Thomas Friedman was onto something when he wrote his book, The World is Flat. Companies increasingly feel the need to expand their reach into new markets—both domestically and internationally—from a very early age.
One direct result of this expansion is that you may now be forced to manage multiple locations and oversee employees in distant offices—a fact that can cause quite a few challenges and headaches, says Eric Bloom, president of Manager Mechanics, a management-training firm based in Ashland, Massachusetts.
"No matter how widespread your organization becomes, you need to work hard to retain team cohesion and the philosophy that everyone is on the same team regardless of where they work," he says.
Managing Multiple Locations: 6 Challenges
1. Out-of-site-out-of-mind syndrome. When things get busy at your primary location, it can be hard to give your employees based at other locations the time they deserve.
2. Loss of spontaneous communications. Because you do not see your employees in the hallway or at meetings, there is very little natural or unplanned communication.
3. Attenuated logistics. Anything that cannot be sent electronically, must be mailed, which causes time delays and increased effort.
4. Complicated work assignments. It is harder to perform certain types of jobs or collaborate on them when employees are based in remote locations
5. Lack of team cohesiveness. Your team members will not know each other as well. This can easily lead to an "us-versus-them" mentality.
6. Concerns over general supervision. If you have a remote office that clients visit, it's virtually impossible to see if your employees are arriving on time, working appropriate business hours or wearing proper business attire.
To tackle these and other challenges, then, organizational leaders need to focus on three key areas: systems, technology, and communication.
Managing Multiple Locations: Put Systems in Place
The old adage is that systems run businesses, and people run systems. "You must have systems in place to be able to standardize the quality of your communications, products and results," says Bert Martinez, founder of Bert Martinez Communications, a business training and communications company with multiple locations. "Systems will allow you to duplicate offices and grow faster with reduce training times and supervision."
The key is to establish clear responsibilities, boundaries, and authority, says Ann Latham, president of Uncommon Clarity, an organizational-behavior consulting firm in Easthampton, Massachusetts. "Vague responsibilities create the proverbial cracks into which everything drops," she says. Muddy boundaries create disasters ranging from personnel problems to legal ones while insufficient authority can become a source of delay and demotivation. "An employee with everything needed to exercise good judgment except either the authority or sense of responsibility to do so is worth little," says Lantham.
The point, then, is to make each employee's responsibilities clear through an organizational structure combined with a system that measures each and every employee, and holds everyone accountable for delivering on their work responsibilities regardless of where they are based.
Managing Multiple Locations: Adopt New Technology
With the advent of the Internet, and the prolific surge in the number of collaborative tools that have spawned from it, technology has become an integral part of the backbone for any far-flung organization, says Bloom, particularly because it can help your organization cut down on business travel expenses.
While many organizations rely on custom-built software platforms and intranets as collaborative platforms, some of the most commonly-used tools by small businesses in particular are also either free, cheap or available as a software-as-a-service, which means you can access these tools over the web for a monthly fee. Some of the best and cost-effective options include:
• Google Documents, Gmail and Calendar for internal training and communication.
• Basecamp: An popular project management tool.
• Facebook : The now ubiquitous social networking tool is just as useful for business as it is for personal applications.
• Skype: The surge in VOIP technology and software means that you can communicate with remote employees cheaply and effectively.
• Salesforce.com: One of the most popular tools around, Salesforce.com allows remote sales team to collaborate in real-time on maintaining your company's sales pipeline.
A new wrinkle in terms of technology is that many firms have begun to equip all of their employees with smart phones such as the iPhone as a way to enable them to access any web-based technology regardless of where they are, including many new applications.
Managing Multiple Locations: Focus on Communication
Systems are a must, technology is important tool however, none of these will work with out real communication, says Martinez. "Communication is the key to collaboration with your offices, coworkers, and clients," he says. If you neglect this aspect of running your business, you do so at your own risk, particularly in a business with multiple locations. That's why Martinez also makes having his employees have time face-to-face a priority by having his offices take turns hosting each other once a year to enable communication between people on all levels.
Other tips for fostering communication between your employees based in the office and elsewhere include:
1. Establish full team weekly staff meetings via phone or webinar to get your whole group together.
2. If possible, have web cams so your team members can see each other.
3. Make each physical site responsible for a specific type of work, rather then assign random tasks associated with a central project.
4. When doable, have the CEO or management members personally visit each remote site on a scheduled basis, every month, for instance.
5. Establish weekly phone-based staff meetings individually with each remote group so that each physical location will get time with top management.
6. If possible, get your whole group together once or twice a year for staff meetings, brainstorming and team building.
Managing Multiple Locations: The Global Workforce
Managing multiple locations across the U.S. is hard enough. But when you add a new sales office or manufacturing plant overseas, says Bloom, you can actually run into a host of new challenges associated with cross-cultural communication that include:
1. Time zones. There is limited or no overlap in the standard workday.
2. Language. Even if everyone has a common language, English for example, differences in accents, language fluency, and the use of slang expressions can make communication extremely difficult, particularly on conference calls and speakerphones.
3. Social norms. Cultural differences from country to country can accidentally cause tension, embarrassment, and miscommunication.
3. Holiday schedules. Scheduled meetings, reporting deadlines, cash flows and standard business processes can be derailed or delayed based on local holiday schedules.
4. Technical connectivity. Not all countries have high-speed connectivity at all locations.
5. Labor laws. Laws regarding hiring, employee termination, hours worked, layoffs, sexual harassment differ from country to country.
6. Business-related laws, ethics, and practices. Business is conducted very differently from country to country.
7. Personal-privacy laws. In European Union member states, the laws regarding the personal use, storage, and transport of personal information are quite stringent compared with those in the U.S.
Managing Multiple Locations: Adapting to Different Cultures
Bloom suggests tackling these challenges by considering the following tips:
1. Find one key contact in each country that is very knowledgeable in local customs, business practices, and laws.
2. Learn to pronounce people's names correctly.
3. Gain a basic understanding of country politics and current events.
4. Know the names of your managers and leaders in those countries and pronounce their names correctly.
5. Find ways to take advantage of the time zone differences.
6. Be respectful of the differences between people and cultures.
The bottom line in managing multiple locations, says Martinez, is to help make everyone in your company feel motivated and part of the team, regardless of where they do their work. "When your people feel good and that they matter, they will perform better," he says.
Managing Multiple Locations: Additional Resources
Corporate Agility: A Revolutionary New Model for Competing in a Flat World, by Charles Grantham, James P. Ware and Cory Williamson (AMACOM, 2007.) This book will show you how to get your company to embrace new technology, understand the ever-changing workforce, and rethink the way you structure work environments to deal with the global economy.
Competing in a Flat World: Building Enterprises for a Borderless World, by Victor K. Fung, William K. Fung and Yoram (Jerry) Wind (Wharton School Publishing, 2007.) A book filled with solid tips to create a flexible organization capable of competing anywhere.
The Facility Management Handbook, by David G. Cotts Kathy O. Roper and Richard P. Payant (AMACOM, 2009.)
A great reference guide for understanding and implementing best practices for the modern workplace.
DARREN DAHL is a contributing editor at Inc. Magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, NC.