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Nine ways to remote manage staff in Asia without annoying them

With Western banks trying to expand in Asia, managers based at headquarters in the US, Europe or Australia may well find themselves in charge of staff in Hong Kong and Singapore.

The potential for cultural misunderstandings and managerial mistakes is all the more intense when you’re not actually in the same office. Here is some advice for the remote manager about how to get the best from your team in Asia.

1) Set detailed expectations

Specific instructions often work better than general directions, said James Incles, managing director of Hong Kong headhunters ESG Search. “Set out a clear strategy of what is expected in terms of measurable output,” he said. “If Western managers don’t have experience in micro-managing, they often find that even their most talented Asian employees are not achieving the desired results.”

2) Don’t rush

“When people first start remote managing there’s a tendency to take a ‘we just have to do it my way’ approach from the outset,” said Emma Boyd, director of consultancy Pinstripe Business Solutions in Singapore and a manager at the Financial Women's Association Singapore. This risks annoying staff, who feel they are not being listened to. “It’s better to spend time learning how things are done in Singapore before you start implementing any big ideas,” said Boyd.

3) Don’t scold via a group video

During group meetings in Singapore and Hong Kong, there is often an emphasis on “saving face”, said Moira Roberts, head of human resources at UBS Singapore. “So if an employee makes a mistake, the manager should reprimand them in private rather than embarrass them in public, for example on a video-conference call,” she added.

4) Don’t ignore the introverts

In Singapore and Hong Kong you may sometimes encounter a more introverted style of thinking than is common in the West, said Kate Harper, director, banking and financial services at recruitment firm Connected Group in Hong Kong. “Offshore managers might expect an immediate and interactive discussion around an issue,” added Harper. “But an introverted thinker would prefer to think things through and respond with a rounded answer. Neither approach is right nor wrong, but without understanding this difference, frustrations can develop.”

5) Email first

Employees in Asia tend to be fans of email, said Sharmini Thomas, regional director of recruiters Michael Page in Hong Kong. “It’s a comfortable tool when English is not someone’s first language,” she said. “They would much rather collect and document their thoughts properly on paper than have to speak on the spot over the phone.”

6) Know the local holidays

Learn the dates and significance of public holidays in Singapore and Hong Kong. During Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, for example, it’s common for the boss to provide staff with a token amount of money within a red envelope, said Thomas. “This is seen as bringing good luck and success to their team,” she said. Details of Singapore holidays can be found on the Ministry of Manpower website, while the Hong Kong government has a similar list.

7) Let them lunch

If you’re used to taking a sandwich to work and scoffing it at your desk, don’t be perturbed if your staff in Singapore and Hong Kong go out to lunch at lot. In Singapore, for example, it’s common for co-workers to eat together at a hawker centre, an open-air food court like the popular Lau Pa Sat in the business district, where employees from the nearby banks of One Raffles Quay compete for lunchtime tables. “Having a sit-down lunch as standard can initially make people appear less committed, when in fact they probably work longer hours and are very productive in the late afternoon,” said Fiona Boundy, senior manager at recruitment agency Hays in Hong Kong.

8) Rotate the night calls

If it’s just US- and Asia-based employees who need to attend team meetings, consider rotating the schedule, so staff in Asia aren’t always burdened with evening calls. For example, on occasions your Singapore and Hong Kong colleagues could call at 8.30am, which is 8.30pm in New York. If team members in Europe are also involved, try to start the meeting by 9pm in Singapore and Hong Kong. “We have to be aware that all locations share the burden of the time difference, so teams can take turns to host a late-night call,” said Nancy Lee, head of human resources Asia at Coutts in Hong Kong. “Enabling employees to better balance their work and home priorities will increase employee engagement and support a more diverse and inclusive work place,” she added.

9) Don’t assume you understand each other

Despite English being generally well understood in Asia, especially in Singapore, different accents and ways of speaking may sometimes cause employees to misinterpret your instructions. “Staff may at times find you hard to follow, but don’t wish to offend or appear incompetent by asking a superior to repeat themselves,” said Ben Batten, country general manager of recruitment agency Volt in Singapore. This can usually be resolved by a bit of managerial common sense: reconfirm key topics at the end of a call and follow up with a meeting summary via email.

AUTHORSimon Mortlock Content Manager

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