working with a boss who’s in a different country

A reader writes:

Due to some restructuring, I have a new boss who is based in another location — a completely different country, to be exact. Do you have any tips for how to foster a relationship with someone who is not in your office? I have never had a boss who is not 5 feet away from where I work. Wasn’t sure if you had any advice on how to keep my manager in tune with what I’m doing without being a pest.

Also, I am at the point in my career where I still feel like I need some sort of a mentor. I’m a little concerned that this new structure won’t help me get to the next level. Should I seek out a local mentor? Sometimes I want to talk out situations with a manager and if he’s asleep (or off the clock) while I’m working, this could be difficult. I’m just a little unsure of how to make this situation work for the best.

Do you have any working hours that overlap? Or even any waking hours that overlap? The first thing I’d do is set up a regular weekly phone call, even if it means that you need to do it from home at 8 p.m. or something like that.

And then from there, this is really going to be about doing all the normal things a manager and managee should do, but being vigilant about doing them really well: agreeing on clear goals that will add up to a successful year for you, making sure that you’re checking with each other as your work progresses so that there aren’t surprises once it’s finished (surprises on her side if what you produced isn’t what she had in mind, and surprises on your side if she has major changes to the work), resolving not to use email to hash out complicated or sensitive situations (and instead getting on the phone), and having solid structures for communicating with each other when it comes to work updates, progress toward your goals, and feedback.

While you can sometimes get away with leaving this stuff informal when you’re working down the hall from each other, when you’re remote you will need to formalize systems for all of this. Otherwise it’s likely to start slipping through the cracks, and the next thing you know, you haven’t talked to your manager in three weeks and she has no idea what your priorities are.

It wouldn’t hurt to find a local mentor too, but I wouldn’t assume that you need one because you can’t have contact with your boss. I’d assume that you can have contact with your boss, and that it’s just about coming up with systems and structures that will make that easier.

You can read an update to this post here.

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. lauren

    I’ve had a boss in a different country before! I worked on the east coast, and she was based out of Geneva, Switzerland. My boss was really good at making it a point to have scheduled one hour long weekly one-on-one’s. Sometimes a whole hour wasn’t necessary, sometimes it was. In the beginning, I really appreciated her having this pre-scheduled.

    Because I was on the east coast, I was “only” dealing with a 6 hour time zone difference. For me, it meant being a bit flexible with my time – where coming in at 9AM didn’t always work to my advantage if I knew I had time sensitive items that I needed to discuss with my boss. So, I’d come in at 8 sometimes. and even sometimes at 7. Sometimes my boss would stay later knowing I may need her later in the day.

    We had a good working relationship because we were both flexible with our time, and also because we sometimes had non-work related conversations. You know, personal stuff you probably wouldn’t share with your boss 5 feet away from you. But sharing this stuff with a manager overseas helped give more character to her being. (like, oh! my child won the school spelling bee!)

    Also, does your company use any sort of instant messaging platform? or video chat platform? Things like this also helped us bridge a good working connection.

    1. Jamie

      I think it’s great you were able to build some kind of personal relationship. That can be so important and really tough with remote workers, much less a boss.

      We take for granted how easy it is to “know” coworkers – in the appropriate for work way- just by proximity, casual conversation, and the stuff in their office. You have to be more deliberate when people are permanently remote and it sounds like you and your boss did a great job on both fronts.

      1. Katie

        Everyone on staff at my job works remotely. Almost all of us are in different states or even countries. We’re a pretty tight knit bunch though, and a very casual company, so I think that helps foster collegiality. But yes, regular phone calls and check ins help you feel less adrift.

        I haven’t found it tough to foster personal relationships in this kind of professional setting. I mean, most of my other personal relationships are cultivated through some sort of chat client – why would I have trouble with this at work?

        1. Jamie

          Developing relationships through an online medium is easier for some people than for others.

          If I go into a co-workers office and they have a pic of their dog on their wallpaper I’ll invariably ask about their cute dog and a conversation starts organically. For me, with remote workers, I have to consciously work a little harder to bring the human element to the equation.

  2. animaux

    I currently work remotely from my boss and colleagues (we all work remotely, based in the US, UK, and Ireland). To echo Alison’s suggestions, regularly scheduled meetings really help, as do lots of information meetings. Also, depending on the type of work that you do, you may want to preemptively schedule “post mortems” after the projects you do so that you can discuss how things went and how you can improve next time.

  3. Angela

    I’ve worked on difference continents from my previous boss and it was one of the best working relationships I have ever had. That hourly meeting is essential, to discuss how are you progressing, things you are struggling with and areas to focus on in the future. I haven’t had a boss since that has provided me with the same dedicated time and quality of conversation. Try to have those calls on a phone or skype conversation, I find it really helps you focus on only that person and you are not distracted by other things or people like you would be in a face to face meeting. Communicate actively with your boss, really keep them in the loop about what you are doing but also thinking. Use a daily work update for this. Another suggestion is also to find a “career counsellor” or mentor amongst your co-workers that may be in the same building or area as you for more personal guidance and help.

