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Best Practices & Principles for Integrating International Teams

Successfully integrating international teams into an existing company poses risks that can be substantially mitigated by following certain principles and practices.  The concepts below are provided as a summary of measures to help improve your chances of success.  More detailed content is available upon request.

Please have key participants review and initial these concepts.

  1. One Team, Many Locations

Cohesive teams are not limited by geography – they can exist effectively across multiple locations.  Defining a team by proximity creates artificial and costly barriers to effective collaboration.  Leaders should continually reinforce, in words and actions, the principle of One Team, Multiple Locations.  This eliminates destructive Us vs Them dynamics and replaces Otherness with Belonging.

  1. Recognize subtle signals that communicate “otherness.”
  2. Reinforce the “One Team” concept with words and actions.
  3. Redirect or correct divisive words and actions immediately.
  1. Context and Mythology

Providing context and introducing team members to the mythology of the company helps them feel connected to the organization and understand the importance and value of their work.  Local team members can acquire this knowledge organically, but we recognize that international teammates require our intentional action to furnish this critical information.

  1. Develop the Company’s origin story and important lore.
  2. Provide a comprehensive overview of the Company to new hires.
  3. Intentionally provide this information to new international team members.
  1. Incremental Onboarding

The path from joining a team to producing valuable work includes important, progressive steps that build capabilities and confidence. These steps are often compressed or overlooked for local hires, who benefit from proximity, but they should be carefully attended with new international team members.  Following a standard protocol for introducing work de-risks the onboarding process, resulting in a faster path to value and better outcomes.  Companies should invest time in developing the material required for incremental onboarding, and avoid predictable pitfalls by committing to this process.

  1. Recognize the value of practice and avoid starting with production work.
  2. Develop practice materials from actual work product.
  3. Introduce work progressively, increasing complexity and criticality over time.
  1. Cultivated Relationships

We recognize that relationships are important for a healthy work experience, and that active support of personal connections for international teams replaces the organic collisions enjoyed by local teams.  Processes encouraging the creation and maintenance of authentic interpersonal connections boost intrinsic motivation, lower levels of stress and burnout, and improve work performance.  Organizations with international teams should incorporate these approaches as individuals may overlook these opportunities.

  1. Reinforce human connections by encouraging discussion of personal topics.
  2. Arrange interactions between people who would not meet organically.
  3. Talk about non-work characteristics of international team members locally.
  1. Intentional Word Choice

The labels we use inevitably shape behavior and understanding, creating huge opportunities and costly pitfalls when describing international operations.  Leaders should adopt words and phrases that support positive outcomes (and avoid those that undermine these efforts).  These descriptors should appear consistently in verbal and written communications, and leaders should respectfully redirect the use of undermining language.

  1. Explain the importance of labels to key team members.
  2. Avoid using words like “outsourcing,” “busy work,” or other negative descriptors.
  3. Redirect the use of unhelpful words and phrases in the moment.
  1. Regular, Structured Communications

Consistent, appropriately paced communication keeps teams aligned and engaged.  Failing to communicate regularly undermines the effectiveness of a distributed team.  In an international context, sustainable processes that foster communication help avoid long periods without interaction, and mitigate their destructive impact.  By establishing and maintaining a healthy cadence of communication, organizations can keep team members longer, allocate resources effectively, and prevent small problems from becoming larger ones.

  1. Establish and maintain processes that create regular, direct interaction, like scrum.
  2. Leaders should verify that regular communication is occurring and attend occasionally.
  3. Schedule important or regular meetings at a time that works internationally.
  1. Variety and Career Path

Most people gradually lose interest in repetitive work over long periods, as even once-exciting activities become routine.  Addressing this on a micro-level involves providing a variety of tasks during someone’s regular job.  On a macro-level, it means allowing for professional growth, lateral job mobility, and career path opportunities.  Failing to recognize the heightened importance in international teams can lead to higher turnover and declining work quality.

  1. Structure regular work to include a variety of activities.
  2. Discuss growth opportunities and career goals with team members.
  3. Provide or allow for upskilling and professional development training.
  1. Office Community

Although technology allows for work to be performed anywhere, psychology and utility point to offices as the best place to work.  Individuals crave the community, relationships, and human interaction found in a shared space, and benefit from clearer boundaries between work and home.  Offices also provide better security, connectivity, and ergonomics with far fewer distractions.  A well-designed office promotes employee satisfaction, productivity, and accountability.

  1. Allow time for office interactions and events in the international office.
  2. Reinforce that the office meets high international professional standards.
  3. Avoid focus on work-from-anywhere policies, even if available to local teams.
  1. Well-Designed Work

Effective design of work is just as important as design in products, buildings, and manufacturing.  Knowledge work involves adding value to information, and we can clearly articulate inputs, required operations, outputs, and hand-off methods.  International team members benefit disproportionately from effective work design, as they lack the proximity that often masks shortcomings in this area.  Focusing on these approaches leads to better outcomes in distributed teams.

  1. Use Relay’s Job Description template to describe inputs, processes, and outputs.
  2. Design work to channel information into the workstream at opportune points.
  3. Provide a trackable points for receiving tasks and depositing finished work.
  1. Globalization Betters All

Operating globally benefits everyone involved and is not a zero-sum game.  Building a distributed workforce makes opportunities in new markets, but also creates positive change for existing team members, customers, and the organization overall.  Acknowledging and explaining these positive impacts provides useful context and generates support and excitement for these efforts.

  1. Recognize that reservations and misconceptions often lurk below the surface.
  2. Understand the distinct benefits for all constituencies (including customers).
  3. Openly discuss and reinforce the positive impact of operating globally.

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