Most of us are used to working on projects where parts of the team are located in different areas of Australian capital cities. But how do things change when parts of your team are located in different countries or when vendors have teams located overseas? Here are some things to consider when managing projects with overseas teams.

Culture Is Everything

Just like every company has its own unique culture, so do countries. And there can be variations between different team members from the same country, influenced by things like age, region, ethnic origin, gender and religion. Being aware of a country’s culture can help things go more smoothly across the team.
I had a team, based in Sydney, with a number of team members from our software development partner in India, all of whom had relocated from Mumbai to Sydney for the project. The software development team leader had gone back to Mumbai for the regular quarterly meetings with Head Office and his boss from Mumbai came with him when he back to Sydney. This was the boss’s very first trip to Australia.

When the team leader walked into the office on his first morning back in Sydney, the other team members were so happy to see him that they did what Aussies usually do when they are glad to see someone: they heaped abuse on him. They complained that border protection must be non-existent if he was allowed back into the country, asked him how his drug smuggling business was going … you get the idea.

While I thought their comments were funny, the boss was shocked. He asked me if we could step into a meeting room and, once there, profusely apologised for giving us a team lead who was so universally despised by the Sydney-based team. He promised to send the team leader back to Mumbai on the next plane and get us someone else who could get earn the respect of the team.

I was in the difficult position of trying to convince the boss how much the local team members liked the team leader, that their use of humour was a sign of respect. It took some persuading, but I did manage to convince the boss not to replace the team leader with someone else. By the time the boss went back to Mumbai, he had seen how well the team leader was liked and respected but I think he was still a little concerned.

What is funny in one country may not be funny in another. When you have teams that are located in different countries, these kind of cultural misunderstandings can happen at any time. Sometimes these misunderstandings can make you very uncomfortable; sometimes it can be other members of the team that are uncomfortable.

The more you understand how different cultures and value systems work, the more effectively you will be able to work with overseas teams and the more likely that your project will be a success. If you have the opportunity to undertake cultural awareness training, I recommend that you take advantage of it.

Public Holidays

Different countries have different public holidays. Some, like Chinese New Year or Buddha’s Birthday, are at a different time every year, while others, like Grave Sweeping Day and Bonifacio Day, are on the same date every year. I’ve found that the easiest way to keep track is to load the holiday calendars for the relevant countries into your calendar in Outlook. You can find out how to do that here.

There are also regional holidays, like Melbourne Cup Day or Manila Day, which may impact some team members depending on where they are located in that country. These may not be included on country public holiday calendars, so it’s best to ask so everyone can include them in their own diaries.

I have been on teams where it was agreed upfront that attending a meeting when there is a public holiday in your country is left up to each individual to decide. We just managed it as if someone had planned to take a day of leave, which is a pretty normal thing on projects, so that it wasn’t an issue.

The team in the Philippines took off Australian public holidays but worked on Philippines public holidays when everyone else in the Philippines had the day off. For this team, it worked well, but teams on other projects may not want to do that. Always best to ask.

Understanding Australian Slang

When I first moved to Australia, I found that I couldn’t understand about half of what Australians said because of their prolific use of slang and nicknames. Over time, I have not only managed to understand most of it but actually find myself using it as well. But I have lived here a long time.

If you want to learn more about Strine, aka Australian English, this video about Aussie slang and this video about Aussie nicknames.

What Time to Schedule Meetings

Teams in multi-national projects have handled the differences in time zones in a variety of ways. For some teams, if it’s a convenient time in Sydney or Melbourne, then that is when team meetings are scheduled. Sometimes, overseas teams are used to working on Australian Eastern Standard Time, so that it’s not an issue. But if the overseas team doesn’t want to have all the team meetings in the middle of the night to accommodate the team in Australia, here are other options to consider.
Some teams I’ve been on agreed to share the pain equally. They regularly rotate the starting times of meetings so that everyone gets the opportunity to get up in the middle of the night for a team meeting. This takes a bit more logistical oversight, especially for meetings scheduled for times on Monday and Fridays which may fall on Sundays or Saturdays for team members in other countries.
The best option I’ve found is to check with teams in various countries and ask them how they’d like to handle the different time zones. One team I worked with was based in the UK. They liked early starts, especially in summer, because that meant that they could go home early and spend time outside with their kids. So we planned out team meetings for late afternoons in Hong Kong and Singapore, where most of the team was located, to accommodate their preferences. Another team from the Philippines was used to working to Australian business hours and public holidays and were happy to continue to do so.
Another thing to consider is what is considered normal working hours. I worked with a team in Melbourne that was full of early starters so anytime from 8 am onwards was good with them and they usually had left the office by 4 pm. When I worked in Hong Kong, most of the team aren’t in the office before 9.30am but they were still there past 7 pm. Again, it is best to ask if you aren’t sure.
Smart phones and tablets have apps that make it easy to keep track of what time it is in other countries so you can make a quick call to an overseas team member and not worry about waking them (and their family) up in the middle of the night. And you if you want to add international times to your Windows desktop, you can find out how to do that here.

