Managing 24/7 global workforces presents a host of new challenges to human resource leaders. Certainly, the complexities of global HR require new strategies for communication and collaboration.
We live in a flattened world. Of course that's old news now, and Thomas L. Friedman's best seller (The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century) is no longer on everyone's must-read list. But as business grows increasingly global in nature, the scope of work for HR executives continues to evolve. What once was a mid-afternoon meeting is just as likely to be a midnight conference call taken at home in your bathrobe.
For companies operating with workforces distributed around the world, such scenarios are becoming increasingly common. They may mirror those of any organization that operates beyond daytime hours, but be compounded by time-zone differences.
It can mean trying to conduct a meeting via satellite on benefit changes with employees halfway around the globe who are normally off-shift at the time. Or it might involve dealing with an industrial accident at 11 p.m. New York time that has just occurred in Kuala Lumpur. In the process, HR leaders face a host of challenges.
"Having team members who are physically dispersed makes knowledge exchange and other forms of collaborative behavior much more difficult," says Tamara Erickson, president of the Concours Institute in Lowell, Mass., and co-author of Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams. "When organizations span multiple international locations, leaders must work much harder and be much more cognizant of taking steps to lay the groundwork for effective collaboration."
Certainly, the complexities of global HR require new strategies for communication and collaboration.
"The old models of 8 to 5 in an office don't fit anymore," says Julie Fasone Holder, corporate vice president of marketing and sales, human resources and public affairs for Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical. "Working across time zones requires creativity."
At Dow, HR managers have learned how to keep tabs on workers around the world from more than a decade of experience in worldwide operations, having adopted a global business structure in 1995 that now includes 43,000 people and production facilities in 40 countries. In the process, the company has found several practices to be successful, not the least of which is a heavy reliance on technology.
In cases where live interaction is seen as a key to communication, managers employ satellite broadcasts. Vice presidents often use global satellite technology to host two versions of the same meeting, one for Western time zones and one for those in Asia. And when time differences could cause inconveniences for some, participants are encouraged to take a flexible approach.
"Eighty-five percent of our employees have laptops that enable them to be in control of when and where they work, and many have IP phones that allow them to use their laptops as telephones," Holder says. "So when the need arises for a 6 a.m. teleconference, they can do it in their PJs at home."
When real-time interaction is not necessary, employees may access streaming videos on an on-demand basis. This allows personnel around the world to view key communications when it is convenient to them. The system is managed by an internal communication resources group, with HR developing content that is relayed using a Diamond TV system.
"Efficient use of technology is critical," Holder says. "Our intranet has become a robust source of information for employees around the globe. When they need information, they know where to find it."
Along with good communications, integration of internal processes and systems is necessary to promote seamless organizational functioning worldwide, according to S. "Paddy" Padmanabhan, executive director of human resources for Tata Consultancy Services in Mumbai, India.
"Separate processes for people dispersed across the globe can be time-consuming for HR personnel," he says. "And they tend to create inefficiencies and adversely affect employee satisfaction."
TCS, which employs more than 100,000 people from 67 nationalities located in more than 47 countries, relies on an internal portal that integrates multiple functions and processes on a single platform that can be accessed by employees worldwide.
The portal combines different applications based on different platforms including enterprise-resource planning, management- information systems, customer-relationship management, employee self-service and HR management.
Padmanabhan says the system is especially helpful in providing information for employees about HR policies and services.
"It has exhaustive information on our global HR policies and is the single window for all HR-related information," he says. "Every policy, process and initiative that impacts TCS employees globally is hosted within this site."
Employees can not only view policies and procedures of interest to them, but can also access personal information such as medical and leave records. In addition, the system helps keep workers informed and involved in companywide initiatives.
During a recent branding exercise dubbed "Experience Certainty," all steps of the campaign were communicated to the company's geographically dispersed employee base through the portal. Along with external ads targeted to customers and the media, a parallel campaign created internal branding and employee awareness.
A highlight was a five-day "ideastorm." During this online event, employees were challenged to suggest innovative ideas on four predefined themes: fun, innovation, delivery and induction. Employees from around the world participated via an online discussion board, and more than 12,000 ideas were posted. All suggestions were evaluated by HR and other managers, and a number are now being implemented.
Technology can also support ongoing interaction between upper management and employees at all levels.
At Neoris, a Miami-based business and IT consulting company with offices in eight countries, a program called "Ask Our Leaders" allows employees to post questions and comments to the managers in charge of national operations in their locations, as well as to the company's CEO.
The corporate communications department follows up on comments and ensures that employees receive an answer from the addressed leaders, according to Jairo Fernandez, chief human capital officer. The company also offers an online "idea box" system through which employees can post suggestions and new ideas. Suggestions that are implemented receive special recognition, and each year, the employee who submits the best idea is awarded a cash prize.
Web-based software for project and resource management can also be useful, especially in keeping track of time differences. For instance, software from Project Insight in Irvine, Calif., connects offices in multiple locations with real-time information. Users may designate the time zones in which different people and resources are located, and then, when they log in, all information is expressed in the user's time zone. This eliminates the need to constantly do mental calculations to convert times to those in other locations. It also helps ensure everyone is on the same schedule, according to Cynthia West, vice president.
"I have heard stories about a team working from a schedule that was two weeks old because the HR manager or project manager opened up the incorrect file, not the most updated file," she says. "This kind of software heads off such problems."
Despite the availability of ever-improving means of communicating over long distances, the value of traditional meetings or other personal interaction should not be overlooked.
"Face-to-face meetings are often needed to foster strong relationships, which we believe are required for the framework of success," says Teri Aulph, director of human resources for North American operations at HP Pelzer Automotive Systems, a supplier of automotive trim and acoustic components based in Troy, Mich.
