How does working remotely complicate your career? In this episode of HBR’s advice podcast, Dear HBR:, cohosts Alison Beard and Dan McGinn answer your questions with the help of Siobhan O’Mahony, a professor at Boston University Questrom School of Business. They talk through how to advance in your job when you’re not in the building, deal with a problematic colleague you never see, and manage teams in other offices.
From Alison and Dan’s reading list for this episode:
HBR: A Study of 1,100 Employees Found That Remote Workers Feel Shunned and Left Out by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield — “Overall, remote employees may enjoy the freedom to live and work where they please, but working through and with others becomes more challenging. They report that workplace politics are more pervasive and difficult, and when conflicts arise they have a harder time resolving them.”
HBR: A First-Time Manager’s Guide to Leading Virtual Teams by Mark Mortensen — “First things first: don’t panic. Remember that global, virtual, distributed teams are composed of people just like any other team. The more you and your team members can keep this in mind, the better your results will be. As the manager, encourage everyone to engage in some perspective taking: think about how you would behave if your roles were reversed. This is a small way of reminding your team that collaboration isn’t magic, but it does take some effort.”
HBR: Why Remote Work Thrives in Some Companies and Fails in Others by Sean Graber — “Successful remote work is based on three core principles: communication, coordination, and culture. Broadly speaking, communication is the ability to exchange information, coordination is the ability to work toward a common goal, and culture is a shared set of customs that foster trust and engagement. In order for remote work to be successful, companies (and teams within them) must create clear processes that support each of these principles.”
HBR: How to Collaborate Effectively If Your Team Is Remote by Erica Dhawan and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic — “Old school birthday cakes are still important for remote teams. Creating virtual spaces and rituals for celebrations and socializing can strengthen relationships and lay the foundation for future collaboration. Find ways to shorten the affinity distance. One company we worked with celebrated new talent by creating a personal emoji for each employee who had been there for six months.”
HBR: The Secrets of Great Teamwork by Martine Haas and Mark Mortensen — “Distance and diversity, as well as digital communication and changing membership, make them especially prone to the problems of ‘us versus them’ thinking and incomplete information. The solution to both is developing a shared mindset among team members—something team leaders can do by fostering a common identity and common understanding.”
DAN MCGINN: Welcome to Dear HBR: from Harvard Business Review. I’m Dan McGinn.
ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Work can be frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be. The truth is that we don’t have to let the tension, conflicts, and misunderstandings get us down. We can do something about them.
DAN MCGINN: That’s where Dear HBR: comes in. We take your questions about workplace dilemmas and with the help of experts and insights from academic research, we help you move forward.
ALISON BEARD: Today we’re talking about remote work with Siobhan O’Mahony. She’s a professor at Questrom School of Business at Boston University. Siobhan, thanks so much for coming on the show.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Thanks for having me.
ALISON BEARD: So, Siobhan, what are the biggest problems that people have with remote work?
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Well, one problem is people forgetting you. Please get nervous that they’re forgotten about. You have that conference call, there’s somebody there and you forget and their voice pops up and everybody goes, oh, you’re there. So, I think people who work remotely sometimes struggle to maintain their salience and their relevance.
DAN MCGINN: Out of sight, out of mind. That’s dangerous at work.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: It is. Yeah.
ALISON BEARD: And it’s also a problem for the managers of those workers, right?
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Right, it is on the manager, but I also think if you’re doing remote work, the responsibility, some of it’s on you to figure that out. The thing that happens in the workplace is if you’re in the office and mistakes are made, or you’re left off the list, or you didn’t get the latest important email, well when you get up and go to the bathroom or get a drink or go to the printer, that mistake could get corrected. But the same mistake could persist when you’re remote.
DAN MCGINN: I think Alison and I are especially engaged in these letters because surprisingly, we’re not in the office every day. Is that fair to say, Alison?
ALISON BEARD: No, right. We’re not. So, we do work remotely and have to navigate those tricky waters. Shall we talk a little, our questions?
