Team Members are Team Members - No Matter Where They Live
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
I was recently having a discussion with one of our managers who works with a team composed almost entirely of workers from overseas. One of the standard tools I use to get cool insights out of conversations like that is to focus down on the differences; How is your team different from other teams in the company? How is your team different than you’d expect the same team to be at a different company, with different philosophies?
In this case, he surprised me a little. He told me our team was more open to feedback. That doesn’t seem like much, but I’m understating it a little; it wasn’t just that we were open to feedback from his mostly-offshore team, but that we’d listen to it at all. Most team members weren’t used to that. Even worse, it was so unusual for a lot of them that it took them a while (months, in some cases) to realize that it wasn’t mere lip service or a trick of some kind.
Think about that and what it means. These are people who have worked for companies who had no interest in what they had to say about anything; not the situation on the ground, not observations they were getting from customer feedback - nothing. And not just one company, but enough of them that they had adjusted to a feedback-ban by treating it as an assumed reality of US companies. What they’ve learned about the kind of companies that worked with them in the past told them they didn’t care about them at all outside of using them as temporary, interchangeable cogs in a machine.
When I showed an early draft of this article to the manager in question, he was careful to point out that not every company is like this - there’s a spectrum of how they are treated, from “mere doers” to “innovators and full team members” and everything in between. But when asked about how Clipboard Health’s work environment was different, this stood out enough to be the first thing mentioned; not every company neglects its off-shore team members, but it happens enough that they will probably run into it eventually.
None of this was pleasant to learn, but it did start up an interesting conversation about what treating overseas team members like the real team members they are can mean to a company and the people who work there. It got me thinking about the differences between treating co-workers as disposable or as real team members with real ownership in the outcome of the company, and what that means.
Nobody works as hard for someone they don’t like
There’s a reason companies do things like all-hands meetings and corporate retreats that extends beyond the legitimate need to keep people informed. They want them to be plugged into the company; being plugged in means knowing people, it means knowing what the company is up to and the larger goals that are being pursued by their workplace. Nobody wants to work in an environment where proper communication is lacking; they need feedback and advice and to feel like they are accomplishing something.
I was told of teams that were considered purely as input-output machines; they’d be delivered work and expected to turn out results but had no other input from the company. These teams absolutely know what it is and means when someone offers work, but no support in getting that work done: they are on their own, and had better look out for themselves. This is far from how every company handles things, but it exists and it’s bad.
They do what anyone would do in a situation where they have zero buy-in: they do the minimum amount of work at the minimum quality needed to stay in the job (or less, knowing that another job might very well be easy to come by). Some of them just flat-out quit. But very, very few of them will end up doing the kind of work they are capable of and that you would want; a person who will truly work hard and to high standards in any scenario at all is rare, and these are far from being ideal circumstances.
In regards to communication, at Clipboard Health we treat our off-shore, contracted team members exactly like our US-based members. Their managers both welcome spontaneous feedback and seek it out when it isn’t forthcoming. They have the same access as anybody in the company to higher-ups; any one of them could contact the CEO or COO at any time with relevant information, and it would be welcomed. Many have, and we’ve gained insights and information we otherwise wouldn’t have had. But that alone isn’t enough.
There are some elements of the difficulty that aren’t purely about how people were treated by previous companies; there’s also a work-culture element in play. Different regions can have vastly different expectations regarding feedback. In some places, proactive reports to management might be a given while in others they might be taboo. Whether all feedback went through specific channels or just wasn’t expected at all, sometimes team members come to the table with decades of experience telling them to do something other than what the company expects in terms of communication.
Fixing ingrained habits is hard. We’ve learned we have to make expectations and reasoning explicit - we needed to explain not only that we wanted feedback, but also why. We relate our reasoning on how feedback helps the company operate and improve, how every team member has a perspective that if known can help us serve our users better. We explain that this feedback isn’t just acceptable, it’s expected. We spend a lot of time talking to people about what the expectations of their former workplaces were, trying to reinforce what we’ve said to help break old habits in favor of the new. This applies not just to our out-of-the-country contractors; We’ve learned that the same difference in expectation often exists not just country-to-country, but sometimes city-to-city and company-to-company as well.
We work proactively to let every individual know that they can reach out to leadership, but we also make sure they know that they need to do this, that it’s part of being a good team member and part of our company standards. That’s one of the bigger gains to be had here; the relationship between a company and team members is necessarily a give-and-take. When it comes to something you want (like feedback), it’s natural that you’d give something back. For us, simply listening and acting on what we hear seems like a bargain.
