As a South African expat, I always wanted to expand my digital marketing business from London to Cape Town. After eight years of hard work in the UK and European markets, TopLine Comms was ready and we opened our South African office in 2015. The usual logistics, like setting up local bank accounts, finding office space and hiring staff, were time-consuming tasks but by no means unfamiliar and they were soon sorted.
A far bigger challenge awaited us, which was figuring out how to integrate our new South African colleagues and maintain the company’s culture between two teams across two continents.
Business growth is exciting but you have to put your people first and make sure everyone feels united as a team — regardless of geography.
The following principles are universal for anyone thinking of opening up a second office, wherever it may be.
Why open an office overseas?
Expanding TopLine abroad into South Africa made both personal and professional sense, but I knew that for the move to be successful, it needed a solid business case.
An undeniable benefit of opening an office abroad is that it gives you access to a whole new pool of talent. This boosts your business with a broader range of skills, experience, ideas, languages, culture and networks. It also adds an attractive employment proposition, offering employees the opportunity to gain overseas work experience.
Opening a new office anywhere in the world is primarily driven by the need to scale and tap into lucrative new markets. Our office in Cape Town is more than just a resource hub that supports our London team and services our UK and European client base. It also gives us the opportunity to target the local market.
How do you open an office overseas?
Connection is the word and without today’s technology, TopLine would have stayed put in London. A good, fast, reliable Internet connection is essential to doing business across borders — and to keeping our teams in Cape Town and London working together seamlessly. Skype is an amazing tool but a call can quickly become awkward between colleagues or with a client, if the connection is bad and neither person can hear the other properly.
Regular check-ins, meetings and calls are important for bringing people together across offices. They help forge stronger ties between colleagues and bring the whole team closer to the business. A poor connection can therefore be incredibly frustrating and ineffective, ultimately wasting everyone’s time with limited results.
The right technology is a non-negotiable in our modern working world — offices need to have great Internet to stay connected to one another, especially if they’re using cloud-based services.
The cloud makes it easier than ever before to set up an office overseas, and South African businesses are increasingly starting to embrace it. Cloud-based services are cost effective, efficient and they make it easy for employees to access all the information they need from anywhere in the world at any time. The best way to facilitate easy working between offices is without a doubt to keep your company data in the cloud. Collaboration is simple; everyone can work together from the same page and all documents are updated in real-time so there’s no confusion around which version of what is latest.
Some well-known cloud-based services include Google Drive for sharing and storing documents, Asana for task management, Trello for communication and Xero for accounting and financial management. These are just a few of many — whatever your business need, the cloud can help you do it better.
A lot of communication is non-verbal and relies on facial expressions, hand gestures, posture and attitude. Long distance communication doesn’t have any of these elements which makes it very easy for misunderstandings to happen. A simple misunderstanding can be swiftly fixed when you’re in the same room. If you’re miles apart though, it can fester into something enormous and cause unnecessary issues.
With two or more offices in different countries, there will inevitably be cultural differences — even if everyone speaks the same language. These differences are interesting and important to the personality of your company but they can cause some communication issues that you might not be initially aware of. The South African ‘just now’ for example, is a lot looser than its literal meaning and in the UK, business communication can be quite direct and to the point. If you’ve never met the person behind the emails, you might take their words the wrong way.
The best way to avoid this is with regular phone calls, emails and Skype sessions. We’ve found that sending an internal email out each Friday with positive updates from the week has been good for staff morale. Communication doesn’t always have to be work related so encourage your employees across the different offices to get in touch from time to time to just ‘shoot the breeze’ and get to know each other.
A consistent on-boarding process is key to instilling your company culture across multiple offices. It’s so easy to forget that what is second nature to you is completely unknown to your new employees and colleagues in an overseas office. Starting a new job always involves taking in a lot of information in the first few months which is made doubly overwhelming when the new employee is latitude lines away from most of their colleagues. A comprehensive manual that outlines everything they need to know is critical. It needs to be a completely user-friendly welcome pack that covers all the essentials like where to find certain documents, usernames, passwords and file naming conventions.
At TopLine we give our new-starters an action-packed schedule for their first two weeks — or longer depending on their level of skill and experience. In that time, they get to ‘meet’ the whole team, are introduced to all the accounts we work on and specifically the business that pertains to their role. We make sure that the whole process is managed by a senior employee who checks in every few days to ensure that the new employee is coping and getting to grips with everything and everyone okay. It also gives them a chance to voice any concerns or ask questions.
As amazing as technology is, real relationships are made in person. If you’ve hired new people to staff your new office abroad, then you need to get on a plane as soon as possible to go out and meet them. It’s good to make a few trips a year but it doesn’t always have to be you. Give other senior colleagues a chance to meet the new team and experience their working day in their office environment.
I’ve personally spent many months at a stretch working from the Cape Town office and other UK team members have visited for a few weeks at a time. It immediately strengthens the connection between our two offices and puts a face to a name, avatar or screen image.
The benefits of successfully expanding your business into new territories can be significant. Of course, to do this well, you need to have the right people working together with as little frustration as possible. Make sure your employees are sharing, talking and interacting as much as possible — the greater the collaboration, the stronger and more successful your business will be.
A consistent on-boarding process is key to instilling your company culture across multiple offices. It’s so easy to forget that what is second nature to you is completely unknown to your new employees and colleagues in an overseas office.
Understand why you are scaling your business
A Cape Town office is a valuable resource hub that services a UK and European client base, with lower fixed overheads. It also provides the opportunity to target the local market.
Make use of smart tools in the cloud to collaborate across continents
Having offices across multiple geographic locations is possible because of cloud technology — not only because it facilitates communication, but because it allows for seamless collaboration. If all company documents are securely stored in the cloud, it doesn’t matter where team members are based.
On-boarding is essential to maintain company culture
A consistent on-boarding process is an essential element of creating and maintaining your company culture across multiple offices. Take the time to create a successful and consistent on-boarding system.