DAN MCGINN: Yeah. Dear HBR: I’ve spent most of my career in product management, but three years ago I switched companies and took an outside sales role. I love my job, but eventually, I want to move up into a management position. Because I jumped right into this remote role I feel like I haven’t built companywide credibility. At least not as much as I could if I were in the office every day. I have weekly one to ones with my boss and the VP of Sales, plus I have good rapport with key members of the product management and customer service teams. But I miss a lot of interactions that in office people get on a daily basis just because they’re in the office. I know some of my colleagues only by email. My job is to travel and be in front of customers. Sadly, none of our company offices are in my territory or even in driving distance. Adding an office visit while I’m on the road is not possible. And I don’t want to call people just to check in because I feel like I’m wasting their time. How can I stay visible in a positive way to colleagues at headquarters without unnecessary travel, appearing needy or ignoring my current responsibilities?
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Well, the first thing I noticed is that he is focused on what he misses and I’d like to flip this. What about what his colleagues are missing? His colleagues are missing customer interactions. He’s in front of customers every day and that is data, insights, stories, content that his colleagues at headquarters are missing. I would suggest that he make this fun. It doesn’t have to be dry. You can be known for the customer story of the week or the customer insight of the week and generate an email following. Being in the field is really important and it can snap people’s focus back on what matters. Like the customer. What’s their issue? What are their challenges? What is he learning when he goes out in the field and he discovers this? Well, he should share that back in a fun way that’s memorable and that people engage with and it will be like, this is the guy. He’s got customer insights of the week.
ALISON BEARD: And will that be people’s reaction though? Because I think all of those are great ideas. How does he do that in a way that doesn’t seem self-promotional or his fear, annoying?
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Well, that’s a good question. I mean, I think you have to find your tone. You find your tone, not to be pedagogical or prescriptive, but like wow. This is what I came across. I was in Kansas City last week and there’s the client out there that’s doing something radically different with our software that I didn’t know about. So, I think if you have something that’s unique and novel and current, that people would respond to that.
ALISON BEARD: Much more informational than it is Here’s all the amazing things I did. It’s very, very customer focused.
DAN MCGINN: Right. He should probably choose his audience too. This is probably not the kind of note that needs to go to a really wide assortment of people. It probably needs to go to the group of people who are most product focus, who could actually learn the most. So, I think choosing who’s in that too field would probably be essential to make something like this received the right way, as opposed to the kind of self-promotional emails we’ve all received at one time or another.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, Adam Grant’s research on being a giver. So, the best way to network is to help people. Maybe it’s a good idea to talk to the boss with whom he does have a good relationship about how to go about that.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: And let’s think about this as a dialogue. Like OK, the boss and VP of Sales know what you’re doing in terms of your targets and your performance, but what about how you get there. I’m noticing this person, he only knows some colleagues by email. You do want to get to know people here and there. You do want to know them face to face and I think that helps a lot. But if you create this kind of dynamic and this back and forth quality, they may then seek you out and say, next time you’re in the city, let’s get together for coffee.
DAN MCGINN: I think it’s challenging if he really can’t travel there which is sort of the premise that he sets up here. I spent more than 10 years reporting to people in New York when I lived very far from New York. And at that company, it was very accepted that people in my situation would go back to New York for a week or two every year and just make the rounds. That was standard company practice. And the holiday party, people come in for the holiday party. So, don’t just come in for the meeting. See if you can actually get approval to come in for some of these important, ritualistic company social activities.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. I wonder too if there are actually work roles or responsibilities that he could take on. Volunteering for some initiative that’s across division type of thing so that he can, he actually doesn’t just have a social excuse to come in or sort of I want to do it to build my own network and sort of enhance my individual reputation or credibility, but I’m coming in for a work purpose in addition to my customer facing role.
DAN MCGINN: It would be great if he had friends and has close relationships back at headquarters, but I think the first priority is just performing really, really well. He is in sales and the great thing about sales is it’s really easy to measure performance. There’s not a lot of politics. You’re either making your number or you’re not.
