Some years ago I founded and ran a public relations and publishing agency in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Our clients were mostly the regional headquarters of Fortune 500 companies that needed to communicate in up to half a dozen languages, including three versions of vernacular Chinese for the mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong markets.
Fortunately, I had a real superstar – Dr. Wenhui Zhong – running my Chinese language editorial department, and we had an outstanding reputation in that area. Then one day Wenhui took me aside and said he would have to leave the company because his wife no longer wanted to live in Hong Kong, and they were planning to move to Vancouver.
“Uh-oh,” I thought, but then immediately said, “We can work around this.”
I asked Wenhui when he planned to move, and he said they had planned to leave in six months. I suggested he work from home 2-3 days a week starting the following Monday, and after a month, increase that to working from home full time, if possible. “Manage your team, and client relationships, by phone and email, and let’s see how it goes,” I said.
We did that, Wenhui moved to Vancouver on schedule, and I’m pretty sure most of our clients never had a clue. We flew him in a couple of times a year to spend time with his staff, and he continued to do a great job for another 3-4 years before I sold the company (after which point he continued to work for the new owner under the same arrangement).
There are challenges to operating remotely, of course, but these were far outweighed by the benefits of keeping one of the best Chinese translator/editors in the business on our team, I thought.
The main challenge is communication. The easy part is using email and telephone/Skype, as well as arranging occasional face-to-face visits.
Tougher is navigating time differences. Hong Kong and Shanghai are 15 hours ahead of Vancouver, which meant Wenhui usually began his work day at around 6:00 p.m., and worked until 3:00-4:00 a.m. Not easy at first, but he did get to work from home, in his underwear.
The most important element of the communications challenge is responsibility, and its corollary, trust. Would Wenhui be able to establish communications and management routines that would keep his team running smoothly? Would the clients see some sort of change in the levels of service and quality they were accustomed to (and paying for)?
As it turned out, the transition was seamless, and as I said, I’m pretty sure most of our clients never knew Wenhui was an ocean away. A lot of the credit for that goes to him, and his team members, who were as conscientious as he was.
Our success, I think, was attributable to several factors.
The first was Wenhui’s maturity and diligence. From his home office in Vancouver he worked as hard or harder as he had in my office in Hong Kong, and with the added difficulty of having to work late into the night.
A second factor may have been that Wenhui’s job was very clearly defined. He had unquestioned responsibility for the Chinese language aspects of our business, and for managing his team of in-house editors and contracted translators. I trusted him to get the job done, and I left him to it.
Third, perhaps, was that we were able to test the new working process for six months before we went “live” with it. The Chinese language team was able to see for themselves that the system would work, and the clients really didn’t care, as long as the work was done.
But the success or failure (or even feasibility) of remote working relationships depends in large part on organizational culture, and on managers’ ability to trust employees.
In Asia, where I have lived and worked for 25 years, there is a culture of top-down management that I am sorry to say values the appearance of doing work over the actual accomplishment of work. Frequently, the result is an office that at 10:00 p.m. is full of workers waiting for the boss to go home so they can go home themselves, and in some offices in Japan, 10:00 p.m. is early. When I lived in Hong Kong, I heard stories about workers setting alarms so they could send emails at 2:00 a.m., giving the appearance of having been working all night.
Some years after my experience of moving Wenhui to Vancouver, the shoe was on the other foot. I had the experience of working remotely as a consultant to an American organization, as its de facto Asia-Pacific communications director. I had responsibility for 13 country operations, reporting to the regional president in Singapore, and when I wasn’t on the road, I worked in my underwear (except in winter, when I wore more clothes, in my cold uninsulated Japanese house).
I had that gig for 3-4 years, until the organization took the position in-house (and I declined the offer of a move to Singapore), and it worked well because one, the regional boss trusted me to get the job done, and two, as Wenhui had done, I worked harder than anyone in the organization.
The moral of the story? Just because your remote employees are working in their underwear doesn’t mean they’re not working. Trust, and hard work, can take you a long way.
Roberto De Vido is a communications consultant who has lived and worked in Asia for 25 years. He is the editor of Aidpreneur.com and producer of the Terms of Reference podcast.