  4. Jen in RO

    I’m in Europe and my boss is in the US. Some things that have worked for us have been:
    * Scheduled meetings – we have a weekly team meeting and, when possible, we use video conferencing. It’s much easier to relate to someone when you can connect the face with a name! We also used to have bi-weekly one-on-ones, but unfortunately the boss doesn’t have time for that anymore.
    * Heavy usage of IM and phone. Since he’s very busy, he sometimes misses e-mails, so for important things we use more instantaneous ways of communication.
    * Independence. This is also related to his lack of time, but my boss has taught us all to be independent. Since there’s 7 hours of time difference between us, we had to learn to make decisions, we couldn’t simply stop working and wait for him to wake up.
    * Face to face. He tries to travel to this location a few times a year. This creates a better connection and is also an opportunity for intensive brainstorming sessions on various issues.

    Some things haven’t worked that well:
    * We don’t really have a personal relationship. He’s the boss and we know the basics about him (wife, 2 kids etc), but that’s about it. Maybe not as different as having a private person as a boss in your location… I don’t know.
    * When a coworker started underperforming, the boss didn’t notice it (see: independence). He trusted everyone a bit too much and in this case it backfired. When we went to him with our issues related to this coworker, the boss didn’t believe us at first and it wasn’t a very pleasant situation.

    And a last thing that might matter: cultural differences. I don’t know how different your two countries are, but you (and your boss) might need to keep that in mind.

    1. BHB

      “And a last thing that might matter: cultural differences. I don’t know how different your two countries are, but you (and your boss) might need to keep that in mind.”

      +1000

      I think a lot depends on if the boss is a citizen of the country she’s based in, or if she’s an emigrant from the country the OP is working – the latter will probably mean cultural issues aren’t too prevalent, but the former could run into problems especially where employment laws are concerned.

      On a separate, unrelated note – AAM, your site has recently come up with security certificate warnings which I have to confirm I trust the site. It seems not to be a specific browswer or computer issue – I’ve seen it on Google Chrome, Firefox and IE, on different computers and my phone.
      Doesn’t bother me (I know your site’s safe) but thought you might want/need to know in case you’re putting off potential new readers.

      1. Jen in RO

        I was thinking more along the lines of communication issues rather than legal. Like: “in country X people are more direct, which might seem rude; they’re not rude, it’s just the way they communicate”. Of course, this is generalizing, but it’s good to keep in mind that sometimes the person might mean something else than you understood. (Doubly so when dealing with a foreign language. Some of my coworkers “sound” very rude in e-mail, but it’s only because they’re doing a straight translation to English and the result is not always stellar.)

        1. BW

          Business practice and customs also differ. The foreign entity that now owns my employers is very hierarchical and the flow of information from up top to everyone else is non-existent. They even set up their office space differently than what US workers are used to or will tolerate. It’s been a culture clash and a rough transition for us. Communication (or lack thereof) has been a huge issue.

  5. Original Poster

    Thanks everyone – my boss is not from the US so the cultural differences might be an issue. I am going to propose an hour check-in every week. She is in charge of 20 people total but two of us are in the same office so maybe it can be a conference all of three of us. I have a feeling she won’t want to book one on one calls every week if she has 20 direct reports. The company doesn’t use skype but we do have an instant message system through our e-mail that could come in handy.

  6. KayDay

    I worked closely with a colleague based in Western Europe for a short term project. During that time, I usually came in at 7:30 or 8am (instead of 9am), so that we would have more overlap in our working times, just in case it was needed. I also checked my email quickly once I woke up–if there was an urgent message I would go in a bit earlier.

    1. Jen in RO

      I am so, so glad that it’s the other way around for Europeans! I am not an early riser and it would suck to wake up at 8 a.m. just to get in touch with my boss. (Instead, he wakes up at ungodly hours to be able to communicate with all his employees around the world… I feel sorry for him.)

      1. BW

        Yes it does suck! Imagine if your boss or team were half away around the world in India or China – although our China person recently mentioned that she actually didn’t mind doing calls at 9 PM (9 AM for us), rather than earlier in the evening, because it is a quieter time but not too late. I have yet to be on the phone with anyone who works in Australia. There’s just no good time for that.

        1. Jamie

          Been there – not with a boss but working with a team in China back in the day.

          The logistics of scheduling meetings was a nightmare.

        2. Jen in RO

          My boss has teams in India, the Philippines, Romania, France and Ireland. I have no idea how he handles it and manages to still spend time with his family.

  7. BW

    My company recently did this after being acquired by a foreign company. I have to say I am not a fan, and glad this did not occur with my particular group. Why is it not feasible to have someone in the office act as manager and who can act as a local contact point when your entire work group is based in that office? I think giving people the opportunity to have a local mentor is a great idea.

