5 Challenges of Working Across Countries and Cultures

This post is contributed by Carrie Herrera Niesen, a SPS Featured Blogger.
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As someone who has worked remotely for multiple organizations and with people I still have yet to meet in person, I thought I had this intercontinental office stuff in the bag with my gig at GoAbroad.

Realizing that a huge part of our team is halfway across the world in the Philippines while we’re in Colorado wasn’t daunting in the slightest. (Fun fact: GoAbroad started in the Philippines! The US office in Colorado has only been around for about five years.)

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Working across clocks, cultures, and countries is an interculturalist’s delight. However, despite my eager beaver attitude to learn more about an area of the world I’ve never been, there still are daily challenges in working with a team virtually. Here are five of the most common challenges I’ve faced:

 1. Constant connection.

When our Philippines office starts their day, our US office is ending theirs (and vice versa). It’s common for us to both wake up with full inboxes of emails from the other office about projects and updates.

Part of the challenge is it’s hard to “turn it off” since it’s always a working hour for one of our offices. On the other hand, it’s nice to know that I’ve got some lag time during the day to finish something up before the other office needs it.

2. Remote connection = ongoing mystery.

Thanks to social media and weekly organizational updates, we both have windows into what our respective offices do. Nonetheless, what the other does on a day-to-day basis can seem somewhat mysterious (for those that haven’t been to the other office, of course!).

We know we’re both working hard to move projects along and support one another. However, until we get those cameras in each office a la panda cams for zoos, we’ll always wonder how the other operates.

3. Planning ahead. (Even more ahead than you think.)

Since the Philippines office is a day ahead of our Colorado office, I’m constantly trying to get what they need ahead of time.

Most of the time, it’s nice because I have a cushion during my workday to pass along projects before their day even starts. Other times, their office needs their portion of the project two or three days in advance to ensure it goes out properly on United States time.

An added challenge is that we both have four day work weeks, so that has to be taken into consideration as well. With last minute projects that come up frequently, this one is the toughest challenge I have yet to overcome. One of these days I’ll master what day/time it is over there at any day or hour…

4. Minding the cultural gaps.

This is one that I luckily have the theoretical toolbox to unpack and utilize in my day-to-day work.

While my counterpart in our Philippines office is from Michigan (yay, Midwesterners!), I still work on a close basis with our Filipino staff. Most of the time we work well (getting to know one another through Facebook in Instagram works wonders!), but there are times where US individualism clashes with Filipino collectivism. Add another layer of mostly electronic communication (email and Google Drive), and you miss out on vital subtle cues such as tone, body language, and facial expressions that can make or break interactions.

5. Email…lots and lots of email.

Did I mention the amount of email we exchange back and forth? Both of our offices can get bogged down in the (sometimes lengthy) exchanges that go back and forth via email, as Skype meetings or Google Hangouts aren’t conducive to our opposite working days.

Thankfully, we streamline processes and establish systems (such as a shared doc for questions or biweekly meetings on high priority goals) to help each office work together better. If all else fails with email, someone stays at work late while the other gets up extra early to hop on Skype to clarify tasks, goals, and responsible parties.

There’s no magic solution or secret to working with folks you’ve never met in person.

However, getting to know each other (such as on Facebook or Instagram), asking questions, and connecting on non-work things help improve relationships. Above all else, compassion, patience, and follow-through on projects (and sometimes giving and receiving reminders!) go a long way for intercontinental office productivity and harmony.

I’m continually impressed with how talented and unified our team is to create tools and resources to make meaningful travel endeavors happen for folks all over the world despite our intercontinental challenges.

What challenges have you had in working remotely or with team members in other countries? 

About the Author: Cate Brubaker

Dr. Cate Brubaker is a re-entry/repatriation coach, consultant, and author of the Re-Entry Roadmap creative workbook and the Study Abroad Re-entry Toolkit. Cate has lived in Germany, worked and traveled in 36 countries on four continents, and has helped all kinds of globetrotters successfully navigate global transitions for over 20 years.

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