"In order to leverage the talent and strengths of our organization, we know it takes everyone, and respecting our working relationships is paramount to success-driven performance. Strong organizational agility allows us to know who to go to for sustainable results."
In July 2007, the company held a "global summit" for managers in the German Alps that included a ropes course following a week of meetings.
"It was very challenging physically and we were put onto cross-cultural teams," Aulph says. "This enabled us to work together for a common goal and flattened the playing field, as it was new to almost all of us." She says the event solidified working relationships and helped break cultural barriers.
Provisions for dealing with on-site problems and providing HR services also seem to be important factors.
"For HR support that is bigger than transactional issues, it is important that there is live support available to provide coverage to the time zones within and outside of a region," says Michael Gretczko, a senior manager in Deloitte Consulting's human capital practice in New York. "A model that relies on HR staff in a single or limited location does not scale well to a global organization."
At a minimum, this may mean adjusting working hours in the headquarters location so that at least some HR staff are available for live communication with remote employees, at hours convenient to them.
At TCS, special teams travel to address HR-related issues in remote locations. It's not uncommon for employees of Indian origin to grapple with language barriers and unfamiliarity with local regulations when assigned to another nation, Padmanabhan says.
When a problem occurs, the company sends a team of HR personnel from India who have been trained in the language and customs of the location in question. They then work with local HR professionals in communicating with employees and resolving concerns.
According to Tom McMullen, Chicago-based U.S. reward leader for Hay Group, many companies operating in multiple time zones opt for a management structure with a site leader for a given function who takes care of emergency issues as they arise.
For example, a firm headquartered in the United States might have a research-and-development manager based in St. Louis with direct reports in Venezuela, and also a site manager located there who handles people-related issues.
"These could include safety, medical, operational and weather-related issues," he says. "The site manager is vested with the authority to make decisions within agreed upon parameters, such as when to shut a site down or when to send workers home."
McMullen also notes that, where possible, exposing individual managers firsthand to international operations is helpful. Expatriate assignments can sensitize HR executives and other managers to the issues and challenges of staff working overseas. Along with the obvious opportunity to gain knowledge of a distant location, such assignments can reveal what it's like to be at the receiving end of corporate communications.
He says that in his firm's work with what have been designated as Fortune magazine's "Most Admired Companies," the most successful organizations tend to make regular use of planned international and expatriate assignments.
"Building up this talent pool with international experience better equips these organizations to respond to the demands of the 24-hour organization," he says. (See sidebar.)
Other strategies focus on organizing workers so teams in different locations and different shifts can more readily concentrate efforts on the same goal.
At the most basic level, this might mean something as simple as dispersing the workload involved in after-hours communications, or in identifying solutions that are flexible in meeting needs of both the company and of individual employees.
"For global teams, perhaps everyone takes a turn staying up late versus it always being the folks in Asia," says Penny Stoker, vice president of human resources at AstraZeneca, an international pharmaceutical company with U.S. operations based in Wilmington, Del. "Or it can mean avoiding global meetings on Fridays, since, in the Middle East, this is the weekend, and in Asia, our Friday morning is already their Friday night."
Increasing awareness of this type could be a morale booster for personnel in overseas locations, McMullen believes. He frequently hears complaints from managers about the inconvenient timing of conference calls originating from their U.S headquarters.
"I've heard time and time again from people working in Asia for U.S. companies that they have their day job and their night job," he says. "The night job is participating in the U.S.-led conference calls that invariably happen in the evening, their time."
Holder notes that the need for flexibility might be more important in global operations than in more traditional settings.
"We understand that employees working on global teams may not keep regular office hours," Holder says. She cites the example of a manager who participates in an international call until midnight, who then should not feel obligated to be present at an 8 a.m. meeting the next day. Similarly, an employee who travels overseas and misses weekends with family may want to slip out to pick up his or her children after school and spend some time reconnecting.
"We have to be comfortable with this kind of flexibility and remember to evaluate on results, not face-time," she says.
Also important is the need to take note of the global calendar and respect important dates in other locations. To this end, Dow publishes a global holiday calendar for employees to ensure they are not planning global events on holidays in other parts of the world. Employees routinely check it before planning major meetings and scheduling communications such as the CEO's global broadcasts.
At the same time, more far-ranging approaches involve opportunities for experienced employees to share their insights with workers in remote locations.
At HP Pelzer, a global "team of champions" travels internationally to help implement best-in-class practices for improving efficiency.
"This global team is made up of employees from around the world who come together in smaller teams to target different regions," Aulph says. "They get together periodically to collect data, share information, [discuss] lessons learned and prepare for the next trip. This has been tremendously successful in bringing us closer together."
HR plays an integral role in appointing team members, according to Aulph. Selection is based on assessment of job knowledge, communication skills and implementation abilities, as well as a certain drive for results.
"These employees are functional experts who require little oversight [and] have a strong sense of purpose and strong work ethic," says Aulph. "They have to be able to convert knowledge and historical data into practice and future success, which is a unique skill."
For any organization, Aulph advises HR leaders to learn as much as possible about countries in which employees are located. Not only is this important from a compliance perspective in dealing with varying laws and policies, but in building credibility.
"Working across the top of a global organization requires us to step outside our local workplace," she says. "In addition, building strong relationships across the organization is probably one of the most important initiatives an HR professional can carry out in a global organization. In order to support and influence, you must be seen as a credible partner."
This may require some creative thinking.
"Challenge your old mind-sets constantly," says Holder. "Consciously work to see the world from a non-U.S. perspective. Push yourself to understand the needs of employees around the world, not as an accommodation, but as a true source of innovation and competitive advantage."