make ourselves completely clear when we have asked for something. This natural weakness can easily be multiplied several times over when we don’t have the luxury of being in each other’s presence every working day. Managers of remote workers need to take steps to make up for this by making sure that communications are clear, frequent and unambiguous. At the same time, they need to overcome the inevitable lack of the human touch that can be felt from an absence of informality. Remote workers themselves need to do their bit, by reporting regularly, even when they may feel there is little of importance to say.

In my experience, there is no substitute for the spoken word. It should be the most frequently used media. Now that international telephone calls are no longer the expense they once were, managers should make a point of calling team members regularly, keeping them up to date with local events and even a bit of office gossip, as well as listening carefully to any concerns and ideas. Take time to build and maintain a rapport. If the colleague has a passion for sport, check out how their team got on. If there’s a celebration in the office, mention it. Ask about family, the weather, holidays, in fact talk about all the things you would be talking about if the colleague were there in the same building. In spite of all the technological advances, many of us are still guilty of treating international calls as nothing more than message taking.

It’s important to bear in mind time differences in such communications. If colleagues are on opposite sides of the world, it’s friendly to arrange to alternate the time of calls so that one person is not always taking them outside of their normal working hours.

After each call, take a few minutes to note down anything important. If any actions were agreed, follow up with a quick email.

Make a commitment to meet regularly during the year. It’s vitally important for the manager to visit the employee in their territory, and equally for the employee to make regular trips to the head office.

When there is major news, such as new product launches, a new recruit, a change in policy or anything that impacts significantly on how the employee should be carrying out their job, special care needs to be taken that the news is well communicated and its implications fully understood.

    It can’t be denied that it has never been easier for a business to operate in more than one country. But effective communication still doesn’t happen automatically. With care and dedication, an employee working remotely doesn’t need to feel remote from  the base and can in fact be just as integral in the team as everyone else 


Written on 3rd January 2013 by Tim Hiscock, S&H LLP Associate

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