Sharing Files with Other Teams

It is important that everyone on a project has access to the latest version of common working files. It can be very frustrating to spend time and effort getting a file updated only to discover that you weren’t using the latest version.

Some corporate networks have limits on the size of an email attachment, which can make it very difficult to share files with other team members on the same network or with external partners. Even if the default file size is large, not all countries have fast or reliable internet connections and it can take a long time for a file to transfer, provided that the link stays up long enough for the file to load.

It may be a good alternative to use Google Drive or Dropbox or a product like Box, but only if that complies with the information security policies that each of the teams operates under. It is best to ask before setting up a common area for file sharing.

Format of Phone Numbers in Email Signatures
It’s pretty frustrating to try to call someone on your team but you can’t unless you add extra stuff in front of the number in your Contacts list because you are in different country.

In my email signature, I put a +61 in front of my mobile number for easy overseas access. That way it can be easily stored in your contacts list and can be called from anywhere. Also, if you read an email from me on your smart phone and want to discuss it, you can scroll down to my signature and call me from within Australia or from overseas with one tap. If you are not sure about a particular country code, you can find a list here.

Dialling into a Virtual Meeting

While phone calls are good for quick chats, nothing beats being able to see the overseas members of your team. There are a number of video conferencing technologies that enable virtual meeting rooms with the ability for participants to meet face-to-face and share and access each other’s screens from different countries. Sometimes you can join a virtual meeting room by clicking on a link in a meeting invite.

Other times, for example with softphone apps, you join a virtual meeting by dialling a phone number, wait for the call to be answered, the greeting message started and then enter a 12-digit PIN followed by a hash key or pound sign. If this is the case for your meetings, it can be helpful to provide the phone number to be dialled in the invite as a local call to a toll free number (instead of an international call) and the 12-digit PIN followed by the hash key to be entered automatically entered, for example, 1800234567,,123456789012#. Just click or tap on that number and the call is placed. I usually include two pauses, just to be sure.
You can find out how to do that for an iPhone here and for an Android phone here. You can also use this technique to automatically dial extensions.

Also be aware that, in some countries, you cannot make a call to a toll-free number from a mobile phone; you have to use a landline. Those team members who call an international number on their mobiles, because they don’t have access to a landline, will incur additional costs. It is best to check with team members about this at the start of the project.

CAPEX Rules May Be Different

In Australia, the rules around what can be funded for a project by CAPEX funds are pretty clear. But in different countries, there may be different rules.

For example, if you have a project team spread across different cities in Australia, the Australian CAPEX rules will let you capitalise the labour directly involved in building or improving the asset because the work is done in Australia and the final asset being built is delivered in Australia. And there are other activities that are not directly involved in building or improving the asset that cannot be capitalised, for example, staff management, BAU training and software licenses.

But if you have a team with members located in Australia, Singapore and the UK and the asset being built will be delivered in the US, Japan and Hong Kong, the CAPEX rules in Australia, Singapore and the UK may not allow you to capitalise the labour directly involved in building the asset because the resources are not located in the same country as the final asset will be delivered to. This can also have an impact on depreciation as well.

In some instances, external or contractor labour can be charged to CAPEX no matter what country those resources are located in while internal or employee labour cannot be charged to CAPEX if they are located in that country but the final asset is delivered to another country. It can be complicated and change over time, which will have an impact on projects that run for more than a year.

It is best to clarify this at the start of the project if it hasn’t been clearly addressed in the Business Case.