Teamwork means everyone works hard together
Another experience that came out of my discussion with the manager was finding out how important it was that team members feel like everyone is putting in similar amounts of work to reach their goals. We all know this to some extent; many of us have had jobs where someone wasn’t pulling their weight and everyone else had to scramble to make up for their mistakes. It’s infinitely worse when that person not pulling their weight is your superior, creating a situation where they hold all the keys you need to unlock success and you can’t access any of them. Or offloading work they should be doing onto the team, abusing their authority to do even less.
Now imagine how it would feel for the offshore team. As I mentioned in the opening of the article, a lot of these teams don’t have clear access to feedback channels if they have them at all. They are used to shouting into the wind and not hearing anything back; now they would have to hopscotch levels of authority to do it if they even know who to go to. They can be left in a situation where they can’t do good work even if they felt like it, which they generally (and understandably, considering the circumstances) don’t. Again, we aren’t claiming this is everybody besides us, but it happens.
You wouldn’t expect it to happen the same way with local teams, or at least not as often. One of the reasons why is it’s clearly understood that local teams need a real manager - someone who is dedicated to the work the team is doing and is working harder than anyone to make sure they experience success. It’s understood that the team needs someone who provides oversight, but more than that is invested in the success of every team member and proactively gives them the tools they need to work. This is the usual expectation with a local team; it’s often only when distance and national borders are in play that this blind spot develops
Another reason this worst-case scenario doesn’t happen with local teams (as often, at least) is that most companies understand that even overseers need oversight. When presented with an underperforming team, most companies are going to look at the team’s manager first, asking what they are doing to ensure the team’s performance and making sure their role (which is arguably the most important) isn’t being neglected.
This calls back to a more fundamental problem we might think of as “viewing differences as differentiators”. People have a natural tendency to separate things into categories; in a lot of situations this isn’t bad, but when something like geographic location is involved it calls for a lot of care. Where it causes different teams to get different levels of attention in ways that affect their work, it’s a risk best avoided.
The partial solution to this problem for Clipboard Health was early on deciding to very deliberately make sure there were no differences in terms of hierarchy or expectations between foreign teams and local teams. In fact, wherever possible we try not to have “foreign” or “local” teams at all. As a remote-first company, we are able to make sure those lines don’t exist in the first place - a US-based software engineer is going to be working on a team composed of members who are all selected based on who they are, as opposed to where they are. This helps eliminate some of the possibility of bias and unfair treatment before it even comes into play - all our teams are Clipboard teams, full stop.
I have a bad habit of talking about potential disasters that might stem from a particular bad habit or behavior a company has developed, but there are a lot of upsides to talk about here as well. As much as there is to lose from treating non-local team members differently where it’s not necessary, the fact that this bad behavior is pretty common means there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to be had in terms of good that can come from treating them well.
One of our team members that I talked with before writing this article is an absolute beast in terms of producing a lot of great, high-quality output. Everybody knows who he is in the company and likes him. I was asking him about differences between our company and others he’s worked at, and he was really quick to say we have a “homey” feel; basically, other places he’d worked for had simply given him a list of things to do, and he’d do them and then sit on his hands. He’s the rare person who does good work even when he’s not being watched, but nobody ever got his full output before. Giving him a full seat at the table was all it took for him to take off and fly.
The manager I’ve mentioned previously in this article told me that because you-are-not-team-members-really behavior is so common in some parts of the world, a lot of those people end up treating those jobs as “easier”; they know the oversight isn’t robust and that their efforts might not be recognized, so many of them don’t expend the effort in the first place. We ask more of them; we want them to live up to the same standards we expect from anyone we work with. This creates a misalignment in some cases where we don’t get to keep everyone we hire, but even this is an upside: the people who do stay are pre-sorted for being serious about the job and happy about being acknowledged as equals.
That’s in addition to what I’ve mentioned before; as I’ve said, we get great feedback from these team members. We have very diverse teams that benefit from a lot of different perspectives and styles. We have incredibly talented team members all over the world who we wouldn’t have been able to sign on or keep if we weren’t willing to make them full members of our team.
We don’t want to pretend we have every single issue related to employee relations solved; we know there’s always room for improvement, and we spend time every day trying to find new ways to better serve our coworkers and teammates. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it; we get a tremendous return on our investment in terms of engagement and ownership for every bit of effort we expend. It’s an ongoing process, but one well worth continuing.
Remember: Every job in your company is important, or should be. If you find someone who you trust enough to do your important work, there shouldn’t be any lines drawn between them and other team members for any reason. The benefits here are endless, and all it takes to grasp them is some intentionality about how you approach your workforce. It’s not free, but it’s a tremendous value.
If this article is the kind of thinking you find cool or exciting, we’d love to talk to you. Apply here, and we will be in touch soon!