I’m working in a China/Australia delivery team for 2 years. The top challenge for offshore/onshore delivery team is the communication. Language, culture, timezone, location are the main barriers between these two countries. As a team, we are continually improving the communication skills and quality. Today I will share these stories.
English warm up
I have never worked in a foreign company before joining ThoughtWorks 2 years ago. The first week was a nightmare to me. I didn’t understand what teammates were talking about in the stand up. I couldn’t follow the meeting and got completely lost very quickly. I was sad and I knew that I need a change.
One effective way I tried was that every morning when I was driving my car to company, I listened to the English materials. Although I may lost the content, it built an English environment and help me to warm up. You may say that it is because you get familiar with the stand up. Yes, I agree. This is one reason, but my way plays an important role. I tried not listen to the materials sometimes and I found I could hardly know the conversation at the beginning.
I notice that China team is a bit shy to ask questions while Australia team ask a lot. It is quite an interesting thing. I believe culture difference is one of the reasons.
In Chinese culture, it is shame if you don’t know. Chinese people keep silence to protect themselves when they don’t know. They may struggle to think if it is a stupid question to ask. Also, they say “no questions” or “I’m fine” even when they totally get lost. Finally, they do not usually ask experienced people or managers challenging questions.
In my opinion, to break these culture obstacle, both of the sides need to know the culture differences and make sure they are safe to ask any questions. When people feel it is not safe to ask, you should try to talk to individuals offline on your initiative. Sometimes online chat is better than face-to-face talk, which makes both side feel comfortable.
Debriefing is invaluable
Debriefing after a meeting or a task will greatly improve the understanding. Even you are quite sure you know, I believe that it is better to exchange your understanding with the whole team. This helps other guys to check their understanding and it is good for you to know that people are on the same page. It is even more helpful when team members are using English as second language.
Use video and whiteboard as much as you can
Obviously, video is better than audio, we can see each other’s body language and their mouth.
On the other hand, the whiteboard is another powerful tool. If you do not have one, notepad is another choice. It is quite quite hard to know each other accurately when both side are non-English speaking. We tried to type some words into the whiteboard/notepad and draw some pictures. By doing this, we can read from the screen multiple times and we can explain our thinking with picture which is easier than talking.
Core working hours
Time difference is usually a blocker to move things go quickly. China starts to work at 9AM while Australia starts at 11AM (or 12AM after daylight saving). So the overlap time is about 4 hours per day. If China team can come 1 hour ahead, we can win another 1 hour overlap.
Be prepared for meeting, don’t be late
Since overlap time is short, the a more effective meeting is quite important. Facilitators should prepare the meeting at least 5 minutes ahead, including the video, audio, screen sharing, whiteboard and powerpoint. Participators should join the meeting on time and be prepared for discussion.
Here are some tips for facilitating a successful meeting:* Send meeting presentation or materials and let people to have a look at first. This gives context for participating.
- Collect ideas from individuals before discussion. It helps you organise and control the discussion.
- Keep the meeting short. The suggestion is that 30 minutes for knowledge sharing and 45 minutes for discussion. Do not have a meeting longer than 1 hour. People cannot concentrate for a long time. Short meeting helps facilitator focus on the topic and it is also easier to book. People are happy to join short meetings.
- Keep asking questions to make sure everyone understand.
- Prepare a clock to control the time. You can download some tiny top-most clock to use.
Furthermore, it is great if rotation is possible. Keeping one more persons in Australia is valuable. He or she can act as a bridge between the two countries.