4 Tips for Leading an International Workforce

Managing an international team comes with a unique set of challenges. Different time zones, cultural norms, and languages can lead to communication barriers and operational obstacles. These factors can magnify the physical distances that separate team members and lead to silos. Common business practices and preferred leadership styles are additional areas where variances can cause roadblocks to cohesion.

Bringing a remote team together requires extra effort and a heavier reliance on technology.  Despite all of these challenges, managing international and multicultural teams can be a satisfying way to stretch your leadership muscles. Here are four tips for success.

1. Rely on Technology

Automated tools and tech like global payroll solutions and remote communication platforms can help overcome regulatory and distance challenges. Payroll solutions designed for an international team can monitor labor law variances in the countries where you have a presence.

These apps can automate and track changes in how your company needs to classify workers. Plus, you’ll stay compliant with local tax and payroll regulations in each country without having to spend hours researching them. Some of these automated solutions can take care of the onboarding process for new hires through self-service tools as well. This can be convenient if you have smaller satellite offices you need to manage remotely while your company is growing.

Communication tools can bridge the gap between remote locations, facilitating collaboration on projects and simulating face-to-face interactions. Platforms like Microsoft Teams can integrate written and verbal communication between staff members when physical proximity isn’t possible. With built-in project management options, instant messaging, file sharing, and video conferencing, enterprise communication tools can remove remote work obstacles.

2. Understand Cultural Differences

When leaders come into organizations, one of the first things they need to do is get to know their team. Managers also have to learn how the company or department operates, including processes and culture. Every organization has cultural nuances that are a combination of spoken and unspoken ways of operating. The same applies to business and social practices in other countries, which may rely on distinctive communication styles and traditions.

Enlisting the help and expertise of local contacts and regional leaders can be one way to address cultural differences. Hiring local managers who are native or well-established in the cultural and social norms of the country can be invaluable. While it’s critical for you to understand things like work styles and management preferences, locals can flatten the learning curve. Regional leaders or partners can help you avoid common mistakes and navigate cultural minefields, especially when you’re away.

Cultural differences can apply to employees’ expectations about your company’s structure. This includes how those who are higher up in the org chart should interact with those who report up. Social and cultural norms can impact communication during meetings and how employees prefer to receive feedback.

Having open discussions with team members about cultural differences can be crucial. Ignoring or appearing dismissive of local practices can lead to misunderstandings. Employees may interpret a simple faux pas as disrespect or rudeness. Even variances in body language norms can become unintentional insults. It’s the reason why staff at international destinations like Walt Disney World are trained to use neutral hand gestures.

3. Build Consensus and Empathy

A leader needs to understand and navigate through cultural differences. But team members with various sets of norms also have to understand each other. This can be especially challenging with remote teams that may speak different languages and have various linguistic skill sets. Establishing a single language that staff will use when interacting together can help, but it’s not without some drawbacks.

Some employees may have a better grasp of that language than others. Native or fluent speakers may need to remember to slow down and avoid complicated sentence structures. They may also need to refrain from using slang or double entendres. Staff members who aren’t as proficient in the language may need more space and time to contribute their ideas.

Cultural sensitivity, consensus, and empathy training for all employees can go a long way. Team members should be given opportunities to build trust and understanding between each other. Remote team-building exercises and creating spaces for casual communication can help you accomplish this. The more your staff gets to know their peers as people with individual perspectives and contributions, the stronger the team will become.

Seeing co-workers as individuals is paramount to moving beyond cultural stereotypes and misconceptions. Empathy forms when someone can put themselves in the shoes of another person. A shared vision or purpose can cultivate empathy that leads to higher levels of workplace satisfaction and productivity. But so can taking the time to understand why people behave the way they do and what motivates them.

4. Communicate Regularly

A common challenge with remote teams or employees separated by distance is making them feel connected. It’s easy for small teams or individual contributors in remote locations to experience themselves as an island. Without regular, consistent communication, staff members may get the impression they’re not needed. They may also become disconnected from their roles and how they fit into the company or department’s mission.

Scheduling recurring one-on-one meetings with employees in addition to virtual team get-togethers can create a more inclusive experience. If some areas have a regional manager or partner, you might include local leadership in the individual meetings. You may get a better sense of what’s happening on the ground while you’re working from a separate location. A regional leader will also provide a first-account perspective on that employee’s contributions and aspirations.

When leaders check in and frequently communicate with employees, engagement and commitment levels go up. However, it’s just as important to balance remote and written communication with in-person interactions. As time and resources permit, visiting or working from your global locations can be very helpful. Your staff needs to know that you’re more than a series of emails and video calls.

Even though the task of leading international teams can present the best managers with difficulties, these are not insurmountable. You can fill in the gaps created by physical and cultural barriers by relying on technology and local partners. Building consensus and empathy through understanding and ongoing communication can further bridge the distances you need to cross.