The transition from working locally to working virtually and globally – Key points for success


Our world has become smaller in the past 20 years. Think about how we used to conduct business back then: you called people or dropped over to their desk to coordinate and schedule meetings, people you worked with on a daily basis were in the same building you worked in, team meetings were in a room down the hall, meeting people face to face on business trips was how you connected with clients and made important plans with other departments. We all know that has changed dramatically and a by-product of that transformation has been the need to develop new skills in communicating effectively on a daily basis with people you don’t know and may never even meet.

Some people reading this may think ‘yeah this is old news and we know how to deal with that now’. That’s somewhat true in a large multinational context, but in this economic environment and the focus on encouraging  entrepreneurial ventures, there are a growing number of start-ups and SME’s, and they are struggling with the question of how to grow and do business in this virtual and global world. Even in the multinational context where working globally is a given, through my experience, I would also say that people are not well prepared for connecting with or developing strong global teams that can deliver big goals.

My own experience in this area is as follows:

*I managed global teams in HP for 10 years across a wide range of countries and time zones, my bosses during  that timespan were all in different locations/countries to where I was based.

*For 7 of those years none of the people in the teams I managed were in the same country I was based in.

*For 7 years I was a ‘remote worker’ working from my home office full time, I didn’t have daily face to face interaction with anyone from the same company.

*Some of the people I managed for 5 years, I had only met 3 times face to face.

Essentially my day consisted of talking on the phone or over the computer, all of the hours I was working, with no face to face work interaction. Over this 10 year period I learned a lot about human behaviour, needs and wants. I developed a few basic rules that make a difference, both in terms of how to manage the personal challenges of working virtually and globally as well as how to build, lead and develop a team successfully, in a virtual and global environment.

In this article I’ll address some of the issues we personally face when the job changes and you start to work virtually and globally, it’s a pretty big change and many of the things you did to make you good at your job are thrown upside down. It can be hard to figure out how to be successful

  •  All the secondary or subconscious communication pointers you have relied upon are gone. You can’t see facial expressions or gestures. It’s harder to tell if someone is agreeing, angry, disinterested.  Getting alignment on a decision is harder.
    • To combat this you need to spend a lot more time building up a 1 to 1 relationship with the people you interact with.
    • Frequent scheduled calls even if there are no urgent topics – building rapport, trust, credibility, understanding how the person likes to work, what is important to them, getting to know interests outside of work. The time and money you save when a big issue comes up is well worth the time invested in relationship building. I have built some wonderful and lasting relationships with people I’ve met only once through doing this.
    • You need to learn to ‘read’ people differently, through their tone of voice, the language they use, when they are silent. You need to ask different kinds of questions to learn what they are thinking and feeling. You may need to follow up with them if you perceive something is out of the norm. Sometimes I have thought about a conversation I just had that didn’t feel right to me, and contacted the person afterwards either through email or voice message pinpointing what didn’t sit well with me e.g. ‘I got the impression you were down today/ I’m not sure I understood a specific point you were trying to make/ I’m sorry I cut across you/sorry I didn’t seem supportive of xyz however this is why.’ This follow up helps to clear up what you are uncomfortable about but also shows you are cognisant and care about the thoughts and feelings of others – again it helps to build that relationship.
  • You feel like you are working all the time because you are up at all hours of morning and night to cover all time zones.Generally we are conditioned to work during the day and it’s hard to make the switch of taking some time out of a ‘normal’ working day even if you’ve been up till 3am on a conference call. We feel guilty even though we are probably working longer/harder than ever.
    • To combat this you need to put boundaries around your time so that you have a life!
    • Agree those acceptable boundaries with your boss, but more importantly– stick to the boundaries, so many times I have seen people sending messages or attending calls outside times we have agreed they will work. We are our own worst enemy in terms of making ourselves feel guilty.
    • At first it may be hard to see a pattern in your scheduled meetings and that first few months is hard, but over time you will see a pattern and you can adjust your work schedule accordingly to what works best for both your life and work. In one role, I shifted my normal working day to start at 2pm because the majority of my interactions were West Coast US with just a few in Asia. I worked like that for 2 full years and it worked well for me at that time. Other times I have finished early or started late on a particular day a week.
    • It requires you to be rigorous in managing your own time, it also requires you to realise that working longer or harder is not working better!
  • Working virtually from a remote/home office when you have no face to face interaction with workmates is a big change. Some people thrive in this environment but for a lot of people this is one of the biggest challenges as they find it isolating.
    • It’s good to list down the pro’s and con’s that you as an individual perceive in this working arrangement and determine plans for how you’ll overcome the con’s. Some find they are more productive as there are fewer distractions in terms of phone calls, people popping up at your desk, 10 minute walks to a meeting room. Others find more distractions in household chores, proximity to children etc.
    • In this working arrangement, having a designated work space where you can close the door to home/family based distractions is imperative.
    • Having the support of your partner and family in understanding that although you are at home, you are working, is also important.  Being disciplined in both planning and sticking to your work schedule is key.
    • In terms of potential feelings of isolation, it is important that you determine new ways of having the informal conversations that are part of having fun at work. I have found ‘Instant Messaging’ to be invaluable for this as you can discuss pertinent topics real time, also it is easy to indicate to people when you do not wish to be disturbed.
    • Of course there is nothing like chatting to someone and skype/facetime or other video conferencing tools are invaluable for being able to catch up with someone for a ‘virtual’ coffee break.
  • Cultural and language differences are not to be underestimated and when you add to the fact you may never meet the person face to face it makes it all the more important to be aware of the impact of culture and language in communication.
    • There are many books and articles on cultural norms and it is good to read those and be familiar with what are acceptable/unacceptable behaviours for cultures you interact with.
    • Having said that it’s important to get to know the person, their sense of humour, their background and influences because they may be a very different individual to their cultural norm. I worked with a German man who had a Colombian mother and he had a very different background, influences and perspective than other Germans with German parents that I worked with.
    • We shouldn’t mistake silence for agreement when in a group setting in a teleconference. Due to a cultural difference or a language barrier people may have difficulty in or be embarrassed to speak in a public setting with people they don’t know, so you need to be more conscious of creating the right atmosphere and being inclusive by asking for input from team members you have not heard voice their opinion. You may also need to do 1 to 1 follow up with them. This all relates back to spending time building relationships and getting to know people.

Working virtually and globally is not a new phenomenon but more and more people are now working in this environment. It’s a change that we should not minimise or underestimate. It requires us to think differently about how we communicate to ensure success. Building relationships is a key facet to this success, so as technology develops and ways of doing business transform, we need to constantly reinvent our ‘normal’ human behaviours to adapt to these changing environments.


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  1. Clare McNamara Reply July 4, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Hello Really interesting article. I have just undertaken some research on the challenges of working in virtual teams and what you say resonates with that. I especially appreciate your comments on allowing for cultural difference.

    • admin Reply September 18, 2013 at 6:35 pm

      Thanks Clare for your comment