The Importance of Communication in Offshoring
Aligning your offshore team with your company’s culture, objectives, and processes
When you decide to go offshore, your success as a business will depend entirely on communication.
This cannot be stressed enough.
Many businesses that try offshoring struggle to reap the rewards – not because offshoring is hard, but because they haven’t properly considered the roles of communication and culture in achieving success and savings.
In this article, we’ll go through step-by-step just how important communication is when it comes to managing an offshore team and show you how you can implement the right changes to optimise your processes.
The topics we’ll cover are:
- communication strategies
- workplace culture
- process alignment
What is the importance of communication, workplace culture and process alignment in offshoring?
First off, what do we mean when we talk about communication in the workplace? In a traditional office, employees can physically talk to each other and managers can see what staff are up to. These days, more and more people are working from home, and that means we’ve become used to communicating using channels like Slack, email, task management software and instant messaging.
It’s important to recognise that email and Slack are communication tools. They are not magic bullets. They are not strategies or policies. They only work as well as the people using them – that’s why it’s important to understand how and why you communicate with and between each other.
Workplace culture is something that many business owners never consider at all.
Sure, some businesses will have a pingpong table or Friday night drinks and think – yes, great, I’ve established comfortable workplace culture.
But culture is much more than a staff weekend retreat or an employee of the month scheme. Culture is about what your business stands for. It’s about your values and what you’re all working towards. It’s why your staff turn up every day – and it’s why they’ll stay with the company.
When you look at it that way, you can see that working on culture deserves more than just a couple of drinks once a week.
Finally, process alignment is making sure you get your business objectives to synchronise with the values, strategies and strengths of your staff and company.
The strategies you need to communicate with an offshore team
Communicating with an offshore team is very different to communicating with your local staff. You’ll be relying almost entirely on electronic communication and voice or video calls. You’ll also be dealing with people who come from a different culture and you have to take that into account.
Having said that, some things are the same. You need to set expectations, be explicit with your instructions and be clear about response times. These are non-negotiables and if they’re not already part of your current internal communication strategy, they should be!
Every time you speak with an offshore team member, be clear about the purpose of your communication. Are you delegating a task? Checking in on their progress? Or just having a catch-up? If you don’t know what to expect from your call, then neither will they!
An easy way to start every conversation on the same page is to be very precise before you start. Send a message that says, “Let’s have a chat about the number of sales calls you to need to do this week.” Yes, really be that specific. That way, you are both prepared. If you say, “Can we chat in 5 mins?” then your staff member won’t know if you’ll be talking about sales, an email they just sent, or even their employment status!
Remember, while offshore staff usually have excellent English skills, it’s not their native language. Being absolutely precise gives them a heads up so that they know what the conversation is going to be about.
When you’re giving instructions to an offshore team, make sure you are very detailed. Feel free to overcommunicate and break down tasks into as many smaller tasks as possible.
And that’s where your tools come in. If you’re not already using Trello, Asana or some other task management system, you need to start ASAP. Spreadsheets and emails are not enough. When you use a task management system, it allows everybody to see exactly where each task is at, who is responsible and what the deadlines are. It gives you both an eagle-eyed view as well as drills down into every tiny part of the task.
Developing culture with an offshore team
Developing culture with an offshore team can be a lot harder because you’re all in separate locations. But if you have already worked on your communication, you’re halfway there!
As we said in the introduction, developing culture isn’t just about having regular drinks or games nights (although they can be important too). It’s also about regularly checking in with your staff in a genuine way. Ask them questions about what they’re working on, what they like and what they think should change. Celebrate birthdays and other personal milestones. And ALWAYS celebrate professional milestones – whether that’s landing an important new client or upgrading part of your website.
When working with Filipino staff, remember that they are generally fairly religious and most are Catholic. Things like baptisms are important, but they may not always tell you about them. Don’t be afraid to ask personal questions, like, “How is your family? Anything special coming up?” While it’s generally not polite to ask these questions of Australian or US staff, Filipinos will appreciate your interest.
