Managing teams successfully is challenging! Combine this with managing a remote team in a call centre in India, for example, and the issues become magnified several times over.
Sunit Jilla takes us through how to manage a remote team.
In captive operations where the call centre is an owned entity, there tends to be more control over employees and policy implementation. However, for the outsourced operation, Western managers are often left wondering how to work more productively with the remote team.
Teams are created depending on each member’s area of expertise and often the fact that people have different backgrounds, or even come from different countries, is overlooked.
India is one of the most popular countries in which to set up a call centre – so much so, it has been described as the ‘back office of the world’. However, there are many differences between Western and Asian cultures that may present problems if they are not managed proactively.
Communication is one of the main issues. Although both Western and Asian teams speak English, the use of language can be so different that mis-communication may be the result.
Read between the lines
A Swiss manager recently visited a call centre in India and was surprised at the number of staff in the building. He asked if he could take a photograph. His Indian counterpart said: ‘it is too crowded now’. This was his way of saying ‘no’. Western managers need to learn to read between the lines of the subtle and indirect use of language in Asian cultures.
Be careful of the word ‘yes’
The word ‘yes’ can also be misunderstood. If you ask an Indian employee ‘can you complete this report by tomorrow?’ they will usually say ‘yes’. However, in reality, ‘yes’ can mean: ‘I hear you’ or ‘maybe’.
In addition, the importance placed by Asian society on hierarchy means that the employee will not want to lose face in front of their boss and so may appear to agree to complete the report. When it is not complete, the Western manager understandably feels frustrated. But what of the view of the employee?
In fact, the employee will feel frustrated and unsupported as they were not asked additional questions, such as: Do you have the resources to prepare the report by tomorrow? Do you have the report template? Do you have the licensed software to run the report? The level of micro-management needs to be much higher to ensure successful delivery of any task. One way to achieve this is to learn how an Asian manager would work with their staff.
Call centre work is often a stop-gap role
Staff motivation is also an issue which should be addressed proactively. For many people in Asian cultures, working in a call centre may be a stop-gap role. Staff don’t necessarily aspire to be a call centre employee and the attrition rate is high. Western managers need to take the time to learn how other cultures are motivated to help resolve this issue.
In India, a sense of belonging is very important. The work environment is seen as a natural extension of the family and camaraderie is a key motivating factor. Simple ideas like remembering employees’ birthdays and wedding anniversaries will create significant goodwill within the work force.
Little gifts go a long way
Working with front-line managers, taking them into your confidence and having regular contact with employees will permeate positive messages throughout the organisation. Simple actions like giving each employee a token gift during Diwali the Indian festival of lights will have a big impact.
Don’t assume a flat heirarchy
The typical management style of Western countries assumes a flat structure where everyone generally has the same level of respect. This is less likely to apply in Asia, however. Hierarchical societies in most Asian countries are deferential towards elders and seniors and this needs be taken into account when managing teams.
Segregated travel for women
There are also different attitudes towards gender. Seven million people in Mumbai travel by train each day. There are seven all-women trains and in each of the other trains two carriages are reserved for women only. Organisations in India are expected to ensure that women who work late are dropped home by a company vehicle with a security guard. As women form a significant part of the workforce it is necessary to understand their role in society and keep informed about the laws that have been designed to protect them.
Time-keeping is viewed in a different way
Different attitudes towards time-keeping may also need some attention. Time is viewed in a different way and is not always a priority in Asia where building good relationships is highly valued. Recently, a training workshop was arranged for an Indian–British outsourcing partnership. The British company had planned the schedule meticulously down to the last detail but the Indian team announced that they would be arriving one week later than planned. On arrival, when questioned about the delay, the Indian team manager told their British colleagues ‘we came late only by a week not a month!’
Beyond staff management and communication, there are other cultural aspects that may present hidden financial costs in outsourcing call centre operations to India.
Branding is very important
In India, brands are incredibly important – if you have no brand presence then it will be difficult to recruit staff. A major UK high-street bank has been sponsoring airport baggage trolleys and prominently advertising posters on bus shelters to help build brand presence and hence be able to recruit from a wider pool of staff.
Plan for business continuity
Business continuity can also be a challenge. As an illustration of this, in 2006 a film star died suddenly, effectively bringing the city of Bangalore to a commercial stand-still for two days. There are many events which may happen that are beyond a company’s control. To counter this, many large firms replicate operations in other cities to ensure service continuity is maintained.
By having an awareness of cultural differences and managing these with sensitivity, most of the challenges of managing a team remotely should be alleviated. However, it is important not to blame all of these difficulties on cultural differences alone, when a poor strategic approach may well be the underlying cause.
Sunit Jilla is a Senior Consultant with Farnham Castle International Briefing & Conference Centre.
They specialise in cross-cultural management development programmes and international assignment briefings. For further information visit www.farnhamcastle.com or call 01252 721194.