Conference calls are awkward.
I work in Shanghai as part of a dispersed corporate publications team. All of my colleagues are situated in Continental U.S. With a 12 to 15-hour time difference, I only get to interact with my colleagues a couple of hours a week, slurring my words through the morning conference calls and praying for the caffeine to kick in.
But I, at least, speak English fluently when caffeinated.
Language barrier can make virtual conversations extremely challenging for non-native speakers, because there’s no context. You can’t see their facial expression, body language, or even know who’s doing the talking. Toss in some accents and colloquialisms, sprinkle in some connection issues (thank you #GreatFirewallOfChina), and you have yourselves a nice plate of WTF.
I’ve logged off many conference calls only to be bombarded with questions from my local colleagues about what was actually said on the call. Most of them are too polite or too embarrassed to raise a question when they don’t understand something. They worry that it’s their “bad English” that contributed to the misunderstanding, and asking questions repeatedly would have meant losing face.
I’m tempted to tell them the meeting would’ve been much much worse if we had tried to converse in Mandarin.
English may be the lingua franca of international business, and most of my colleagues in Asia have good working-level English proficiency, but the lack of context can make fast conversations difficult to grasp. Especially if someone is extremely proficient in Corporate English. You know the drill, we must synergize to leverage the bleeding edge and break down the silos and cross-pollinate…
It’s good to be on top of industry trends, and jargon has its place in communication. But please spare your non-native English speaker colleagues the confusion and the TLA’s. Just say three-letter acronym. We’ll all thank you for it.
Research in workplace language barrier has also shown that employees with limited fluency in the company language suffer in their careers, not just because they voice their opinions less in physical/virtual settings, but they fail to make small talk. The disconnect is happening on the personal level. Most professionals can usually converse comfortably in their areas of expertise, but the relationship building happens over brief chats about hobbies and families.
The personal connection is what will prompt a colleague to go the extra mile for you: volunteer for an initiative that’s beyond their scope, (trust you enough to) share honest feedback or insightful local anecdotes, and be understanding if you’re late for a call because you had to drop off the kids at school.
So how else can we make it less painful to work across time zones?
Say good morning/good evening on a call.
Starting a conference call with a bit of small talk makes up for the watercooler moments that happen naturally in “co-located” teams. It also provides your colleagues with some context (as in Vickie hasn’t had her morning coffee yet and will be slurring her words).
Anything that’ll help humanize your colleagues will help you understand his/her work style, share ideas and inspiration, and build trust within the team. Using chat rooms, Slack channels, or Yammer for any group discussion that’s not strictly work related can substitute the water cooler conversations without clogging up everyone’s inbox.
Personal life, and time, should be respected. My team has a wonderful culture of keeping each other informed on errands and general life struggles.
“I’m waiting for a package.”
“It’s the first day of school!”
“My boy has a cold :(”
“I zonked out after putting the baby to sleep #@$%&”
“My dog ran loose!”
I’m very fortunate in that, and I sincerely hope more teams can build this level of trust. Sharing personal disruptions humanizes you and your colleagues, and removes unnecessary guilt. It’s the opposite of the social media highlight reel.
Context, context, context. A dispersed team has no context, no shared environment. So over-share, over-explain and over-preface. When I send an e-mail message, I try to anticipate follow-up questions and do my best to include as many references as possible via links and attachments. Anything to avoid my colleagues having to wait a whole other day before I can explain myself.
My lovely team in Oakland, California designed an origami birthday card for me, complete with everyone’s signature from across 4 time zones. They sent me a pdf file so that I could make it myself in Shanghai (hands down the sweetest, most creative birthday present I’ve ever received). I keep it on my desk, along with photos of my extended team.
Get on top of the timezones
I use World Clock Meeting Planner to gauge the best meeting times across multiple cities.
Some housekeeping rules can also make conference calls more effective and less painful. For example:
Having an agenda, which is good practice for all meetings, period.
Using headsets to avoid ambient noise and echo.
Agree on the standard time zone, say Pacific Time, then everyone else can convert accordingly.
Designate offline hours, so people know their colleagues are not expecting responses 24–7.
Sharing screens and notes during a call, or compile a follow-up e-mail with presentation materials post-call.
No video if your calling in early morning (I can’t be the only one taking calls in my PJ’s?)
Define your tools
Klitmøller and Lauring (2013) defined communication methods between leanmedia, such as e-mails and documents, and rich media, such as video conferencing or in-person meeting. The more complex the message, the richer the medium needs to be to provide everyone with as much context and nuance as possible.
There are plenty of tools for online collaboration: GoToMeeting, Dropbox, Google Docs, Flowdock, Slack, iDoneThis, etc. But agreeing on how the tools are used is just as important as picking one.
Establishing file naming conventions or folder structures so things can be found easily.
Dropbox can be used to share working documents, but final documents should be saved back to a specific folder on the server.
All personal leave/travel should be added to a shared calendar.
Straight forward stand-up meetings can be done via email or iDoneThis.
A discussion or planning session should be scheduled at a time when everyone’s awake, and when folks can reasonably use webcams.
And for the big conversations? Nothing beats having everyone in a room with a big whiteboard.
Meet in real life
Some experts suggest meeting early on, others say meet when you’re half way through a project. I say meet when you have the budget.
And when we can’t meet, I make an effort to stalk my colleagues (gently) on Facebook when I have VPN access. They have cute dogs and babies.