Working With a Distributed Team

Wordsmithie works internationally, which also means we’re much more widely scattered than many agencies our size. We have ’smithies not only all across the United States, but also in Europe (Madrid) and Asia (Singapore). We routinely collaborate on projects that have us talking and collaborating with people all across the globe—from Norway to New Zealand, India to Israel. A conference call between three distant countries isn’t unusual … and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Succeeding with a far-flung operation like ours, though, takes some practice. Here are some tips that we’ve found useful:

Know what time it is … everywhere. This is a simple rule, but one that’s easily overlooked. When setting up a video or conference call, keep in mind the local time in each location. If you can, schedule the meeting so that everybody can participate during normal working hours. If that’s not possible—and sometimes it isn’t—ask what works best for everyone. Is an early call better, or one after normal business hours? And if someone prefers making an off-hours call from home, that’s perfectly okay. Everyone will understand if a dog barks, a child laughs or a cat suddenly strolls in front of the camera. (I’ll mention no names, but we’re on a first-name basis with two particular felines in Silicon Valley.)

Check the calendar. When working with people from different countries and cultures, it helps to keep informed on local holidays. You don’t want to face an approaching deadline, only to discover that a key player is unavailable because of a religious festival or a bank holiday. You can’t know every special day, everywhere. But if timing is important to your project (and it usually is), ask all your international partners during the kickoff meeting whether there is a holiday or event you should keep in mind.

Plan for the audio. If you’re conducting a workshop or an interview—for a case study or white paper, for example—you might be recording the discussion. A system that lets you record automatically works best. At Wordsmithie, we often choose the phone over video, because the sound quality is often better and easier to transcribe. You don’t necessarily need to see the people you’re talking to, but you always need to hear them clearly. Also, ask for permission if you plan to record a session. (Our system makes an automated announcement when it begins recording.) It’s simple courtesy, and often a legal requirement, too.

Make sure you understand. As in many American workplaces, here at Wordsmithie we hold most of our overseas conversations in English. Admittedly, this makes our jobs easier, while putting an unfair burden on overseas partners and clients. I often marvel, in fact, at how fluently many people speak the language. My own high-school Spanish is poor, and my university German is mostly kaput. Bravo, our partners.

Occasionally, though, a strong accent can make understanding someone difficult. This is especially true when communicating by phone or videoconference. The only real remedy is to ask the speaker to repeat the lost phrase or sentence. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure that I understood you correctly. Can you go over that again, please?” The person will naturally want to be understood, and probably will be glad to repeat or rephrase the comment. And, if necessary, you can always follow up later by email.

Keep these tips in mind, and bridging the gap between you and your international team members can be simple and rewarding—no matter how great the distance.

ABOUT Jim Leeke

Widely experienced in journalism, marketing communications and advertising, Jim has worked with top creative agencies to deliver print, Internet and interactive projects to Fortune 500 companies. His expertise ranges from technology and healthcare/pharmaceuticals to defense and veterans issues. Jim is also the author/editor of six books, writing extensively on the Civil War and baseball. In addition to his Wordsmithie role, Jim is Co-founder and Creative Director of Taillight Communications.