ALISON BEARD: But there is a danger that he would then get pegged as a sales guy. So, Siobhan, I mean if he wants to move up to the management track, should he be focusing so much on the customer-facing aspect of his job, and the fact that he’s hitting all his sales targets, because if he’s a great salesman they’re going to want to keep him there his whole career.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Oh, the competency trap.
ALISON BEARD: Exactly right.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Well, I think, yeah he does say I want to move into management and that’s, can you show leadership? There is such a thing as sales leadership, understanding the customer, can you show leadership at what you do? And leadership is about influencing others. So, I think as long as you demonstrate the capability of leadership, people will want you to move in that direction.
ALISON BEARD: And innovating in the way that you suggested, creating a new internal product that will help people do their jobs better.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: You said product and that’s the important word. We’re talking about a product that fosters knowledge and focus in the organization. And that’s a way of creating thought leadership. And that’s a type of leadership.
ALISON BEARD: All of us who have worked in organizations are accustomed to sort of getting reports from the team in the field and a lot of times we don’t actually have time to look at them. So, how can he make sure that he gets noticed with this new product?
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Well, I think if you’re in sales you are reporting projections. Some people are reporting daily, weekly. You’re reporting that out in a normal channel. So, this is something different. This is funny, clever, sharp. This is a customer insight. It’s got to be new and reflect a new understanding, but I think if it’s not short and to the point, people will ignore it. So, it’s up to you to kind of create a new platform, a new channel for dialogue about, help your colleagues get to know their customer and the way that maybe you are taking for granted every day.
ALISON BEARD: And a nice side product if you do it in the right way, it also showcases your personality a little bit, which is the thing that you feel you’re missing. People aren’t getting to know you.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: I love that Alison.
ALISON BEARD: So, Dan, what are we telling our letter writer?
DAN MCGINN: We’re telling him that he needs to be imaginative and think of new ways to try to connect even though he’s a bit constrained about how much he can physically go to headquarters. We think doing something that’s useful and not self-promotional is a great way to start that relationship. Long term, getting a physical presence in headquarters once in a while, maybe for a week a year, maybe for the holiday party, maybe for something social, would be a big benefit. We also think that performance is really, really important in this kind of situation. That all these other things are great ways to build a relationship, but they’re not going to help him overcome the anxiety and isolation of being remote if his numbers aren’t very good. So, make sure you’re focusing on performance first. That’s what the main part of the job is.
ALISON BEARD: On to the next letter. Dear HBR: I need your help with a remote co-worker. I’m so frustrated. She’s an attorney who keeps raising theoretical risks about decisions my team has made. And she incorrectly sites scientific documents she finds on the internet. She used to work in a satellite office, however, it was shut down and everyone was let go except her. She’s working from home now. I work at company headquarters. It starts when she sees a document of a hot project. She then gets everyone’s attention and strikes fear by raising a serious risk. After spending hours looking at the technical document, every time my engineering team concludes clearly, without a doubt that it’s not a risk, or that the team has already considered that risk. She’s not part of the team, so she isn’t privy to their discussions, nor do they want her. How does she respond? By finding even more documents on the internet and raising even more hypothetical risks and we spend more time researching the issue. Eventually, my boss finally talks to her and convinces her how wrong she was, very tactfully. I’m too mad. The other thing is she or her boss complained to my boss’s boss, or my boss’s boss’s boss, that we’re putting the company at risk by not following her recommendations. Their thought is, what does her input hurt? They’re also risk-averse because our company’s doing very poorly and people are leaving or being laid off in large numbers. I’m mad. I’m mad that it takes so long to convince my boss that she’s wrong. I actually think if she was not remote, the problem could be worse. With her raising risks by email at least we have time to research the material before it gets out to the team. On the few occasions where she’s come up to HQ for a meeting and raised a risk there, there was no way to check it out beforehand leading to an action item, et cetera and giving legitimacy to the risk she shared. How can we control this misguided remote worker?
