Oct 04, 2016

    Talk is best for global teamwork

    IN TODAY'S globalised world, it is common for people to work in close collaboration with colleagues based in different countries.

    The company I work for, Zendesk, has thousands of staff in 15 cities around the world.

    Starting out, I worked in the San Francisco headquarters but moved to the Singapore office last year.

    I found it relatively easy to continue working well with my United States colleagues as I already knew most of them.

    However, despite this, a few misunderstandings cropped up.

    Those who have never actually met their long-distance co-workers may find working together even harder.

    Such relationships are already complicated without factoring other obstacles such as time differences, cultural clashes, language barriers and technology glitches.

    Here are a few lessons I learnt about having effective long-distance work relationships.


    It is imperative to communicate regularly and clearly.

    It improves understanding of the work project and builds trust among the team.

    Time is valuable, especially when time-zone overlaps are short, so be selective and identify who you must stay in regular contact with.

    Set up weekly meetings with these key co-workers and make sure all attend.

    Have an agenda for each meeting and encourage participants to add to the agenda, so important topics are discussed.

    Whoever suggests the topic should lead the discussion.

    With today's technology, there are different ways to communicate, such as by e-mail, video conferencing, messaging, chat or phone calls.

    The method of communication often depends on the topic to be discussed and the frequency of communication.

    For instance, I prefer video conferencing for scheduled meetings as visual cues are just as important as what is being verbally said.

    It also helps to put a face to a name, and often we need to share presentation slides or view each other's computer screens.

    However, for day-to-day operations, I tend to write e-mails or, if I need to check things quickly, use the phone, messaging or chat apps.

    Although technology helps tremendously, it can result in hiccups.

    Poorly or hastily written e-mails can be misinterpreted.

    It is also easier to ignore or forget instructions given over e-mail or a messaging app, compared with a phone call or face-to-face conversation.

    To avoid such hiccups, constantly follow up. Do not take it personally if instructions are forgotten, as e-mails can get buried unintentionally.

    You can send quick reminders through chat or a call, or bring it up during the next video conference meeting.


    Having colleagues in different time zones means everyone needs to be flexible and willing to work outside regular office hours.

    Work out a few time frames that are good for everyone and get to know who are the early birds and night owls.

    For example, when I talk to my San Francisco colleagues, we usually do so at 7am Singapore time, which is 4pm for them, a day earlier.

    This is because I like to do my calls early, before I head to the office.

    When people from several time zones are involved - for instance, colleagues from the Singapore, US and London offices - then those in at least one time zone will need to sacrifice their usual work hours.

    To be fair, try to rotate this burden among the teams. It is advisable that bosses are made aware that there has been a late night teleconference, and allow the affected staff to come to work later the next day.

    Avoid jargon and colloquialisms in case of possible culture, language and accent differences within the group.

    A written agenda with a short introduction on each topic ensures that everyone is on the same page at the start of the discussion.

    For those who are less vocal, I ask specific and direct questions to make sure I hear their opinions.


    One of the reasons I moved to Singapore was to build the relationship with the team and put myself in the Singapore team's shoes.

    This is because I am heading Zendesk's live chat product and the team developing this product is based in Singapore.

    Although I am due to move back to San Francisco soon, it helps to have interacted in person with my colleagues.

    If you are unable to do an overseas work transfer, it's important to connect physically during major industry events or corporate team-bonding activities.

    All in all, working with colleagues in different geographic locations can be challenging.

    However, by taking a few extra steps to manage the team well, you will be able to achieve your goals together, even while physically apart.

    Shun Chen is the general manager of Chat at Zendesk, a leading cloud-based customer service platform that brings organisations and their customers

    closer together.