The Trouble With International Remote Teams

I have always enjoyed working with people from very different backgrounds. I am from Germany but I got my M.Sc. from SFU in Canada. During my years of living in Vancouver, I had the chance to work with people from all over the world. I moved to Berlin some twenty plus years ago and I was happy to see it slowly shifting to a more international city.

I am also glad that remote work has finally become an accepted way of working, at least in the tech industry. I have worked remotely since 2015 and before 2020, I always had a hard time convincing potential clients and recruiters that this is a viable way of working. Remote work is my preferred way of working and I am glad that it has become more accepted. It’s not just about the flexibility of working from home, but also about the possibility of working with people from all over the world.

The team I currently work with consists of two other Germans who are located 600km from me, one Russian living Switzerland, one Ukrainian living in Kiev, and one Chinese living close to Shanghai. We’re often joined by a Romanian colleague. And while, again, I do enjoy this diversity, it is not without difficulties. In this instance, however, most of the difficulties are due to language barriers rather than cultural differences.

My English is not perfect but I would say it’s decent. Interestingly enough, this doesn’t help me very much in this context. Everybody speaks with accents but also with such confidence and speed that it makes me feel like I am the one having trouble with the English language. I’m familiar with the typical mistakes Germans make when speaking English so it’s easy for me to work out what my German coworkers are trying to say. I am also aware of some peculiarities of other languages. So when my Ukrainian colleague says “It’s aftomatic process” it’s usually not a problem. But sometimes, it takes me quite a while to decipher what my Chinese colleague is trying to say: “I’m gathering information for generate the configure” probably means “I’m gathering information that will help me generate the configuration.”

Any synchronous communication happens via video calls. This adds an additional layer of difficulty. Most headsets aren’t great, rooms add reverb, long distance internet connections lead to latency and compression artifacts. There’s almost no body language to work with, all you see is someone’s head, and they’re usually not looking into your direction but at their screen. All in all, these video calls become quite exhausting after a while. Our team tends to be focused on the task so we usually try to work through these difficulties. I really appreciate that. But I also noticed that when the importance of what someone is saying is not immediately clear, people tend to just nod and move on. I feel bad sometimes for our Romanian colleague trying to explain himself three times but being met with silence or confusion. Being tired on some days doesn’t help either.

Add to this the more often than not wrong assumption that everyone is intimately familiar with a speaker’s specific topic and that us listeners know all the acronyms, systems, tools, and people they mention. This is not a problem unique to international teams but it adds to the difficulty of understanding what someone is trying to say.

This setup definitely adds friction to our communication. Overall, however, I still believe it’s a net positive to work with an international team. We ship products to all parts of the world and I am convinced that our customers benefit from our diverse backgrounds. I have previously worked for companies with an international customer base but with a very homogeneous team (mostly Germans) and I found myself often advocating for culture-specfic requirements that the people around me weren’t aware of. I don’t see this happening in my current team. If anything, I am the one learning from my coworkers.

Maybe I’m lucky to be part of a respectful, patient, and competent team. I am sure that there are teams where these difficulties are not handled as well or where people would prefer to work with people from their own country. But for me, I always thrived in international environments and I will continue to jump at the opportunity to work with people from all over the world.