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Well, Alison, context is everything. Let’s go over some key facts here. The company’s doing poorly. People are being laid off. This remote worker used to work in a satellite office and it was shut down and she’s the last one. Maybe has a case of survivor’s anxiety, if she’s the only one left. She’s not just remote, she’s remote and alone. So, it’s no wonder, but she’s throwing herself into the process, doing what she can. She’s not even working on, you’re talking about internet research that’s related, but it’s not even related to the work product. She’s trying to be relevant, trying to be useful, trying to be indispensable in a context where the company’s not doing well. Though if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. It’s logical behavior. She’s trying to keep her job.
ALISON BEARD: So, you’re saying our letter writer should approach the situation with empathy.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: It’s not a bad place to start. Particularly because she’s alone and you have a pattern and practice here of behavior of constant insertion and you also say she’s not on the team.
ALISON BEARD: Right. But she really is disrupting his work. So, it’s hard to be empathetic when someone is forwarding you from progress.
DAN MCGINN: Well, I’m going to jump in and defend the attorney for a moment here. I’m the son of an attorney. The key phrase in this letter that I saw was, she keeps raising theoretical risks. That’s what attorneys are paid to do. [LAUGHTER] Their job is to worry about things that might go wrong. What happens if a can of paint falls off the ladder and hits the man? Who’s responsible? Engineers think in probabilities and is this likely to happen, what’s the cost of alleviating this risk? Attorneys think about OK, maybe there’s a half of a percent this will happen, but if it does, the liability is gigantic. So, there might be an argument that some of what the attorney’s doing is exactly what the company is paying her to do.
ALISON BEARD: So, Dan, you were also arguing that our letter writer needs needs to put himself in the attorney’s shoes. If that’s the case, how does he go about it? How does he develop empathy for someone who’s just driving him up a wall?
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: I mean this is an ongoing conflict. So, this is interesting because it’s not just like a spot conflict, this is a repeated pattern. And —
ALISON BEARD: Which seems totally unaddressed by anyone.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Agreed.
ALISON BEARD: It’s so weird.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Right. That all these bosses are involved, and it’s just persisting. I think Dan’s point is important. You’ve got people working across occupational boundaries that are trained differently. Lawyers and engineers are not trained the same way. They don’t think the same way and they worry about different things. Add that to the cocktail of a company doing poorly, where one person’s on their own, that’s the toxic shake. And I do think you take something normal, like different training, different mindset and then you put it in this remote context and what could have been something, I mean like Alison’s point that could have been fixed early on. It’s kind of getting more and more contentious over time.
ALISON BEARD: So, what do you think he should do to make the shake less toxic?
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Well, I’d like to see this attorney get involved in the process much earlier.
ALISON BEARD: So, our letter writer should involve the attorney.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: I think so. I get the sense that the attorney is coming in late. Clearly, they’re annoyed. They’ve already done the research. So, she’s just trying to, she’s holding up the process. She’s doing more research. What if you go to her first? Like, your viewpoint is so important, I want you to get all her criticisms, concerns, worries on the table so you can beat them back early before all these other people get involved.
ALISON BEARD: And make that work visible to the boss and the boss’s boss and the boss’s boss’s boss so that she feels a little bit less insecure.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: She needs to feel less insecure because she may be exacerbating her risk identification. I think if you could make her feel indispensable early in the process it might be less painful for everybody. And there’s a side benefit here, which is you might actually get her to have a stake in seeing this product. That’s what you want to cultivate, that this is important, your viewpoint is important, validate and have her want this to succeed so that she’s not throwing out things that you say aren’t even applicable and holding you up.
DAN MCGINN: One of the things he might do is quantify the costs of what happens when the attorney sends one of these emails late in the process. It sounds like he has a lot of engineers who are high priced, who are spending a lot of time on this. It’s not inconceivable that she sends an email and the company is spending thousands of dollars of engineering resources tracking down whether this is a reasonable risk or not. There’s a chance that the attorney’s not as aware as she should be of how costly these questions she’s raising are to the organization, or maybe the boss’s boss’s boss isn’t as questionable. So, being able to attach a number and putting a cost on this behavior might also be useful.
