Going from a single to a multi-office operation isn’t a simple matter of addition. You may need to transform the way you operate.
Growth is generally recognised as a sign of business success. However, expansion can also come with its own challenges, especially when managing multiple locations.
It is easy to underestimate the extra time, money and travel that managers need to invest to achieve unison across an organisation and to tend to the unique needs of each location.
Failure to prepare your business’s systems and communication strategies for geographic expansion can compromise efficiency and performance. Here are six challenges of managing multiple locations and how to tackle them.
1. Engaging the whole team
Unstructured interactions happen naturally when you share the same office. However, Stephanie Abbott, director of Janders Dean management consultancy, warns an unconscious bias can creep in where a manager may not give the same weight to the concerns of outlying offices or give their employees the same opportunities.
“It’s a normal tendency that you need to work hard to overcome,” she says.
Liz Malady, general manager of people and culture at CPA Australia, says disengagement is a key risk when managing across multiple locations. CPA Australia’s global business has offices in all Australian capital cities and 11 offices in eight other countries.
Malady suggests looking for opportunities for teams in various locations to connect and collaborate across offices on joint projects.
“This gives staff in other offices equal development opportunities and helps them feel part of a larger whole,” she says. “Our people and culture team here in Melbourne also regularly connect via phone and email with leaders in other offices, as well as travel to the locations on a regular basis.”
2. Preventing tribalism
Ensuring cohesion of vision across locations takes constant attention, even in small enterprises.
Greg Mallam, managing director of accounting firm DKM, which has offices in four locations across New South Wales and Queensland, says tribalism can be a challenge. “We are one tribe, but in reality there are four mini-tribes,” he says.
Mallam fosters a sense of cohesion by holding all-of-business meetings with his 83 staff every three months at a different location each time. He also periodically takes all partners and teams away for a joint training and personal development program.
“The challenge is keeping everyone focused on our mission statement. It doesn’t matter how good your systems are, if you are not all on the same bus, it’s a waste of time,” he says.
3. Avoiding cultural faux pas
When working across countries with different languages, laws and customs, businesses make essential adjustments to operate effectively. However, when it comes to working across similar cultures, Janders Dean’s Abbott warns that too few companies pay attention to the little differences.
“In Australian corporate culture, for example, it’s acceptable to problem-solve and critique outcomes in groups where people don’t necessarily know each other,” she suggests. In her experience, such behaviour is more likely to be seen as abrasive or even aggressive in some other countries.
In addition to cultural customs, it’s also important to be aware of national holidays.
“I remember organising a leadership conference in Melbourne at the same time as Chinese New Year,” says Malady. “That won’t happen again!”
4. Balancing consistency with local adaptation
While it’s preferable to give clients a consistent experience of your brand regardless of location, there is also wisdom in allowing local offices to adapt to their local environment.
“We have a strong belief in integrating local expertise”, says Juliet Bourke, human capital partner of Deloitte, “so we adopt an approach of ‘freedom within a frame’. We create frameworks for people, then encourage them to fill in the gaps with local context.”
Deloitte Australia’s chief operating officer, David Hill, notes there are certain areas where consistency must override any other dynamic.
“Deloitte has member firm standards, which include elements such as quality and risk practices, branding, and investment in people,” he says.
“Each member firm is audited and if they don’t achieve the standards, we help them come up to speed.”
5. Managing performance
When employees are less visible, supervision can be tricky. “Don’t assume that because everything is quiet that everything is OK,” suggests Malady. “Trust is key, but you also need strong, regular communication with clarity of expectations.”
Bourke recommends regular face-to-face meetings with team members. “Then, if you encounter a hiccup, you have some social capital in the bank,” she says. “If you haven’t taken the time to get to know the person, it takes longer to work through the problem.”
6. Maintaining communication
Effective communication is essential to any long-distance relationship. Nothing trumps meeting face-to-face but communication and collaboration tools, such as Skype, Google Drive or teleconference and tele-presence tools are often more practical over long distances.
Identify one main method of digital communication that allows you to share important information simultaneously, so everyone is in the loop, then organise events as often as possible so staff can meet each other in person.
Plan for structured, frequent and proactive communication using a variety of platforms and your company’s intranet for more personalised sharing, such as photos or recognising people’s achievements.
“It’s hackneyed, but that’s because it’s true,” says Hill. “So many problems can be avoided by paying attention to communication. Learning how to manage a distributed workforce is something businesses should invest in, irrespective of whether they are expanding.
“It’s increasingly important to know how to work with partners, joint ventures, and suites of freelancers who might be distributed not just geographically, but across professions, as we co-create solutions with our clients. It’s the way work is these days.”