Staying ahead in a global marketplace requires a competitive, responsive, and agile approach to manufacturing.
Your production facilities may be nearshore or offshore, but you still need to have onshore resources providing support.
And this is often easier said than done.
“Creating successful work groups is hard enough when everyone is local and people share the same office space,” writes professor and consultant Tsedal Neeley in the Harvard Business Review. “But when team members come from different countries and functional backgrounds and are working in different locations, communication can rapidly deteriorate, misunderstanding can ensue, and cooperation can degenerate into distrust.”
Neeley has devoted her career to preventing these sort of scenarios, and has found that the difference between global teams that work and global teams that don’t work is the level of emotional connection among team members.
This connection is easy when everyone works in the same place. No matter their backgrounds, they build a sense of trust and congeniality, and learn to work as a team.
It’s harder to make this sort of connection with co-workers on another continent, which is why Neeley says that “mitigating social distance becomes the primary challenge for the global team leader.”
She’s developed a framework for managing social distance called SPLIT: structure, process, language, identify and technology. Let’s break down how each of these pieces plays a role in team collaboration.
Let’s say your headquarters is in New York City, but you have small satellite offices with two or three people in China and Brazil.
Neeley argues there are a lot of places where imbalance can come into play. People at the main office might feel overworked, while people at the satellites feel overlooked.
To restore balance, it’s important for team leaders to send three messages:
- Make it clear that the team is a single entity, made of different people but still one. It’s ok to talk about our cultures and learn about and respect each other’s differences while recognizing everyone has all the same goals.
- Stress everyone has a job to do to reach that goal, and highlight how everyone’s work fits into the company’s strategy.
- Let faraway workers know that team leaders are there for them. Frequent contact, even if it’s a quick phone call or e-mail, can make a big difference.
This next step deals with the importance of empathy. When we see the same co-workers every day, they develop empathy for each other. This is more difficult to achieve when colleagues have an ocean between them, which is why it’s important for managers to build what Neeley calls “deliberate moments” into virtual meetings.
These moments include:
- Getting feedback on routine interactions.
- Allowing for “unstructured time” at the start of the meeting. Small talk can be a powerful tool for building trust.
- Leaders should allow room for disagreement. Letting employees voice their concerns lets them feel valued, and can also help you recognize problems before they start.
A team spread across the globe might be able to speak the same language, but do they speak it fluently? Differences in fluency can aggravate social distance, as the team members most comfortable with the company’s language are able to exert the most influence.
To avoid this, team leaders should have fluent speakers try to refrain from dominating the conversation, and non-fluent speakers resist the urge to keep quiet. And both parties should ask “Do you understand what I’m saying?” and have the other describe it back to confirm that understanding.
Different countries have different cultural attitudes, and Neeley says a good manager will avoid jumping to conclusions about what different behaviors mean.
“In America, someone who says, ‘Yes, I can do this’ likely means she is willing and able to do what you asked. In India, however, the same statement may simply signal that she wants to try—not that she’s confident of success,” she writes.
By asking a lot of questions, a manager can get the information they need to determine what challenges their team might anticipate and what resources they require.
When making decisions on which technology to use for communication, leaders may want to consider their priorities. Should it be real-time (video conferencing/teleconferencing) or delayed (e-mail, social media)? If it’s a simple matter of sharing information, a more delayed format may be easier on people in other time zones.
However, when dealing with manufacturing projects, having real-time video collaboration is invaluable. Actually being able to hold up parts to the camera and demonstrate fit or function can short circuit days of communication to try to understand the details of a product design.
At Mars International, we know the importance of communication and collaboration. Our global supply chain only functions when our team in America can talk to our team in Asia. It’s this communication that allows us to make sure our clients can get their products to market in a way that’s fast and efficient.