Founder & CEO TopLine Comms
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Maintain company culture when you're oceans apart

1st Sep 2016
Founder & CEO TopLine Comms
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As a South African ex-pat running a business in London for the past 8 years, it was almost inevitable that we’d open a Cape Town office at some point. It made sense both personally and professionally, so in the latter half of last year we went ahead and took the plunge.

Certain logistics were tricky to navigate (opening local bank accounts, finding offices etc.), but easy enough to overcome. What we didn’t anticipate however was how challenging it would be to maintain our company culture with our new SA colleagues.

While Skype is undoubtedly a game-changer when it comes to doing business across continents, it’s not the same as being in the same office. In this regard we grossly underestimated just how removed and in the dark the South African team would end up feeling.

It was only once we sent one of our UK team members out to spend a couple of weeks in Cape Town that everyone really started connecting. Ours is a UK/SA dynamic, however the things we’ve learned so far hold true no matter where in the world your team members are based.

A solid on-boarding strategy is key

Keep in mind that many of the things that are second nature to you will be anything but for your new staff member(s). There’s always a lot to take on-board in the first few weeks of a new job and this is made even more challenging when you’re not in the same office as the majority of the team.

Start by writing a really comprehensive manual that outlines absolutely everything. Include big picture items like an organisation chart and a list of company culture pointers as well as practical tips like file naming conventions and preferred font type and size.

Maintaining company culture

Provide an in-depth schedule for the first week at least, though you might want to consider extending this depending on how complex the position is. Take the person’s skill level into account as well. If the work is new to them then scheduling their work days for the first two or three weeks could be hugely beneficial.

Have regular check-in points with required milestones that need to be met. Touching base at these predetermined intervals will help you ensure that your new employee is on track. It also gives them the opportunity to voice any concerns they may have.

You need a really good internet connection

Chatting via Skype can be awkward anyway, having a bad connection just makes it that much more difficult to communicate. Your new hire is already feeling a little nervous, maybe even out of their depth, so the last thing you need is for the connection (or lack thereof) to make communicating even more challenging.

Another reason for having a really good internet connection is if all your data is on a cloud server. (And nowadays, whose isn’t?) If your staff can’t access the files they need to work, they’ll spend their time watching cat compilation videos on YouTube.

Communication is more important than ever

If you’re not able to rely on things like inflection, tone and facial expressions, it’s easy for messaging to get misconstrued. As humans we have a tendency to assume. When you’re working in different offices this needs to be avoided as far as possible.

What might have been a small, easily fixed misunderstanding when you’re under the same roof can quickly snowball into something unmanageable when you’re not.

Aside from avoiding potential argy-bargy issues, upping your communication frequency (at least in the beginning) is a way for everyone to get to know one another, learn the lay of the land and figure out each other’s quirks and foibles.

Recognising when compromise is necessary and when it’s simply not an option happens automatically when you’re working side by side, not so much when there’s an ocean separating you. The next best thing is to communicate (Skype, email) a lot.

Cultural differences need to be taken into account

Familiarise yourself with your colleagues’ colloquialisms. Words and phrases mean different things in different countries. For example, South Africans tend to say ‘just now’ a lot. What that means in real time is anyone’s guess. It could be an hour from now or it could be tomorrow.

One culture’s straightforward could be another’s rude. In the UK we tend to get straight to the point. We don’t mean to be insensitive, it’s just when it comes to business we’re all about productivity. Not everyone is like that and it took a while for our South African team to realise it wasn’t personal.

Approaches to work and/or relationships could differ. In some parts of the world work and home life are kept completely separate, while in others people tend to be a lot more familiar with one another. Proceed cautiously until you know what’s expected.

Allow for mistakes

It’s all good and well to have ground rules and pointers, however you also need to leave room for mistakes. We’re human after all and more than that, we’re humans in different parts of the world.

Acknowledge this upfront and encourage everyone on your team to accept the fact that there’ll be teething problems initially. What you’ll find is that it removes the pressure to perform - which is when mishaps and mistakes generally happen.

Working with people in different countries offers much potential for learning and growth, both personally and from a business perspective. Yes, it can be challenging from time to time, but it’s also a lot of fun. Enjoy it.

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