ALISON BEARD: That sounds a little antagonistic though. Rather than showing empathy and involving her earlier in the process, eliminating this us versus them mentality which we published a lot of great research on, you’re creating more of an, us versus them. You’re saying, here are all the problems you’re causing. Please stop doing it. So, I would side with Siobhan, get her involved earlier and make her feel as if she’s giving input. Maybe she’ll try to give less input.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Well, let me devil’s advocate your devil’s advocate. Because I want to go back to Dan’s idea of the cost. What if you did say, OK, let’s figure out how much it costs to extend this process to address all these risks. But what if that’s a shared cost? That cost is borne by both of us. So, let’s make this cost go away together. Bring her onboard.
ALISON BEARD: It seems like Siobhan, you’re suggesting that these two need to talk to each other. So, how does he go about doing that?
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Let’s redesign this process. That’s it. It’s not personal. It’s just generic. We’re both suffering with a lot of this risk analysis. Maybe we should be doing due diligence a little differently. Let’s rethink this together.
ALISON BEARD: And does that need to be a face to face conversation? Should he go visit her?
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Not a bad idea.
DAN MCGINN: If he does go to visit her he also could knock out her [Internet] router. [LAUGHTER] That would solve the whole problem. Just take her offline!
ALISON BEARD: That’s a good point. I think maybe he should invite her to headquarters so that she starts feeling less insecure.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: I take a different tact than you have. It might be really interesting for her to see Dan’s point, we’ve got some high paid engineers doing all this extra work. It might be really interesting for her to see what that looks like.
ALISON BEARD: Great point, Siobhan, because it’s sort of not just showing her causing these problems within the company, but it’s saying look at what you’re making all of these colleagues who you now know and like do. So, for her to come in and meet the whole team I think is a great idea.
DAN MCGINN: Me too.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: And I think there’s this question that this writer wrote here, what does her input hurt? And her input hurts the process. This company needs to get their products out faster if people are being laid off. So, I think, let’s go back to the shared goal here which is a smoother, more efficient product development process where everybody’s input is valid. Everybody’s input is different and if devil’s advocate, I like Dan’s point, the lawyer, that’s the lawyers’ job is to come up with theoretical risks. Accept that, but let’s make the process work better.
DAN MCGINN: Siobhan, do you think that our letter writer is correct that the problem might actually be worse if she was not remote and the attorney was at headquarters?
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: It might be worse if you assume that her behavior won’t change. But one of your goals here is to create shared contacts where this person understands more about your process and you understand more about hers. So, it might not be worse. That might not be the right assumption if her behavior becomes more relevant, more on target. Perhaps more timely. It’s interesting that they say with extra time, they’re able to rebut. The other thing that’s behind that, why do they want extra time? I think that’s impression management and with all these layers of bosses that may make sense. But I think the right lens to take is redesigning the process and creating a process that works better for everyone.
DAN MCGINN: So, Alison, what are we telling this engineer?
ALISON BEARD: So, first we think that he should start with empathy. The attorney’s job is to identify risks. She also probably feels pretty isolated and insecure at this point given what’s going on in the company. We think it would be a good idea to try and involve her a little bit earlier and make her feel more a part of the team. Perhaps if she’s brought in earlier on, she’ll be less disruptive and more relevant. We suggest a one on one conversation, talking about whether there’s a good way to redesign the process so that it yields the best result for everyone. We just really think that he should work on reducing the social distance between the two of them by creating a shared context. Inviting her to meet the team and better understand the work so that she fully grasps the problems that she’s causing and hopefully avoids that in the future.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Because both of their jobs stand to benefit.
ALISON BEARD: Absolutely.
DAN MCGINN: Dear HBR: I’m just starting an international assignment in Singapore, leading a large team of over 30 people across Southeast Asia. I’ve been based in the U.S. for my whole career. This is also the first time I’ve managed a team greater than three people or managed people remotely. And by the way, my family, including three school-aged children came with me. It’s a sales and service company, but I specifically lead our procurement function which is part of the supply chain. The team is disbursed all over the region. I have nine direct reports in Singapore and four in Shanghai. My direct reports oversee regional strategies for each of their spend pools. The rest are dotted line reports in each of the countries, all over Southeast Asia. These reports manage the day to day at a country level. They will also manage a smaller team depending on the number of manufacturing sites and spend for that country. The other thing is I just got the results of an engagement survey our company did worldwide. My new team scored very, very low. What advice can you give me as I step into this stretch role?
