Two tips for managing long-distance collaborations

I worked with a few sponsors for the 2013 Nigerian Blog Awards, and before that, I collaborated on small, related elements of past Awards. All of this was done long-distance. What I learned is long-distance collaborations, like long-distance relationships, are not ideal. I will never forget the potential sponsor who had me jumping through hoops for two months last year, working my butt off on different proposals and ideas, only to cancel the agreement when I contacted them after a week of silence and no response to two of my emails. The worst part to me was the feeling that if I hadn’t contacted them, they wouldn’t have contacted me to tell me that the deal was a no-go—which is unprofessional in my books. That experience and another one in particular have taught me so much about how I’ll handle such opportunities this year.

Here are two challenges of long-distance collaborations and how to manage them.

Time difference

At any given time I’m five or six hours behind West African Time (WAT), so my Nigeria-based counterparts find it hard to reach me when it’s morning in Nigeria: at 7:00am WAT, I’m just getting my sleep on, since it’s midnight or 1:00am where I live. And when it’s morning here, the workday in Nigeria is half over. The result is any emails sent can rarely be fully dealt with during the same workday of the person who sent it. This makes the back and forth take place over many more days and leaves both sides feeling like the other is slacking.

Solution:
I tended to deprive myself of sleep so that I could be in the same timezone as those I was collaborating with, but that was hard to do consistently and I failed most of the time. Instead:

  1. Make time for one or more initial voice chats where you discuss the key details of the collaboration and this issue of delays in receiving and responding to emails. I completely underestimated the value of voice chats; not any more! After a voice chat, the person on the other end of the email is more real to you, and I think that’ll affect how you treat emails from them (and vice-versa). A voice and video chat would be even more ideal.
  2. Document the important things so you don’t have to send as many text messages and emails. In addition, instead of sending an email at 8:00 or 9:00am my time, I use Gmail’s Boomerang add-on to schedule emails to be sent when it’s morning for the recipient, so that when I wake up (and it’s afternoon in Nigeria), there’s a good chance the recipient has replied to me already and if I reply right upon waking, we might be able to get a few exchanges in until we’re hampered by the time difference factor.

Cultural differences

I have a North American approach to doing business (whatever that means, right?). No one’s perfect and everyone has different turn-ons (in business, hehe!). I value quick replies to communication, so I try to give what I want to receive. I’m also a fan of extremely detailed emails (since we don’t have the luxury of face-to-face contact and lengthy long distance phone calls can be expensive) to eliminate confusion and misunderstanding, and I like to set clear deadlines for projects with milestones, which I work hard to respect.

I learned these traits were more likely to be considered nagging or “control freak” behaviour rather than efficient by some of the people I worked with. My emails were too long and often not read in whole. They would go unanswered for one or two weeks, then I would get a reply asking why I hadn’t taken action on something that I had indicated in my email I could not take action on before hearing from them. Or I’d get an email saying I hadn’t done something and when I showed that I had, I wouldn’t hear any more on the topic. Some people treat deadlines as guidelines, and it’s easier when the person on the other end is someone you’ve never met, or spoken to. For me, a deadline is the absolute latest time to take action on something, not the time to just start working on it. And what about the rolling deadline, when someone keeps asking for extension upon extension, only to not deliver in the end? Argh!

Solution: Only work with people who share a similar work ethic as you? Hah—I’m joking! You learn so much from working with people who approach things differently from you. But to minimize your stress:

  1. Expect that some people won’t respect agreed-upon timelines—it’s usually not personal: they’re just bad at managing time, or they don’t think the deadline is actually set in stone (and you could be to blame for this). Build plenty of “wiggle room” into timelines but do not let them know that you’ve done this, or you’ll be back at square one! Do not say “Your contribution is due on February 6, but if you’re a week or two late, no wahala” because guess when you’ll receive their part? February 30 (and yes, there’s no February 30!)! ;)
  2. Seek guidance from others who know about how to best work with either that specific person or more generally with someone from a different cultural orientation than you’re used to. That will help you develop realistic timelines and not take everything so personally (completely speaking from personal experience here!).

Mind you, your cultural orientation doesn’t mean you can’t work in a similar way to someone from a completely different culture, but in my limited experience cultural background has appeared to play a big role.

Bonus Tip

Be clear regarding all aspects of payment: when it’s due, especially! Ideally payment should be milestone-based, and this should be clear to all parties. I was so naive on this point; now I know better for next time.

I’m hoping to have many more collabos this year, so this is why it’s so important for me to set up a plan for success for future interactions. If you have any great tips, please let me know!

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5 thoughts on “Two tips for managing long-distance collaborations

  1. I can imagine how frustrating this would have been for you.

    As a person who has been on both sides of the divide I have one or two tips myself.
    You see, a few years ago, I was the person you have been talking about. I couldn’t stand long emails to finish them. I attended to work beginning from the day of the deadline and at the same time hated micromanagement.

    It took me a lot of business maturity and working in teams where I was the only Nigerian (sorry to say but this nasty nature is clearly a Nigerian trait) for me to know that what was wrong was me and not the project or the naggers or the deadlines.

    I have been dealing with other people and it’s easier for me to use their weapons against them. Lol.

    Anyways, for me first step is to get a backup contractor who I can roll to early in the project and letting the current contractor know that he can be eliminated very early in the game.

    Next I set my final deadline to a time that’s way before my real deadline. Oh, I’m sorry this is painful but you have to do this.

    Next my terms are clearly stated. At this time I make my first monetary or otherwise payment after a huge milestone has been completed. At this point the contractor loses big if he pulls out or is pulled out.

    Never forget the signed agreement. This is a document that can be tended at a court but that would not be necessary. You see, the contractor had to sign at the end of the page that says that if there’s going to be any delay, he notifies the team at least 3 days before.

    In software development, a scrum is a practice where every member of the team gives an update every single day in a 5min stand up meeting. At the end of the day, delays and oobstacles are easily called out. At the end of each iteration, there’s a clear forward in the project. I use my knowledge of this to handle projects with people whose words are a little difficult to hold on to.

    • Seye, you have no idea (well you do, since we talked after you posted this!) how welcome this comment was from someone on the other side. I really appreciate your tips—I’m imagining how much more of a confident place I could have come from in the past if I had had a backup contractor! And writing in delays into the agreement is a good idea, same with scrums.

      I’m thankful for your “business maturity” and how it has benefited me!

  2. “I have a North American approach to doing business” This!!!

    I got a Facebook message from someone in Nigeria who was intrigued by my blog posts and wanted to drop one or two compliments. My cheeks almost ached from cheesing so I asked if he/she had a blog…I wanted to return the favor.

    Well, that was my biggest undoing.
    It turned into a request: “Nah, I’m busy with school work. Help me set it up. I’ll change the password when you’re done.”

    I explained: “I can be a resource to you when you want to start but since you’re not dedicated to building your readership/followership anytime soon, I suggest you wait.

    The reply: “U just do it, hehe, and I’ll fix the rest.”

    My jaw dropped. I’m all for helping others and being a resource but that was just frightening and hilarious. We don’t know each other but we’re apparently close enough to share account details and password. Lol!

    Sorry for the long story, haha!

    • Oh boy! Sadly this exchange you had doesn’t surprise me but good for you for sticking to your guns because your offer to be a resource was more than generous.

      I imagine if you had said yes, they’d beg you to write their blog posts too! I prefer the North American way of doing business, though of course you don’t have to be based in North America to do business this way! :)

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