The last several years have turned the conventions of modern work upside down. From the remote work revolution to once-in-a-generation technological leaps, many leaders have struggled to keep up with this high-speed change—especially if they manage global teams.
I know these challenges firsthand. When I started my company 17 years ago, it was just me and a laptop. Now, we have seven offices around the world. And we’re not alone: Global teams have become the norm in the tech industry and beyond.
One survey by Remote found that 66% of IT leaders in the U.S. and U.K. plan to give their employees more options for flexible work. And these leaders predicted that more than a third of roles will be located overseas within five years. Why? A global workforce is good for business. The diversity of international teams can boost innovation and creativity even when you’re not in the same space.
As Forrester’s James McQuivey explains, “there’s good evidence that the dynamics of remote collaboration can actually encourage faster idea generation and more inclusive representation of voices that might feel intimidated to raise their points in an in-person environment.”
Rapid change is the new business reality. That’s why leaders need long-term strategies to effectively manage remote and global teams. Here’s what I recommend:
Reinforce your shared mission
Alignment is essential when employees work in different locations. Even if your Austin team runs marketing and the Tel Aviv office handles development, everyone should have the same core mission and it’s your job to emphasize that purpose.
According to Tsedal Neeley, an author and associate dean of faculty and research at Harvard Business School, leaders need to convey three things to their employees: “who we are, what we do, and I am there for you.” These messages solidify organizational identity, while reassuring global teams that they’re seen and supported.
“It’s important to remind team members that they share a common purpose and to direct their energy toward business-unit or corporate goals,” writes Neeley in Harvard Business Review. “The leader should periodically highlight how everyone’s work fits into the company’s overall strategy and advances its position in the market.”
Whether you have a fast-growing organization or your teams have been unchanged for years, I’ve found that you simply can’t repeat these messages too often. There’s no such thing as over-alignment.
Cultivate emotional connections
Employees crave more from their jobs than a paycheck. Work can also be a place for self-actualization and relationship-building. Camaraderie may enhance performance, but most importantly, it just feels good. I agree with Gallup’s Annamarie Mann when she encourages organizations to promote “a culture of friendship and inclusion.” Great employers should foster an atmosphere where meaningful connections can develop and thrive.
At my company, everyone works in small, cross-functional teams, which can also deepen relationships. For example, a product team might include a designer, developer, UX pro, and a content strategist. These combinations strengthen connections among individuals and different business units.
What about parties, virtual team-building, and the monthly parade of birthday cupcakes? Forced office “fun” doesn’t always translate for global teams and is often flawed in the first place. “The thing about fun is that it generally comes about naturally,” writes Pema Bakshi for Refinery29. “When workplaces allow for the freedom to joke around or for playfulness to flourish on its own, the impacts of organic bonding far overpower any manufactured kind.”
The best way to know what your teams actually enjoy is simply to ask. Solicit ideas and post-event feedback with anonymous surveys. Employee-led activities, such as international book or film clubs and just-for-fun Slack channels, can also provide low-stress bonding opportunities for teams that can’t attend a happy hour or pickup basketball game at company HQ (one of the highlights of my week).
Overcommunicate work practices
Employees who inhabit the same office often learn each other’s habits naturally over time. They know who checks email twice a day and who prefers to receive requests by text or chat. When these practices aren’t obvious to global team members, misunderstandings and petty grievances can grow unchecked.
Encourage your teams to highlight their time zone and working hours in an email signature, or pin these details to a messaging profile. HR should also maintain an accessible calendar that includes all national and team holidays. Not only will this resource prevent a lot of head-scratching when one office is suddenly offline, it promotes an atmosphere of transparency where people feel comfortable asking about work, team, and even cultural practices.
Be creative with asynchronous communication
Email and chat apps enable collaboration across time zones, but I encourage leaders to find additional ways to connect. Our company holds weekly demo days that often feature prerecorded presentations from teams that can’t attend the live event or virtual stream. You can also use audio and video to celebrate achievements and share company milestones.
Ultimately, digital tools should enhance human connections, not replace them. Demonstrate inclusion by striving to incorporate everyone in pivotal events, decisions, and experiences. Whether you develop a multimedia email newsletter or build an online forum to gather cross-company feedback, these efforts make it easier for remote workers to stay engaged.
Get together IRL when possible
Video calls are indispensable for remote workers, yet nothing beats face-to-face rapport. “In-person meetings provide a sense of intimacy, connection and empathy that is difficult to replicate via video,” corporate trainer Paul Extell tells The Washington Post. “It’s much easier to ask for attentive listening and presence, which creates the psychological safety that people need to sense in order to engage and participate fully.”
Once a year, we gather employees from every corner of the world for a live event. For teams that have only interacted online, meeting the person behind the pixels can be surprisingly powerful; it’s like adding color and shade to a line drawing. The bonds employees form during these sessions can endure for months and even years—and they become invaluable during times of challenge and change, which, as leaders know, is pretty much all the time.