In the past week I’ve done a Skype interview with a contact in Dubai, collaborated on a joint project with colleagues in Boston, and taken part in a virtual meeting with a client in Italy. It’s a simple illustration of just how global our working lives are becoming, whatever type of job we are doing or sector we may work in. Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that UK companies now employ nearly five million people overseas, an increase of 13 per cent from the previous count.

Of course technology has played a major role in breaking down international boundaries and allowing people to work seamlessly across countries and time zones. But there’s no doubt that managing a global workforce also comes with its challenges. Leading a team of people who you see regularly in person is very different to managing the performance of employees who are based in a different country, in a working culture that bears little resemblance to your own and indeed who you may never actually have met in person.

Keeping the lines of communication open and finding ways to maintain people’s motivation and enthusiasm is vital. The latest generation HR software systems are a great tool to help support this. They often come with integral social portals which can do much to help people network with peers, collaborate effectively and feel part of the global ‘family’.

So if you are working with a global team, or planning to expand overseas, how can you make best use of these systems to keep people up-to-date, involved and engaged?

Put faces to names

Being able to put a face to the people you deal with regularly over the phone or email can do much to help build internal relationships and a sense of community. Software systems such as Cezanne HR also include organisational charts which make it easy for employees to understand reporting lines, see how different departments are structured and know where to find the right people to help them with an issue, question or opportunity. It’s a great way to encourage not just global but also cross-functional working and enable employees to quickly find the contacts and information they need.

Share news

Internal social portals can help you replace those all-important water cooler/coffee machine conversations. Encourage employees to use them to post news and views – the latest big contract win, for example, progress on an important project or useful information about a client. It may take time for people to feel comfortable with sharing information. They might be unsure of what they are ‘allowed’ to say or do and fear getting into trouble. Make it clear that you welcome this kind of communication and consider appointing local ‘champions’ who can take the lead and actively encourage their team to participate.

Think global, act local

Make sure the systems you use are just as accessible and useful to your colleagues in Brazil or Singapore as they are to those in the US or UK. Are they able to support multiple languages and currencies, for example? Can terminology be adapted to reflect words and phrases that are commonly used locally? Make sure your HR system can also be set up to accommodate varying bank holiday dates and different ways of managing holiday plans. In Europe, for example, the common approach is to award employees time off on a pro-rata basis, so that they can take holiday at any point during the year, before they have ‘earned’ it. In parts of the US, however, annual leave is ‘accrued’ on a monthly basis, meaning employees cannot take leave until they have built up the appropriate number of days.

Find ways to encourage collaboration

Internal social portals are a great tool to support collaborative working and stimulate innovation. Break down barriers by setting up project teams that bring people from different locations together. Encourage employees to share ideas and suggest new ways of doing things. Make it clear you want people to get out of their departmental silos, build a strong internal network and engage with colleagues they may not directly work with so they can share experiences and learn more about the business.

Have fun together

Don’t make it all about work – you can use your internal social portal to help people build personal relationships with their colleagues too. You may not have the budget to fly everyone in for a global get-together, but why not have the odd ‘virtual coffee break’, where work isn’t on the agenda and it’s just a chance for people to chat and get to know each other. You can also have informal, digital get-togethers to celebrate birthdays, promotions or significant achievements – or maybe launch a competition to see who can come up with the best video clip illustrating what it’s like to work in their location? Be creative and make it easy for people to ‘play’ as well as work together.

One action to take this week: Organise a virtual get-together to help your team get to know each other better.

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Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.