Best Practices

Working Across Countries and Cultures: Collaboration Tips and Tricks for Designers

More and more companies are becoming remote and international. Here's how to to maximize collaboration across cultures.

Angela Ng
/
August 1, 2018

I currently work with a team of designers, located in California, Poland and Ukraine. There are many benefits that come from having designers in two different places. For example, my designer teammates in Poland are able to perform usability research on people from Europe more readily than the designers in California can. This is an advantage because Egnyte has a diverse and international customer base. Working across these different countries provides us all with a more open perspective.

Benefits are often accompanied by obstacles and collaborating across the globe may pose some challenges. Drawing from my personal experience, I’ve got some advice on how to mitigate these hurdles:

#1 - Dealing with different time zones

This is one of the most common and difficult challenges when working across different countries. The time difference can range from just a few hours to a complete swap of day and night hours. This heavily impacts the flow of how you work together with your team as it affects meetings, response times, and communication efficiency.

Space out the times you allot for email correspondence.

Depending on your time difference, you may wake up to full inboxes or go to sleep with your email blowing up. This can cause stress as you have to deal with many questions at one time. Organize your inbox to bundle or tag related emails. This way you can bucket different topics you are a part of and focus on one at a time. You may also get messages at inconvenient times during the day and night which can impact your work life balance. Set up your notifications so you get notified for high priority emails but not for emails that can wait until later.

Plan ahead.

For example, if you want feedback on design iterations, send them out earlier than you think you should. Take into account the time difference and note that this equates to delayed response time. The time difference between our two teams is 8 hours, so we have at least that amount of time before we receive any response from our Polish teammates. In the case that you are unable to plan ahead, prioritize things so team members understand what they should be focusing on first. In my team’s case, we sometimes work with strict deadlines on a project or feature basis so the designer will explicitly tell us when something should be prioritized first.

Utilize your waiting time effectively.

There can be a lot of down time when you’re waiting to hear back from a teammate. Don’t let this slow you down. Spend this time wisely by moving forward with other projects you’re working on or injecting some additional user research that doesn’t depend on what you’re waiting on. For example, if you are waiting for feedback on new design iterations, that doesn’t mean you have to stop thinking about the problem. Continue to iterate and brainstorm during this time. You can incorporate feedback gathered later into new design iterations.

Discuss and agree on how you can still work effectively together.

It's important to discuss and agree on how you can still work effectively together, especially if your team does not have many overlapping working hours. My team works primarily through email and Google Drive for more involved feedback and ping each other on Slack for quick questions and comments. We try to limit the amount of facetime required because of the time difference, but we are also adaptable enough to meet when it’s urgent.

‍Time zone map from timeanddate.com

#2 - Figuring out meeting logistics

Organizing meetings across different time zones can be a hassle. The time difference could be so large that few hours work equally for everyone. Compromises will need to be made.

Set your calendar up to show all the necessary time zones.

Google Calendar has a setting to help with this. You can do it the old-fashioned way too and print out a time zone converter sheet.

Time zone setting in Google Calendar
  • Be flexible: figure out what works best for the team. For example, are most teammates morning or night people? Find meeting times that are acceptable for all sides and be sensitive to working hours. If you aren’t able to locate times that work for everyone, consider alternating times each week.
  • Check your tech. Our team usually uses Google Hangout or Zoom and we always include the meeting link in its calendar event. We also use a Jabra speaker to ensure consistent sound quality. Make sure you have a stable connection as technical problems are a common source of disruption for virtual meetings and can take up a lot of precious time.

#3 - Communicate communicate communicate

Communication is the one thing that can make or break your team. Without clear communication, productivity dissolves. This can be tough in any workplace and is especially tough for teams working across countries.

Use the channels that work best for your team.

If the time difference is too large for instant messaging to work effectively, consider using a less time-sensitive tool like email. Once everyone agrees on how to communicate, energy can be spent on what to communicate.

When in doubt, over-communicate.

You may have to spend extra time clarifying your thoughts and asking questions. If you’re not sure about something, just ask. I would rather ask too many questions than work on something I’m unsure about. This also helps develop patience, which is always helpful.

#4 - Understanding cultural differences

There’s bound to be differences when working with people all around the world. There are even different expectations and customs in various parts of the United States. Being sensitive to cultural differences will go a long way in establishing good relationships with your coworkers.

Be culturally aware.

Our company participated in a workshop on cultural differences between the US and Poland. This helped employees on both sides better understand our differences and set realistic expectations.

Don’t typecast or stereotype your teammates.

While there may be some general cultural characteristics to keep in mind, keep an open mind when someone acts in a way that is different from what you would expect. For example, our Polish counterparts are more open and straightforward, while we are more “polite” and like to make small talk. Talk through your differences so you can hear the explanations and rationale behind why someone acts the way they do.

Remember that English (or whichever language you speak) may not be someone’s first language.

Your first language may not be someone else's first language, so they may phrase things in a way that is difficult for you to understand. Accents vary and I have found that enunciating more clearly helps with better understanding all around. The more you get used to listening to a particular accent, the better you will be at discerning what is being said.

‍"Thank you” in English is “Dziękuję” in Polish

#5 - Getting to know each other

This is inherently more difficult when you have only met virtually. There can be a barrier in the beginning especially if some teammates aren’t as open or social as others. The time you spend together may feel awkward when you’re first getting to know each other.

Turn on the webcam during meetings

Turn on your webcam during meetings, so you can see facial expressions and body language along with hearing voices. This helps everyone develop a better understanding of what someone is saying because nonverbal communication provides supporting information.

Plan an annual team trip.

If you have a budget allowance, this may be a great way for team members to meet in person. We’ve had team members visit Poland and California. As designers don’t work in silos, it would be beneficial to meet other people you work with that aren’t co-located with you like product managers, developers, and engineering managers.

Create a space where people are encouraged to share personal information.

This can range from weekend plans, good news, or personal projects and hobbies. This space can even be a virtual one like a “random” channel in Slack or small talk time built into the beginning or end of a meeting. Keep in mind what may work for other teams might not work with your team so ask for feedback on what team members enjoy and what they don’t.

‍My teammates wishing me a happy birthday in our UX Team Stride channel

Final Thoughts

Despite having some challenges to overcome, it is a beneficial learning experience to work with a teams that spans two or more countries. Working across countries expands your skill set and helps you develop an understanding you might not otherwise have the chance to. From this experience, you may begin empathizing with others in a similar situation. You may also get an inside look into how your counterparts operate.

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Angela Ng

Angela Ng is a user experience designer at Egnyte, a GV portfolio company. She’s obsessed with humans of all varieties and delving deeper into their minds through films, novels, and good ole people watching. Current grind: Trying to break her bowling PR and obtain that elusive 300.

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