We founded TopLine in 2008, and despite the challenges posed by starting a PR company in the midst of the worst financial crash in decades, we managed to make a success of it. Seven years later, we’d grown to a respectable size, diversified our offering and had a solid client base to work with. The time felt right, both personally and professionally to expand the business, and as a South African ex-pat in London it made sense to open a second office in Cape Town. So, in the latter half of 2015 we went ahead and bit the bullet.
As you’d expect, some things were difficult to manage, but mainly just time-consuming, like finding offices and sorting out bank accounts and taxes. By far the hardest thing, which we didn’t anticipate at all, was how challenging it would be to maintain the company culture and keep the South African team feeling integrated with the London head office.
The lessons we’ve learnt in the past year apply to any two locations in the world, not just our London–Cape Town relationship. We’d like to share a few of these with you.
Internet reigns supreme
First and foremost, don’t underestimate the importance of a good internet connection. Skype needs one. Meeting new people via Skype (and even chatting in general) can be awkward at the best of times. A jittery connection is the last thing a new hire, probably already feeling a little nervous and disconnected, needs.
Also, if all your data and company files are on a cloud server, which nowadays is pretty likely, and people can’t access and work on them, then what’s the point?
Bear in mind that things that have become second nature to you, having founded and run the business for years, will be anything but for new members of the team. Any new job involves taking on a lot of information in the first couple of weeks, and this will only be made harder when you’re not in the same building as most of your colleagues – let alone half a planet away. A comprehensive manual outlining everything about the company, from company culture pointers to file naming conventions, is a good place to start.
Provide new-starters with an in-depth schedule for their first week. Depending on their experience and skill level it can also help to plan out their work days for the first few weeks. Regular check-ins with them, as well as between them and the rest of the team will help ensure that your employee is handling everything OK and on the right track. Plus, it allows them the opportunity to ask questions and voice any concerns they may have.
About 55% of communication is non-verbal, and consists of facial expressions, body language and inflection. Long distance communication pretty much removes all of these elements and makes it incredibly easy for meaning to be misunderstood. A simple misunderstanding, easily fixed when in the same room, can escalate into something massive (and completely unnecessary) if you’re not, and so needs to be avoided as much as possible.
Language means different things in different countries and something considered normal in one culture could be considered rude in another. South Africans say ‘just now’ a lot; in the UK that would be interpreted quite literally, the South African meaning is a lot looser, what it means in real time is anyone’s guess. Business communications in the UK can be quite direct and to the point. It’s not a personal thing, but it took our team in South Africa a while to understand this.
Working with people around the globe offers so much room to learn and grow, both as an individual but also as a business. It can be challenging, but also incredibly rewarding and very fun. If you allow for mistakes and appreciate that we’re all humans after all, it will certainly be worthwhile.