Skills You Need to Manage an International Mobile Workforce

Chances are you have been managing members of a mobile workforce, whether they are work-at-home colleagues based in the United States or the locals of another country. Studies have documented that about 1.3 billion people are working mobile – closing deals, creating documents, doing research outside their brick-and-mortar office, while remaining connected to it through their smart gadgets. This places you at an advantage because you would have developed skills that many professionals and their managers in the workplace are only becoming to adopt.  You can recall time zones of Southeast Asian cities, have an instinctive feel when to call that European headhunter, and understand the halting not-so-perfect English of your Thai counterpart.  

However, this is just the beginning.  Learn to build on these skills and raise your game to the next high level, one that can make your department more efficient and more productive, and which will probably make you an enviable leader  in your own company.

These skills will also help you address the main challenge that Forrester Consulting identifies as the one problem area of mobile colleagues:  establishing and retaining trust, which will also prove invaluable when it’s time for you to bring them to, say, Silicon Valley. Establishing contacts and building relationships early, even if some of them are just long distance workforce contacts for now, will benefit you in the long run.

Communication skills:  Managing a mobile workforce means continuous improvement of those communication skills that have made you an excellent global mobility professional.  It’s one thing to explain  a contract face-to-face to a colleague, it’s another to do the same over Skype or a teleconference where the usual assuring sense of personal human contact is minimized.  Miscommunication or misunderstanding is one constant problem area in online communication, as vocabulary and tone can be misinterpreted; without an audible human voice that exudes compassion; for example, a brief sentence from the same person over chat can appear to be cold and hostile to the other end of the line.

Make sure everything you say is clear and understood by your colleague listening to or chatting with you. Don’t just rush into statements but pause every so often to let your words sink in.  Allow time for questions and rebuttals.  Ask your colleagues to summarize each important part of the conversation to make sure you are on the same page. Send documents including Powerpoint presentations and reports way in advance; if they read your material ahead of time, they will have a more thorough grasp of what you want to say before the meeting starts.

Don’t be afraid to use emoticons during chat sessions.  Chatting “I want to talk to you” with a smiley at the end of the text can denote support and openness, while without it, the sentence can appear to be a reprimand that just might scare your colleague into clamming up.

Use project management tools like an expert.  Google Docs and emails can only do so much.  Before you know it, you will be digging through tons of unread online correspondence, finding it hard to connect who said what.  Fortunately, project management tools like Basecamp, Trello, and Asana can create for you and your team your own online road map which will make everybody aware of the project status at all times. Timelines, workflows, assignments, and ongoing communication among others will keep everyone informed at all times of what’s going on, where deadlines are being met or missed, and the resources needed and tasks to be accomplished in order to complete the project  Study an online tutorial on how to use one of these project management tools during your downtime, and you’ll find an instrument that will significantly organize all your internet-based activity.

Sharpen your cultural awareness.  Again, it is one thing to wine and dine your assignee who has just flown in from Korea.  It is another to deal with a Korean-based contact sporadically over a teleconference within the next few months.  Your Korean assignee can tell you, perhaps slowly at first, why he objects to certain parts in your proposal.  Your Korean contact may feel the same way but not tell you immediately, and you mistakenly glean from his silence that everything is all right.  Brush up on the culture of your global colleague.  Put yourself in his shoes, before you open your chat room.  Understand where he is coming from when it comes to pay scale, profit margins, and product values as far as these are situated in his own local and cultural context.  Do research on the things that his community finds valuable, and which it finds offensive.  Once you’ve gotten a hold of where he stands on these things, you’re on your way to gaining his trust.