How to deal with the difficulties of offshoring

For many businesses, offshoring is no longer optional; 45 percent of public companies outsource at least part of their operations. Even many small businesses and startups have some offshoring arrangements, from getting virtual assistants to do repetitive tasks to hiring a development team abroad to build apps and websites.

In other words, working remotely with other people from different countries has become the default arrangement for most companies. Because of this, it’s necessary for project managers to know how to face the unique challenges that come with offshoring. As a project manager, which major challenges will you face when working with an offshore team, and what can you do to prepare?

Cultural differences are inevitable

Cultural differences can be one of the most obvious challenges for remote international teams, but it’s not always easy to predict how these differences will manifest. In most cases, misunderstanding cultural differences only leads to embarrassing blunders. But, when left unaddressed, these differences can create friction and impact the quality of your work. As a project manager, how can you bridge the cultural divide?

Acknowledge and identify the differences

Identify possible differences in working and communication styles as early as you can. In the book When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures, author and linguist Richard Lewis demonstrates how cultures communicate differently:

Image via Business Insider

Are these models true in practice? Not always, but it’s a good place to start, highlighting how differently teams approach communication and negotiation.

For example, using the above charts, a sarcastic and confrontational American may have difficultly building a rapport with a team from a culture that prizes deference and politeness. A team from Hong Kong that places a premium on time-savings and brisk deal-making may reach an impasse with a Dutch team that prefers long debates and overanalysis.

None of these approaches are the “right” approach, but when this disparate perspectives collide during collaboration, mutual frustration may result.

Of course, you don’t have to leave your country – or perhaps even your own office – to run into individuals and teams with an entirely different set of business values.

By recognizing that these differences exist, we can make the necessary allowances and approach communication, meetings, and collaboration more harmoniously.

Develop your own team culture

Strive to create a work environment that supports a globally-minded team culture. Framing your in-house and offshore teams as part of a larger international team can help foster strong connections despite cultural differences. Keep in mind, though, that this is not an attempt to overwrite the working culture of each individual in the team – we’ve discussed in the past how leveraging differences is an essential part of company culture. Instead, you are acknowledging that your team is an international entity and you’re building an identity that reflects that.

In a study published in the MIT Sloan Management Review, researchers studied 80 software development teams with members working remotely worldwide. According to the study, fostering a global culture is a must for dispersed teams: “[Having] a global mind-set, in which people see themselves as part of an international network, helps provide an environment that is conducive to dispersed teams. Accordingly, managers and team members need to recognize and frame their company as such, communicating the international nature of the organization’s operations and markets.”

The researchers suggest reinforcing your team’s global culture by temporarily assigning some staff at foreign locations, as well as providing inter-cultural training.

Scheduling gets more complicated

While calculating timezone differences can be an inconvenience, it’s actually one of the simpler challenges of working with a dispersed team – most scheduling apps have built-in timezone converters, or you can use standalone tools like the timezone converters from Time and Date and Time Zone Converter.

There are other time-related issues to consider when managing an offshore team. For example, it’s easy to think that time is objective for everyone, that 12:00 means 12:00 exactly, but anyone who’s worked in a dispersed team knows this isn’t the case – and it’s not just due to internet connectivity problems or technical difficulties. The infographic below from designer Yang Liu is a simple illustration of this:

The above image, from Liu’s infographic series “East Meets West”, contrasts how Germans (blue) and the Chinese (red) view punctuality. The German perspective is more exact, while in China, it’s more flexible.

But each culture’s perception of time can even be more complicated and conflicting than that. Take the case of how deadlines are perceived in Germany versus how they’re perceived in Spain, again from “When Cultures Collide” by Richard Lewis:

While these can be initially chalked up to cultural quirks, without establishing scheduling protocols for the entire team, these scheduling differences can lead to delays, missed appointments, and increased friction.

Find out key dates beforehand

When planning your project schedule, look up the important holidays relevant to the people in your team. Factor in both working and non-working holidays, as well as the typical number of employment leaves for each country.

Take the extra step and ask your team what they typically do during their holidays and leaves. This will give you the right expectations when it comes to their availability, and if you’d be able to reach them for project emergencies while they are away.

Have default meeting times

Members of your team might also approach scheduling differently. A study from Harvard University and the University of Zurich studied the influence of culture in the scheduling habits of dispersed teams. They found that cultures that tend to be more individualistic – cultures that see themselves as “autonomous individuals with an interest in self-expression” – tend to schedule events much earlier in advance than collectivists, cultures that see themselves as “interdependent parts of a group”.

To avoid some groups feeling like there wasn’t enough advance notice for an important meeting, it’s best to ask your team how many days in advance they want to be informed of upcoming events. This allows the entire group to set default rules – such as “Meetings should be scheduled at least 7 days in advance.”

Routine recurring meetings can also help, since everyone will automatically expect to have a meeting on specific recurring dates, such as every Friday, the last working day of the month, or the first Monday of each quarter.

Keep communication lines open

Consider an open chat room or workspace where your local and offshore teams can hang out online. When there’s a constantly open communication channel, this reduces the need for scheduling meetings and waiting for email responses if something can be easily addressed in a few chat exchanges.

Management without “face time”

According to a recent survey by Robert Half Technology, chief information officers (CIOs) were asked, “Which one of the following, if any, is your greatest challenge with managing a remote workforce?” Their top answer? Lack of face time.

CIOs aren’t just imagining this, however. The MIT Sloan Management Review article mentioned earlier stated that “[T]he regular physical presence of coworkers improves people’s feelings of familiarity and fondness, and frequent informal interactions serve to strengthen social ties. Conversely, physical distance decreases closeness and affinity, which then leads to a greater potential for conflict.”

With that in mind, how can project managers effectively manage people they can’t see?

Have local leadership

Rather than just having a single project manager for your entire distributed team, if you have enough members in a specific region, it’s best to have local leadership for that sub-team. This local leader can help mitigate the challenges that come with cultural and scheduling differences.

Also, it’s best to get collocated teams to work on the same parts of the project so that they can have more face-to-face collaboration and reap the advantages of working in closer proximity to each other.

Try nearshoring

A simpler alternative to offshoring is nearshoring – working with teams that are based in nearby countries, typically bordering countries. For some projects, a nearshoring arrangement can be more beneficial than offshoring, according to research published in Communications of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery).

From the article (emphasis mine): “For example, if convenience of travel for face-to-face interaction is considered essential then the geographic proximity of the location would dominate other considerations. If a strategic collaborative partnership is working on radical innovation projects, decision makers may determine that engineers need to interact frequently and thus the convenience of travel and real-time communication, enabled by time zone overlap, may be deemed critical.”

Of course, nearshoring works best if planned from the beginning of the project, rather than tacked on as a solution towards the end.

Overcome the challenges of offshoring

Working with offshore teams comes with its fair amount of obstacles,but you can deal with them with careful planning. By creating a strong team culture, keeping communication lines open, and finding ways around the lack of face time, your team might even become stronger because of your differences and distance.

Have you ever worked with an offshore team? How did you deal with the challenges?

Post by Celine Roque

Celine Roque is an independent author and marketer focused on entrepreneurship, marketing, and creative work. Her writing has appeared in Gigaom and The Content Strategist.