In July 2019, our human insights company opened its first international office, in Edinburgh, Scotland. This followed a monthslong process that saw me and members of our executive team cross the pond several times to scout locations, interview job candidates, and meet with local partners.
In July 2020, our company made another big international move, hiring our first Asia-Pacific vice president of sales to grow our presence in the region. I’ve met him only via Zoom.
What a difference a global pandemic makes. COVID-19 shutdowns began in mid-March just as we announced a $100 million venture funding round to, in part, drive our San Francisco-based company’s worldwide expansion. Then, all of a sudden, we couldn’t even get on a plane.
What we’ve found since, however, is that the pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn didn’t have to thwart our global strategy, it merely has changed how we’ve approached it in certain ways.
And apparently we’re not alone. According to a report by consulting firm Globalization Partners, most businesses are undeterred by COVID-19 and are pushing forward with new or expanded international operations.
“This research offers grounds for optimism that the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 has not derailed international expansion plans for most businesses who were already on this path,” the report said.
But what should such companies be doing to tackle the challenge? Based on our experience, here are three key things to keep in mind.
International expansion may make more sense now
COVID-19 has forced many business leaders to struggle with managing their core North America business, let alone think about extending their footprint abroad. But, in some ways, pursuing overseas expansion is especially smart now.
First, the pandemic hasn’t changed the reality that a global workforce allows companies to recruit talent from a wider landscape. In fact, a remote, international employee base can help with the country-by-country variations in economic reopening. It’s a good time to be diversified.
Second, companies expand into foreign markets to attract new customers and grow. Pulling back now only jeopardizes growth and can put competitors at an advantage during the inevitable recovery.
While companies are wise to manage their global expansions cautiously these days, they should not lose sight of how valuable those investments can be.
The pandemic has affected relationship dynamics
In a normal year, I would have made a half-dozen international business trips by this point in late summer, spending quality time with the teams and meeting with customers and partners. The number in 2020: zero. Zoom is now as personal as it gets.
While videoconferencing has been a godsend in enabling people to stay connected wherever they are—and is way easier than long plane flights—we all know it’s no replacement for good old-fashioned face-to-face interaction. And the absence of it can hinder some of the normal routines in a global company.
For example, on the day in mid-March when we announced the acquisition of a Norwegian company, I had planned to be in Oslo along with other members of our executive team so the employees could get to know us as people, not just some U.S. company that bought them. I still am waiting to make that trip. I’m also sad that I haven’t had the opportunity to meet in person with most employees in our Edinburgh office, which has grown considerably in the last year.
The best way to attack this challenge is through what McKinsey calls “a people-centered approach to internal and remote leadership.” That means frequent virtual meetings with international teams and using that time not just for status updates and decision-making but for relationship-building and empathy.
Flexibility has never mattered more
I mentioned earlier that we recently brought in our first Asia-Pacific vice president of sales. Ordinarily, I would have traveled to Singapore or he to San Francisco for an in-person interview. Instead, the hiring process consisted of a Zoom call and leaning heavily on references. Would we have hired a senior executive this way pre-COVID-19? Unlikely.
We’re very happy with the hire, but my point is that in the current environment you have to be flexible. You have to be ready, willing, and able to work with the hand we’ve all been dealt. That means an extraordinary level of nimbleness.
The need for flexibility and adaptability also applies to another aspect of successfully managing internationally right now—not viewing all your overseas operations as a monolith. COVID-19 restrictions and economic recoveries vary country by country—heck, they vary even within the U.K.—so a company must be granular in its planning, staff deployment, marketing, etc.
As these three points show, a global pandemic doesn’t mean a company has to stop expanding globally. It just requires an acknowledgment that these are unique times that demand unique approaches.
Andy MacMillan is CEO of UserTesting, a human insights platform.