Process alignment with an offshore team
The number one reason companies fail at offshoring is because they don’t have enough processes in place. The second reason is that they haven’t aligned those processes with the strengths and values of the business and the team!
In simple terms, a process is how you get from an idea to fulfilling that idea.
“I want more clients” is an idea.
“These are the 12 steps I will take to find and onboard a new client” is the start of a process.
This process shouldn’t be written on a sticky note somewhere. It needs to be documented in a central location where all relevant staff can access it. Ideally, every process will be a series of tasks in your task management system.
So processes are fairly straightforward. How do you get them to align with your offshore team?
Processes need to be both firms but also flexible. You need to observe how processes are actually carried out and identify any bottlenecks or breakdowns. Let’s say you have a process to call 10 clients every Monday morning by 9 am, but your staff consistently fail to meet their targets on time. You need to talk to them and find out why. Maybe there is a health and safety meeting every Monday morning in their building that they haven’t told you about. Maybe the public transport is worse on Mondays and staff struggle to get in on time. Find out why the process isn’t working and adapt it.
How does communication, culture and process alignment impact your company?
It should be obvious by now that these three areas deserve your full attention when you decide to go offshore. If you fail to communicate well with your offshore team, you will fail at offshoring. If you fail to understand Filipino culture and if you fail to develop a unified culture between your offshore and local staff, you’ll fail at offshoring. If you fail to develop and adapt your processes, you’ll fail.
Offshoring can save you a lot of money in your back office and other tasks – but it can end up being a costly experiment if you don’t go into it with the right attitude and the right ideas around communication.
What are the challenges?
Some common challenges that foreign companies have when they move part of their operations offshore are industry terms, cultural differences, and language barriers. All of these can be avoided with – you guessed it – good communication and processes. You also need to do some research and understand the cultures that you’re working with. You can’t expect understanding to go one way only; you have to do the hard work yourself, as well.
Whatever industry you work in probably has its own terms and language. Naturally, you’ll need to train staff to understand any new lingo that they haven’t encountered before. But you also need to think about terms that you consider ‘common knowledge’ but which may be completely different elsewhere.
For example, in English we shorten ‘refrigerator’ to ‘fridge’; in the Philippines, it becomes ‘ref’. While most Filipinos will understand ‘fridge’ without any issues, they may not understand you if you say something like “I’ll need to be the ref on this one” (in the sense of ‘referee’).
In his book The Efficient $100-a-week Worker, Mike O’Hagan has this example:
“I honestly didn’t think they had ‘holiday pay’ in the Philippines. It was only after someone mentioned ‘vacation leave’ that I realised the differences that can trip us up.”
As well as ‘common’ terms, there may be different names for titles, tasks or jobs. It’s your priority as a manager to understand those differences and make sure you are understood.
Another challenge for Westerners working with Filipinos is the yes/no (or saving face) problem. This presents itself in two ways.
1. If a Filipino doesn’t quite understand what you are saying, they will answer ‘yes’ so that they don’t disappoint you.
2. If you ask a Filipino for something and they don’t know what it is, they will say, “we don’t have any of those.” This is as true in a supermarket as it is dealing with HR.
Mike’s tips for getting around this problem is, firstly, to never ask questions that can be answered with yes or no. Secondly, whenever you hear ‘no stock’ or ‘we don’t have that’, change the way you’re asking your question.
From Mike again:
“What you call a particular role will often have a different title in the Philippines. The problem is that, more often than not, they won’t be aware of the difference and simply say ‘no, we don’t have those here”.
So do your research and find out what terms they use. Once you explain what you mean when you use certain phrases, Filipinos will very quickly adapt. But you have to do the teaching, first.
Are you ready to go offshore?
There’s no denying that moving part or all of your operations offshore is a game-changer; but it also requires a lot of preparation and planning, especially around communication. How you communicate with your offshore team is absolutely critical to whether or not you succeed. Once you’ve chosen your offshore location, research as much as you can about the people and culture and proactively find ways to align those with your company’s culture. Do your homework now and you’ll definitely reap the rewards.