People Feature: Bridging the communication divide across time zones

 

Article published on December 5, 2018 

By Wong Wei Han

 

Maintaining effective internal communications is often the cornerstone of success for companies. But this can turn complicated for large organisations with offices in multiple geographies.

 

Getting things done with a faraway HQ

 

A challenge Asian offices often need to navigate in communications with headquarters is that expectations are not always met. Factors such as time difference and budget constraints all come into play.

 

BNP Paribas Asset Management’s Malaysian team, for instance, regularly hears from urgent clients wanting answers from portfolio managers, but many of these managers are based in the Paris headquarters.

 

 

“When the market becomes volatile, or even when a single market event takes place, it’s normal that clients will get nervous and want to know by 5 p.m. on the day how their portfolios are being affected," says Angelia Chin-Sharpe, BNP Paribas Asset Management’s Kuala Lumpur-based country head for Malaysia and Brunei.

 

“However, much [as] I would like that to happen for our clients, that could be difficult because by that time the Paris office is just open,” Chin adds. “So it’s also normal that we ask the clients to wait until the next morning.”

 

In the 11 years since Chin took up her current role, there have rarely been any hiccups in her interactions with headquarters, she stresses. But there are still limitations, especially where budget is concerned, and getting new headcounts is one perennial struggle.

 

 

Will Tan, Singapore-based partner at recruiting firm Principle Partners, says that every year about 10% of recruitments hit a dead end because the Asian offices could not convince their headquarters that a new headcount is necessary, or worth the asking price.

 

“Often the folks in the headquarters will struggle to accept why there’s a need for a new hire, and why the proposed salary is so high, even though it’s perfectly reasonable that salary levels in global cities like Singapore or Hong Kong can be higher than places like Paris or London,” Tan says. “As the headquarters hesitates, the best window for hiring – say year-end or right after bonus payout – comes and goes. Opportunity missed.”

 

Tan believes sometimes head offices simply do not have "enough understanding, perhaps even respect" for the business needs and operational challenges in Asia.

 

“This is a rapidly growing region, sure, but proportionately it’s still small for many global asset managers," he says.

 

No idle call

 

To improve the understanding between Asian offices and their headquarters, long-distance conference calls have become a weekly or even daily routine for many in the industry.

 

 

Dimensional Fund Advisors’ Singapore-based Asia ex-Japan CEO, Peng Chen, says he typically connects with the firm’s Austin, Texas-based headquarters around five times a week through conference calls. That is on top of the ad-hoc calls he makes to the other Dimensional offices in the U.S. and Europe.

 

 

“One challenge is when the Singapore office connects with Europe and the U.S. at the same time. One office will be calling in the middle of the night,” Chen says. “In addition to us having early morning or early evening calls here, our executives in Austin are always willing to do the same.”

 

Inevitably, those 11 p.m. or 12 a.m. calls will happen. When they do, technology can facilitate some ease and efficiency for those located in Asia.

 

“With communication technologies we do not have to physically sit at our desks after office hours in order to be part of a conversation,” says Eugene Koh, Singapore-based Asia-Pacific finance director of London-headquartered recruiting firm Michael Page. “We have been able to connect on Skype, WeChat, Zoom and other meeting platforms.”

 

But the frequency and timing of these communications is not nearly as important as the preparation for these meetings. A successful call usually means plenty of groundwork has already taken place, so that one single chat does not make or break an important request.

 

 

“Start with preparation and make sure every location has the same set of information in a timely fashion,” Dimensional’s Chen says. “To the extent possible, we try to minimise the duration of these meetings by having single office-to-office pre-meetings. This ensures the topics are well discussed in advance, which helps shorten the agenda or eliminate the need for the meetings.”

 

In a pre-meeting, the relevant teams from two offices can engage in shorter calls to discuss certain points before the whole agenda is presented in a full meeting for decision making.

 

Koh has a similar approach: “It is important to socialise and circulate ideas and positions pre-meeting with key participants so that a lot of the heavy lifting or influencing takes place prior to the call.”

 

Relationships drive communications

 

It is worth keeping in mind that the fundamental building block of effective communications is still a solid interpersonal relationship – something that can only be built face to face, even if that means traversing a continental gap.

 

“Although we have a lot of tools available right now, which ease borderless communications, we should not underestimate the value of face-to-face meetings,” Koh stresses. “Strategic relationships are built on trust and credibility over a period of time, so taking the time to cultivate that should be a priority with all senior leaders.”

 

That is what companies like NN Investment Partners have worked on. Han Rijken, the firm’s global head for specialised fixed income, says the Dutch asset manager organises seven meetings every year to bring together investment team leaders.

 

“Our senior leaders and portfolio managers will come together seven times a year for a week-long meeting. This can be held in Hague, New York or Singapore,” Rijken says. “In these meetings we will obviously talk a lot about markets and portfolios, but administrative matters such as IT systems and human resources are also discussed.”

 

Hague-based Rijken manages specialised fixed-income teams in Hague, London, New York, and in Singapore, where he has a team of eight people. Rijken, who spoke with Ignites Asia during his trip to Singapore in mid-November, stresses that leaders cannot be cooped up in headquarters.

 

“Make sure the headquarters' person you report to visits the local office from time to time. That’s why I’m [in Singapore] – to individually meet all the people I manage,” Rijken explains. “They can tell me face to face what is going well, what is going wrong and what I can do for them. We do this, so that we know each other and we trust each other.”

 

BNPP AM's Chin is also a firm believer of relationship building in person, which was what she did during her trip to Paris and London last month.

 

“In these trips I always make sure I spend the time to meet the key stakeholders that I work with – the compliance head in charge of my markets who sits in Paris, for instance, or our equities head in London – so that they understand what we do in Malaysia and Brunei, and also what support I may need from them to drive the local business,” Chin says.

 

“Successful communications with headquarters are built on many levels. It is not easy to get things done with a stranger on the other end of the phone or email,” she adds. “But if you already establish that relationship and understanding, you may find the HQ folks more accommodating.”