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: I love that this writer is calling this a stretch role. I think the stretch roles are the thing that helps careers progress. In my research on the career progression paradox, we look at the problem, how do you get a job you don’t have experience for? How do you get the experience? Through stretch roles, through stretch work. So, congratulations because your superiors have a lot of confidence in you. And you’ve gone from managing three people to 30 in a different country. So, someone upstairs thinks you’re doing a good job, that you can do this role.
DAN MCGINN: It sounds like from the tone of the letter he’s worried that three is too many stretches all at once here. He’s an expatriate for the first time, big team for the first time, remote workers for the first time across cultural issues.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Cross-cultural issues and the teams are not evenly distributed. So, you really have to look at not just say, who’s remote, but what is the structure and the distribution of remoteness. And then the other part I think, is this point that the new team scored very, very low in the engagement survey. So, you’re walking into a stretch role where there’s already a problem.
DAN MCGINN: Yeah it’s a turnaround. At a minimum, don’t you think he’s going to need to be spending a lot of time in these field offices to get up to speed, especially in light of the low engagement numbers?
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: I do. I mean, you think about coming in, your first 90 days, if you think about Michael Watkins framework. I think you want to meet with all your direct reports first off. Right away. I mean immediately and not just meet with them, but what you ask them. You need to have very honest, safe discussions about where they think the problems are, what do they think the most important thing to accomplish is in the first 90 days or the first six months, and ask for their advice. And be modifiable. Be open. Ask for their advice for you as a leader and to be effective. Then there is some need to bring everyone together, to figure out what’s going on with the survey. I have a lot of questions. Was the survey results shared to everybody? Do they all know about it? What are some of the driving factors behind this? And I bet there’s a lot to learn.
ALISON BEARD: How quickly do you think that he’ll be able to develop that sort of shared context, shared identity, shared goals that we’ve been talking about his whole episode?
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: I think when you meet with people you have to say, here’s my plan. I remember we had a new Dean come in and we have 90 faculty [members], and he met with every single one within the first 30, 60 days. So, it was pretty remarkable because just doing that and being committed to that exchange and dialogue, it sent a strong signal. Being present to say, maybe I’m going to spend the first week in Singapore. I want to have a one on one with everybody. Maybe in advance of these meetings you want to send some questions to these reports. What do you think the top three things that we need to change? Where are the sources of inefficiency? What do you think is responsible for the poor morale in the survey? I think if you’re very direct with what you’re looking for, I think people really respect and maybe see you as a change maker.
DAN MCGINN: When I think about the different challenges in front of him, remote is one aspect of what he’s dealing with, but if you’re a good manager face to face, you’re going to be a good manager remote too. There’s some special skills involved, but in general, he just needs to focus on being a really good boss, and just focus on the fundamentals, and then the remote is just sort of one extra twist to the whole thing.
ALISON BEARD: But I think that extra twist is really important. Especially because he’s working in a cross-cultural context too. We did a great post from Sean Graber who’s talking about managing remote and international teams and he talks about the three C’s. Communication, coordination, and culture. With communication, he talks about matching the message to the medium. If you have a really complexed issue to discuss, you need to do it over the phone or via a video conference or face to face. You can’t do that over email. We talked about him visiting different offices, but what about this idea of bringing everyone together as a team? Doesn’t he need to do that too? Especially because people do come from different national cultures.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more Alison. The thing is, there’s something going on here that’s probably normative. And norms are hard to set and change by email. Norms are passed on and shared through observation and behavior. So, getting people together and I think let’s digest these survey results together and brainstorm. What are the reasons for these and then what do we need to do to fix these problems as a group and to show that leadership face to face is itself a norm-setting action? That can then shift everyone, oh, that’s the way we handle problems here.
