December 29, 2020

How to preserve the relational link at a distance?

Intercultural Management
Intercultural Communication

While working remotely across borders can be difficult, it doesn't take much to put the oil back in the wheels.

How to preserve the relational link at a distance?

A feedback from a “Parisian” executive working overseas. The difficulties encountered and draft of a solution. 

Remote work and preservation of the essential relational link

Anyone who has worked remotely knows how demanding and restrictive it can be. More so when this process takes place across borders. I was able to observe that a gap of miscommunication could easily be created if we are not careful. Not only between individuals but also between the decision-making level and the field. Stationed in Paris a few years ago, within the central level of an organization intervening throughout the French overseas territories, I was responsible for the coordination of eight locations across the oceans. The least we can say is that communication went very badly between the two levels. 

Remote work strongly impacted by geography

Among the many constraints imposed by the long-distance relationship, there was, first and foremost, a geographical issue. This imposed a shift, not only on the working hours but also on the calendar days. Thus, on days where I come into my office in Paris, some of my correspondents were already preparing to leave their workstations. Then, there were others that were not in yet. Furthermore, because of the date change line, except for emergencies, on Monday, it was impossible for me to have our collaborators from Polynesia, for whom it was still Sunday. And Fridays are out of the question for our partners in New Caledonia, as it was already Saturday for them. This meant that the only days of the week for a group video conference was limited to only three days, from Tuesday to Thursday, and again by adjusting each other’s schedules. As if that were not enough, I also observed regularly that the availability and the degree of creativity of the people varied greatly. The freshness, open-mindedness and… moods are not the same depending on whether I called my correspondents at the beginning or the end of the day to submit a problem to them or, even worse, to ask them for a written opinion to be given at short notice … which sometimes generated tensions. 

The need to take into account the gap between the respective sensitivities

Another source of disruption in this long-distance relationship also stemmed from the nature of our respective cultures and environments. 

As far as I am concerned, at the central-level, I was evolving under strong political and financial pressure. My correspondents at the other end of the world were subjected to strong environmental constraints, which we often had difficulty understanding. 

Thus, those who worked in our French departments in America or Reunion, worked in a very particular environment, namely that of Creole societies marked by the slave trade and the plantation economy, whereby the working relationship is traditionally built on a contractual basis and in a suggestive manner, without any form of authority. 

My Pacific correspondents, on the other hand, live by the words of J.P. Doumenge, in centuries-old societies structured by unavoidable customary links but strongly shaken by demands for independence or the liabilities of nuclear tests, data which required the political factor to be considered before any decision … 

Finally, concerning our representative in Mayotte, regardless of the political and social context induced by relations with the Comoros, our relationship with the latter needed to integrate with the fact that if the dominant religion of the island is Islam, it is also a way of life which conditions everyday life, especially the way the week is structured, as well as customs and mentalities and ways of thinking… 

Quant à nos visions respectives des notions de temps et d’urgence, de l’importance d’une bonne anticipation -pour ne citer que ces seules dimensions- il est bien évident que nos sensibilités divergeaient souvent… car le long terme semblait une donnée peu familière à beaucoup.

The importance of recreating a relational bond

Due to these factors, the difficulty in relating has caused, on one hand, a lack of understanding of local problems by the central level and on the other hand, resulting in a lack of responsiveness and efficiency of the people in the field. In order to coordinate the work of the different entities properly, taking into account the specificities and respective constraints, two ‘one-week’ seminars were conducted to bring the various site managers to Paris each year.

But according to our correspondents, these meetings in Paris are more about settling their own issues than it is to ours…

If only the bosses visited each of the organizations once a year to observe the local situation. What was most lacking was the establishment between them and us, of a relational climate conducive to the smooth running of work and to frank and constructive exchanges. If our correspondents seemed more aware as compared to us in this relational dimension, it is because they have all lived in an overseas environment where the quality of human relationships is at least, if not more important, than the accomplishment of tasks. To recreate this link, which we “Parisians” minimised and which distance did not allow us to establish, I succeeded to the chagrin of the “financiers” who only reasoned in terms of costs, to get the idea that a one-week audit is carried out on-site every two years by a small team of four people placed under my direction, to be accepted and responsible for assessing the various services, would help develop a better climate of collaboration. If this suggestion did not call into question the formal assessment made by my boss, it would shift a relational cursor up to now positioned on the curative and the sanction towards the preventive and technical assistance, and especially interpersonal communication. From the implementation of the first audits, I personally worked on the changes and relativize the sometimes abrupt observations of the members of my team. 

From the outset, our local correspondents informed us that they greatly appreciate this communication effort and especially the fact that these exchanges allowed them to have the right to be different and to have particularism replace the universalism of the operating rules in place. The conditions for a new discussion have now been created. Every one of our correspondents has joined the system, everyone getting into the habit of concluding this week’s work together, to organize before our return to Paris with a cohesion activity shared with their “staffs”, for different activities depending on the destination. From mountain hiking, tropical forest outing, or scuba diving. 

It goes to show that if working remotely across borders is sometimes difficult, it doesn’t take much to put oil back into the wheels.

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