“They just don’t understand how we do things in the Netherlands, and this causes problems.”

I hear this complaint often when speaking with Dutch managers in global organizations. “They” are offshore, back office services located in India, the Philippines, Poland or another country. It is not just the Netherlands where I hear these words – the sentiment translates into many languages.

Offshoring has been happening for years, and so have the resulting issues. Even when the organizations have transferred the processes, signed the service level agreements and trained everyone on the new tools, people are often still frustrated, less satisfied and blaming each other. What was good on paper struggles in practice.

For example, I attended a presentation by a technology development company whose development happened in India and whose consultants and customers were in western Europe. At the end of the presentation, the speaker listed 12 issues, nine of which had to do with cultural differences, including communication issues, decision-making problems and reaction delays. When I raised my hand to ask if the company had worked with a cultural consultant, he replied, “No, I read a book, but we did not think it was worth the time.”

This is a common mentality: “The processes are enough; the people have the skills; it is too hard to change minds, so why bother; and we don’t have time to invest in team collaboration. If we keep meeting to review the service level agreement, it should be enough.”

Without any intervention, these problems will continue, often with everyone’s acceptance of the new state of mediocrity and sometimes with the expensive process of returning the work back to the company offices.

It’s time to rethink how these partnerships really work together. Outsourcing partnerships should attempt to improve their communication, collaboration and teamwork. Two recent research studies show how.

Research Proves Virtual Offshoring Teams Can Improve

The first study, published by Alfred Presbitero and Lemuel S. Toledano in the International Journal of Human Resource Management, investigated the impact of cultural training on 252 team members working for a global company with offshore IT services. The company organized virtual teams with five to 10 members on each, consisting of client representatives (generally in Canada, the U.K. and Australia) and IT developers located in the Philippines. The cultural training was six hours per month over a six-month period and focused on helping team members understand and better adjust to their colleagues in other locations. The researchers found that the cultural training positively impacted an individual’s cultural competence and performance. In addition, the study made a distinction between the quantity and the quality of the interactions between colleagues. Boring meetings did not have an impact, but “contact intensive communications” helped colleagues learn about each other, thereby decreasing prejudice and feelings of separation. These types of communications included engaging meetings and informal conversations focused on learning about the other locations. The researchers recommended surveying team members regularly about the quality of communication and whether the contacts are improving.

The second study was published by Michael Y. Lee, Melissa Anne Mazmanian and Leslie Perlow in the Academy of Management Journal. It followed a struggling team at a global technology consulting firm whose customer interface team members work in the U.S. and whose IT development team works in India. The researchers used team coaching techniques including creating safe spaces apart from normal work rhythms and using intentional scripts (guidelines for conversations). The intervention had a profound impact on the collaboration within the team, including the professional development and contribution of the Indian team. The entire 10-week intervention was conducted remotely, demonstrating that organizations can strengthen their teams even when travel is not possible.

How to Improve Teamwork

Distance can create a sense of separation between locations that need to work closely together. Companies must actively support their virtual, multi-site teams to build bridges and improve collaboration. Here are some tips:

  • Organize cultural diversity training. Cultural competence improve individual performance, even in virtual teams. Invest the time, funds and management attention so that the team learns about the unique aspects of their colleagues’ cultures.
  • Focus on cultures after training. Keep the conversation alive as the team develops together. Recognize local customs and holidays so that everyone feels included.
  • Hire a team coach or facilitator. Sometimes, teams become stuck in a cycle of low trust, disengagement and blame. An “us versus them” mentality is detrimental to collaboration. Hire someone who can guide the conversations and provide the tools for building bridges toward understanding and collaboration.
  • Make contact intensity happen. No more boring meetings or phone calls! Include fun, interesting and important topics of conversation when team members are together. Organize one-on-one coffee conversations so distant team members can connect. Add ice-breaker questions at the beginning of meetings to help team members learn about each other, especially regarding their beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.

Focus on the human aspects and development of your offshoring teams and their colleagues and partners. Accepting that your current frustrations are “just the way it is” is short-sighted. Learning about employees’ cultures and developing as a team can make a profound difference to performance.

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