ALISON BEARD: Right.
DAN MCGINN: As he focuses on his lower engagement numbers, I think he should look beyond the aggregate number and be aware that this will be a different problem in every locale. It might be that the Shanghai office is great, but the Singapore office is not so great. So, there could be pockets of excellence, pockets of discontent. He’s going to need to spend a little bit more time in the places that are more problematic, distribute his own time and attention not equally.
ALISON BEARD: I think also the point you made earlier Dan about how much commitment this is going to take, not just traveling all over, not just really strategizing with each member of his team about how to fix things, but also just being there. How does he navigate that fact? This role is going to be really all-consuming. And he has a family that he’s taking on an international assignment.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: I think the family humanizes you, makes you relatable and is a good way to draw connections with people across cultures too. Everybody has some kind of family.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, that’s a great point.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: I mean I think being open and approachable and modifiable, these are the key things to get people to take you as a credible leader.
ALISON BEARD: So, we talked about the fact that those early face to face interactions are really important, but what should he do sort of on a routine basis in terms of seeing his direct reports and should he encourage members of his team to see each other? What sort of structure should he set up for collaboration?
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Let me start with what he should not do, which is walk in and prescribe something. So, these are great questions and great dialogue to have. If he takes this as a blank slate that these dialogues, like you’re asking about the path going forward, these dialogues should inform that path. And I think if you demonstrate a lot of respect for context in the cultural difference by asking people, what the norms are, but not assuming that’s the way to go. It’s just finding out where they are before you start changing things and then you can say, which of these norms are effective? Which of these norms need to be revised and that we should re-update and rethink?
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. I feel like so much of the advice published on global teams talks about the video conferencing and to your point Siobhan, I think that often it causes more problems than people expect. And it also feels a little bit uncomfortable still.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: I have one thought about this and I think the creators of these video conferencing applications have got something wrong. They seem to have assumed that we need to look at each other’s face all the time. Now, whereas, when I’m co-authoring with, I have co-authors around the world, we check in. We see our face and then we go right to the work and the shared screen is the work. Yes, the face matters, but not, once you have that move it to the work.
DAN MCGINN: Plus if anybody wanted to see our faces this would be a TV show.
ALISON BEARD: And I’m really glad that it is not a television show.
DAN MCGINN: Me too.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Me too.
ALISON BEARD: So, what are we telling our new international manager?
DAN MCGINN: First we’re congratulating him. It’s his first expatriate experience. He will go from managing three people to more than 30. It will be across cultures and it will be remote. We focused in this discussion on the remote aspect of it and it does present some unique challenges. He’s going to need to travel intensively in the beginning. He should begin by meeting one on one with every new member of the team. He should listen. He will not have the answers the first day and it would be a mistake to go charging in there as if he did. There might be a good opportunity to bring everybody together in one location to try to at least occasionally not have to deal with people remotely all over the place. In terms of the technology solutions, going forward, he needs to be really smart about matching his communication mode with the message he’s trying to convey. There’s going to be some things that work by email, some things that will require a phone or a video call and a lot of things, especially in the beginning that are going to require him to step on an airplane and he should not be reluctant to do that. We recognize this. This is going to be some sacrifice for his family. Try to emphasize that this is something that’s going to be acute in the beginning, but hopefully will wane over time, as he gets to know the team and as they iron out their kinks.
ALISON BEARD: Siobhan, thanks so much for giving great advice to our letter writers today.
SIOBHAN O’MAHONY: Oh, this was fun. My pleasure.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Siobhan O’Mahony. She’s a professor at Questrom School of Business at Boston University.
DAN MCGINN: Thanks to the listeners who wrote us with their questions. Now we want to know your questions. Send us an email with your workplace challenge and how we can help. The email address is [email protected] On our next episode, we’ll be talking about low pay, in front of a live audience!
DAN MCGINN AT LIVE RECORDING: Most people are raising their hands.
SUSAN HOLLINGSHEAD AT LIVE RECORDING: That’s because you’re all in the private sector! [LAUGHTER]
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ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Thanks for listening to Dear HBR:.