It’s no secret that the way we work has dramatically changed. Not only are offices increasingly remote, but many companies employ a global workforce, and this presents a new set of challenges. On top of having to figure out how to respond to a global pandemic, HR leaders are also struggling to improve people management skills and increase collaboration across global teams.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, “Facebook expects up to half its workers to be remote as soon as 2025. The CEO of Shopify, a Canadian e-commerce company that employs 5,000 people, tweeted in May that most of them ‘will permanently work remotely. Office centricity is over.’”
As remote work becomes the norm and global teams adapt to this new way of operating, people management skills need to adapt as well. Here are four key ways to bring together global teams so they can succeed.
Alongside the dramatic changes we’ve seen materialize in the workplace over the past five months with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, what people want in their workplace has shifted, too. Many employees feel increasingly isolated due to shelter-in-place restrictions, and are therefore looking to their colleagues for a sense of connection and belonging. Even before the pandemic, which has only served to increase remote work and the accompanying feelings of isolation, a Slack study found that 85% of workers want to feel more connected to their remote colleagues.
But distance and different time zones can create additional stress and difficulties for global teams. In order for employees to be their most successful under these circumstances, People leaders need to intentionally foster a sense of connection and belonging among employees that may be spread out across the globe.
“One basic difference between global teams that work and those that don’t lies in the level of social distance — the degree of emotional connection among team members...Coworkers who are geographically separated, however, can’t easily connect and align, so they experience high levels of social distance and struggle to develop effective interactions,” wrote Tsedal Neeley, Naylor Fitzhugh professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, in an article in Harvard Business Review. “Mitigating social distance therefore becomes the primary management challenge for the global team leader.”
In order to create authentic, emotional connections between team members, it’s best for People leaders to facilitate interactions during which team members can get to know each other outside of completing work-related tasks. For example, HR leaders can encourage managers to schedule weekly team meetings that revolve around an activity, like watching a film or playing a game together so that team members working remotely have an opportunity to engage and get to know each other. People leaders can also organize company-wide recurring weekly events or biweekly one-on-one virtual “coffee chats” with different team members to help break down communication barriers.
“You see everyone talking about building a culture of belonging now, and it’s not easy to do,” said Pablo Gaito, Chief People and Culture Officer at Credit Sesame, a consumer finance management platform.
However, it is possible, and there are several ways to overcome distance and increase connection among employees — regardless of where they’re located and how far apart they are physically.
According to Gaito, working on projects together and setting shared goals in a tool like Lattice can facilitate the sense of belonging that’s so crucial for global teams. And the first step is giving people some autonomy and freedom in defining their own goals, within reason.
“I’ve found that it’s productive to allow teams to have flexibility in defining their specific goals so they can feel personally invested in their projects and their outcomes,” Gaito said. “When you give people more flexibility, they become more accountable and develop a sense of ownership in regard to their goals. At the same time, they see how other team members are contributing and helping them achieve these goals.”
Practically, this can mean that each team works with their manager to adjust their KPIs, and together establish how work should be distributed, who should have what responsibilities, and when are the best times to collaborate. Individual teams can create deadlines for their deliverables and decide collectively what are the best ways to reward their work and contributions.
While the specifics can vary based on your organization’s needs, what’s key to keep in mind here is that each team member feels valued and recognized, and like they have the opportunity and structures in place to be heard by their managers.
Fostering this kind of employee recognition starts with deep listening, according to Gaito. “When collaborating with others, we encourage people to spend the majority of their time actively listening (instead of speaking), which includes asking [clear, direct] questions that will help people to really show up as their authentic selves and communicate more effectively,” he said.
Many workplace conflicts stem from misunderstandings or a lack of cultural intelligence; in other words, having a different set of ideas and cultural norms that you project onto others. These issues can be addressed and corrected by making open, honest communication the norm at your organization.
For example, sometimes there are natural tensions between departments, like sales and marketing teams. In these cases, team members can feel like other teams are inhibiting their success, or as if other teams are responsible for their inability to hit their KPIs. In order to shift this perception, Gaito said, “If you really want to move from conflict and pointing fingers in the workplace, schedule a team-building session so both sides can understand each other’s point of view.”
When team members are pushed out of their comfort zone and begin working with each other on shared goals, members of different teams no longer see each other as the opposition. It also becomes easier for work colleagues to reach out to each other and ask for assistance or input in the future.
Above all, Gaito stressed that keeping in mind your employees’ humanity is necessary for creating a work environment where healthy, open communication can flourish.
“We are human beings at work, not ‘human doings.’ We’re not pieces of a machine completing code, so we have to allow [employees] to connect,” Gaito said. “That’s the most important element when it comes to building trust across teams and managing people.”
Gaito, who earlier in his career headed up talent programs at GAP and Cargill, explained that the way global corporations operate has been an evolution.
“Now we have [a lot] more tech platforms to facilitate meetings and collaboration, but before, we would do things like bring global teams together and rotate the place where we met, in different geographies, or we’d set up meetings specifically with leadership teams,” he said, elaborating that this often involved travel between Asia, Europe, the US, and Latin America.
Before technology made it so easy to bring together people from around the globe at the touch of a button, Gaito said the companies he was a part of would hold monthly meetings in different countries and in different time zones so that no time zone was privileged or, conversely, de-prioritized or left out altogether. This is important because the less you as a manager center your experience and can rather consider the experiences of others, the more you can empathize with others’ pain points — and this applies to geography and time zones, too.
So for example, let’s say that you have employees from three different time zones meeting remotely. Each week, the meeting time can alternate, so that every team experiences a meeting at a time that is easy for them to accommodate like the late afternoon, while others have to wake up in the early morning. However, as long as each time zone and each team member experiences the ease and the pain of both scenarios, no team will feel privileged or left out.
In today’s global — and increasingly remote — workforce, People leaders need to be intentional and proactive in creating a culture of connection, community, and belonging for companies and their employees to thrive. Cultivating values like empathy, understanding, and cultural sensitivity will help build this connection among your employees, and bridge the gap of the continents and oceans that may be between them. This can in turn boost employee trust and confidence, and bolster the growth and success of your global team.