Daniel Foster: How to manage a transatlantic team effectively

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To keep up with the ever-increasing globalised economic landscape, more and more organisations are taking the leap and building teams on a global scale. However, while these new diverse team structures can be hugely beneficial, they can also bring about a whole host of brand new challenges.

Nowadays, it’s common to interact regularly with colleagues that we’ve never actually met in person. It is also increasingly conventional to have team members operating in different cities, countries, and even continents. While this can be extremely constructive for businesses, it can also pose massive organisational issues.

Even with a whole host of new technologies, aimed at making transcontinental communication easier, managing a team that spans different time zones can be extremely challenging. When working with remote teams it is important to recognise that it won’t always be smooth sailing; malfunctioning technology, miscommunication and language barriers, are just some of the issues that you can’t always prepare for. There are, however, certain steps you can take to ensure operations run as smoothly as realistically possible.

We first encountered these issues when our co-founder moved to Salt Lake City, followed by the appointment of a senior staff member in LA. Although most of our team still work out of our Manchester hub, our overseas staff help position 34SP.com as a prominent global web-hosting brand. Integrating our US-based staff into our existing UK business required something of a change in approach, however, we’ve found that – after the initial teething period – we’ve adapted well to working across different time zones.

In order to use our transatlantic team to its full potential, we have had to rethink and re-evaluate some of our day-to-day processes and, through a bit of trial and error, have found that the key components needed to run a global business as smoothly as possible are:

  • A clear communication routine
  • Added emphasis on building trust
  • And, most importantly, flexibility

Establishing a clear communication routine

In order to reconcile for not always being able to see our colleagues face-to-face, we have put in place a number of new modes of communication. These new techniques are a mix of both formal and informal, and work to maximise synergy between the teams.

Email is still our primary communication function, but we’ve moved to supplement that with online messaging services such as WhatsApp, which works well for more informal communications.  Our technical background is reflected in the fact that we’ve used Internet Relay Chat, (a chat service which enables users to connect to a server using a software program or web service and communicate with each other live) since very early on to talk to one another, while Skype has proven great for face-to-face conversations. And we’ve managed to stop people in different locations unwittingly making changes to the same document or spreadsheet at the same time by moving everyone over to the cloud with Google Drive.

Building trust

To help to overcome the lack of face-to-face interaction, we have invested a lot of time into building trust between the team. While building trust doesn’t happen overnight, we have discovered that there are a number of simple ways to ensure our colleagues don’t feel excluded from the action.

A key way to build trust is to always try to be available; it is important that the team feel they can reach key contacts at all times. I’d advise never to let calls go to voicemail if possible, and if they do, try and reply as soon as possible. It’s also important to remember that when communicating via email things can sometimes get lost in translation, so always be cautious of using culturally-dependent phrases or jokes, or sarcasm.

Mixing up communication is essential too, as although an email might be more efficient, picking up the phone is a much more personal way to interact with a colleague. However, there is no substitute for meeting face-to-face and so meetings where all the team are together – which often only happen once every few months with transatlantic teams – should be used to their full potential.

Flexibility is paramount

Adopting a flexible way of working is arguably the most crucial element needed to run a successful operation across different time zones. In more practical terms, this often equates to some team members working slightly earlier or later on certain days, to ensure tasks which require the input of a number of different people get completed.

In our business, we’ve had to introduce more structure into our weeks. So every Tuesday afternoon, for example, we have scheduled catch-up meetings with our colleagues across the Atlantic. We still talk about more pressing matters on an ad hoc basis as and when required of course, but this structure just helps us to keep things connected, even when we’re extremely busy.

Putting these measures in place has really helped us to function as a business, however there are obvious challenges to working so far apart. I do sometimes miss being able to ask a casual question across my desk to my colleagues. It’s also easy to forget that some of our colleagues are cut off from the atmosphere in Manchester – so occasionally they might not realise when we’re really busy, for example.

However, despite the challenges there are definite advantages to working this way. From the perspective of international clients and suppliers for examples, it can be immensely helpful as there are people in their time zones who can respond to requests immediately. Sometimes an office can become a bit insular if everyone is working from the same place, so I think the distance actually helps enrich teams.

Through experience and experimentation we have learnt how to maximise the potential of working globally, while keeping disruption to a minimum. Everyone in the team has had to adapt and adjust to totally new way of working, and although we aren’t perfect, I think we have now settled into a system that works really well. This is a system that I believe can be easily replicated by other businesses in similar situations.

For more information, please visit www.34sp.com

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About Daniel Foster

Daniel Foster is the technical director at 34SP.com.

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