    I would say regular team meetings and 1 on 1 meetings are a must. It may be the only time you interact much with your boss. My company uses webex/teleconference all the time, as well as video conferencing. If you have instant messaging, take advantage of it. I work with people based all over the world, and it is so convenient and easy for them to message me if they need an answer in real time. There’s always the phone too, but the folks I work with are often off-site, and it’s easier to just message from their laptop before initiating an international call, especially if they are unsure if someone will pick up on the other end.

  8. Chinook

    Having worked in an office like that, I would recommend doing some research about where your boss is located – not just culturally, but geographically, climate wise, politics, stat holidays, etc. You don’t need to be an expert, but a little bit of knowledge can keep you from looking like an idiot.

    Case in point – our accountant was in California for our R&D office, where I worked, in Ottawa, Canada. He actually asked me if he should bring his skis when he came for a wedding in July in Toronto. There were so many things wrong with that question ( Toronto in July can reach 100 F, there are few nearby ski hills even when there is snow) that my jaw just dropped and I had to stop myself from telling him to pack them and extra long underwear. he was at least aware enough to ask me if the government website would be in English when I sent him to the Revenue Canada site for information (every page gives you the option to change languages).

    I have had other people ask if they spend the day at the Rockies after a meeting in Ottawa (there are 3 time zones between the two). Unless you are willing to laugh at yourself when you realize what a big error you made, there is no way to recover.

  9. Chocolate Teapot

    Helpfully, my company, which has offices all over the world included a time-zone map on the intranet so we can check on whether it’s likely somebody is still at work!

    1. Chinook

      Yes! Turns out that in Outlook (and maybe others calendar apps) you can see other time zones on the same calendar. And always make sure your time zones are correct when creating meetings.

  10. KEM

    At my last company I had numerous managers based in Europe- in several different countries- I actually have a hard time dealing with a manager who is in the next office to me now! I really enjoyed being able to do my thing, but I always had at least biweekly calls, kept in constant communication via IM, and would call if I needed something. I adjusted my schedule when necessary (7-3) to be on calls with the European offices and the managers all made a point to check email from home in their evening if I had issues especially during a high priority project(or I could txt them if really needed).

    As far as mentoring I asked to be included on conference calls with clients etc just so I could shadow how deals were made. I learned a lot this way and was far less pressure than face to face deals.
    The cultural difference are the hardest (the “rude” sounding emails mentioned above sounds familiar..) but in the same aspect, I found them to be much more family friendly than my colleagues in the States- they would encourage (longer) time off without checking email, accepted a flexible schedule etc. It was quite refreshing.

  11. Unmana

    I’ve almost always worked with bosses in another country (U.S. to my India), and while it can be difficult at times, I’ve actually liked it that way. I’ve even made friends with a couple of the (total 5 or so) bosses, the most recent one becoming a close friend.

    I shared tips from my experiences here: http://blog.affinityexpress.com/2010/12/03/6-tips-for-working-virtually-with-remote-offices-and-clients

    Basically, as AAM and others have said above, schedule regular calls and check in as often as you can. Try to find a match between your boss’s communication style and preferences and yours — when my boss preferred IM, we online-chatted for hours; when another preferred calls, I’d pick up the phone. I was happiest when I had a boss who responded quickly over email and wrote loooong emails, because that’s how I prefer to communicate too!

    And yeah, if you can find a local mentor, that’s great, but don’t give up on making your boss your mentor — nothing beats that.

  12. EngineerGirl

    Coming in late here, but I found a few things help:

    * See if you can work from home. This helps when you have a meeting with the team in the other country. I mind being at work for an 11 pm (my time) meeting. I mind less if I can just dial in while I’m in my pajamas.
    * Create a weekly activity report (WAR) and send it to your boss. It should include:
    – accomplishments for the week
    – look forward to next weeks activities
    – look forward to long term activities
    – any issues/concerns
    – out of office plans
    I keep mine in an excel worksheet (one worksheet per week) which I then cut/paste into an e-mail every week. I have an e-mail reminder in outlook that pops up once a week. Bonus points – when performance evaluation time rolls around, you have a record of your accomplishments for the entire year. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve forgotten an old task, but when I went through my WAR I was able to include it in my performance assessment. An unpleasant task becomes much easier.

  13. jane

    I’ve been working remotely for years – and I’ve grown to love it, even though it was daunting at first. Having a relationship and regular communication with one’s boss is absolutely essential. When not being able to just pop-in, people are forced to organize their communication – schedule phone calls, send emails instead of leaving post-it notes on the chair, and that in the long run can be more effective than chatting while sitting next to each other most days of the week.

    I wrote this article about communicating with remote teams:
    http://www.ruralsourceit.com/2012/01/09/successful-strategies-for-project-teams/

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