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When colleagues are spread around the globe, work is a different world

The number of companies with international operations has been on the increase.Adobe/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

When your co-workers are scattered around the world, work gets done a little differently.

A software engineer in Waltham stays up late into the night, churning out last-minute changes in time for his colleague in India to review when he wakes up.

A Boston-area marketing director runs a highly orchestrated weekly Skype meeting in an attempt to engage employees in at least nine countries on the call. If somebody dials in late, the director may make them tell a joke on the spot.

As American companies continue expanding their international presence, and the competition for talent shows no sign of letting up in the United States and around the world, businesses are increasingly looking to add foreign workers.


But this intercontinental growth comes with unique challenges. More than 90 percent of global organizations struggle to manage their teams at least part of the time, with time-zone and cultural differences topping the list, according to a survey of 464 companies by the Society for Human Resource Management and Globalization Partners, a Boston firm that helps corporations hire workers in other countries.

People working for companies based overseas are less likely to feel engaged and listened to than their counterparts at headquarters, which can lead to them being less trustful of leadership, a separate Globalization Partners survey found.

Meanwhile, the number of Fortune 500 companies with international operations increased by more than 18 percent from 2008 to 2017, according to a Globalization Partners data analysis.

These increasingly spread-out teams have a much different dynamic than those under the same roof. Communication is rarely face-to-face. Instead, meetings are recorded and comments are detailed in writing so they can be easily understood and viewed at all hours. People working on the same project may have schedules that rarely overlap.

They also have to adjust to cultural differences. What might seem like harmless banter in Ukraine, for instance, may be considered politically incorrect in the United States.


At the same time, having a diverse staff provides a global perspective and boosts creativity and efficiency, according to Globalization Partners. When emergencies arise, a team trying to fix an issue late into the night can pass it off to co-workers who are just starting their day on the other side of the globe.

The access to a much broader pool of workers is also a plus. As one local executive for a Florida-based global software firm put it: “I would rather hire top talent in India . . . than being forced to hire a C-plus player in Florida.”

But managers and co-workers must be attuned to the needs of their remote colleagues in order to reap the benefits, said Nicole Sahin, chief executive of Globalization Partners.

“Sometimes I think it’s a little bit ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” she said.

Globalization Partners, which also puts foreign workers on its payroll and contracts them out to companies to ease the burdens of setting up a new outpost, has seen a steady increase in international growth among the more than 700 organizations it serves in 170 countries.

But these companies are not always aware of what it takes to manage a highly remote workforce. Some have complained, for instance, that their far-flung teams were not fully engaged in conference calls, Sahin said — “and then we realized they were dialing in at 3 a.m. and trying not to wake up their family.”


Cultural differences can also create problems.

Americans are more likely to question authority than those in other cultures and don’t realize they may not get this kind of interaction from foreign workers, said Neal Hartman, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management who specializes in cross-cultural communication.

In some Asian cultures, for instance, people will say yes when they don’t actually mean yes, Hartman said. “If you’re my American manager, I don’t want to appear that I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

Globalization exploded in the 1980s, as the world opened up and companies realized they could save money — and attract business — by expanding overseas. Trade wars and new tariffs may put a damper on international growth in the short term, Hartman said, but the challenges of employing people around the globe are here to stay.

DataRobot’s first international employee was its fifth hire, in Singapore, in 2013. Today, the Boston-based creator of a machine-learning platform for data scientists has 800 employees, nearly half of them in countries as far away as Australia, Japan, and South Korea.

When the company opened its Ukraine office in 2015, it incorporated its Kiev developers into teams around the world to keep them from having a “contractor mentality,” said Ulises Reyes, vice president of engineering, who is originally from Mexico and works out of the Munich office.

“We definitely wanted to avoid the situation where we had an offshore team where we kind of threw something over the wall and had them complete it overnight,” he said.


To deal with language barriers, and to keep US workers from dominating discussions, teams mostly communicate in writing, Reyes said. But if a problem isn’t fixed with three e-mail exchanges, workers are encouraged to jump on a video call to hash it out face to face.

At TripAdvisor, which has 39 offices around the world, employees in the Needham headquarters are on calls with co-workers so frequently that all the private offices on Heather Nickerson’s floor are reserved for that purpose. Nickerson, senior director of product for the traveler-focused Experience team, manages 25 people scattered from Los Angeles to London and regularly interacts with employees in Sydney, Lisbon, Hawaii, and elsewhere.

On Nickerson’s weekly call, scheduled at varying times to accommodate people in different parts of the world, presenters include a picture of themselves, and new employees share a fun fact. When one worker revealed that his dog had a large following on Instagram, a number of people asked for its handle.

“You see someone’s animal, you don’t even live in the same country as them, you’re able to follow along and learn about someone’s life,” Nickerson said.

Mary Wells, a 25-year veteran of the global workplace, oversees a marketing team of 30 people on four continents from her home near Boston and pays close attention to the issues distance can cause.


When her employer, the Florida enterprise software provider ASG Technologies, acquired a company in India, Wells realized that one of her new employees there, a woman in her 20s, was staying at the office late at night to participate in Wells’s weekly town hall meeting, and then riding her bicycle home. So Wells let her start working from home, and her productivity went up.

Wells is also aware vacation allotments vary among countries. France, for instance, mandates at least six weeks off a year.

“I know it feels like so-and-so is out for 45 days,” said Wells, addressing an imaginary disgruntled worker. “How do I keep my person in Pittsburgh motivated, as well?”

Wells’s staff is so widely dispersed that she holds her weekly town hall meetings over Skype, with roughly 50 people dialing in from nine countries. To keep people engaged during the 90-minute virtual meeting, she runs a tight ship, starting promptly at 9:30 a.m. every Friday and requiring guest speakers to rehearse their presentations ahead of time.

If she realizes someone isn’t paying attention, she joked, she may take it out on the person’s fantasy football lineup: “I might threaten to take away one of your players.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.