In this post, I have gathered advice from six experts on managing remote teams. I have written 6 books about the topic. I always believe I need to learn from other experts, I asked all these experts on what they see as the 3 pitfalls in offshoring & their advice on preventing them.
Our first expert is Timothy Loginov, co-founder of and employed at AnyChart.Com. Timothy has managed remote teams in small/mid-sized high-tech companies for about 10 years.
There were only two of us when we started AnyChart in 2002 and our first “office” was located in a corner of the room in a studio apartment, so the only communication obstacle was the need to get from a chair to a sofa. Nowadays our team of 20 people spans 7 locations, 5 cities, 2 continents and 4 time zones; the biggest time difference is 15 hours. Changes didn’t happen instantly and as we’ve been growing, we adapted more and more remote management techniques and technologies, and we also suffered all imaginable problems of remote teams: missed meetings, miscommunication, mismanagement of resources and motivational issues.
6 significant things I’ve learned through the years
1) Do not allow anyone to miss a meeting; Punish, motivate, look for a suitable time, reschedule, stop the car and get on a phone – solutions may be different, but once a meeting is set – it must happen because meetings can’t be substituted by emails, tickets and comments. Missed meetings demotivate people and create an atmosphere where everything “can be done later”, which results in general performance and productivity downfalls.
2) Try to create some kind of cross-company chit-chat, do not let anyone soak in his little pond and try to make everyone a friend of each other. Even a simple skype chat with day to day jokes and links allow to establish a connection which is crucial for teamwork.
3) Video chat when possible: you can tell a lot from the body language and face expressions, voice and text are less informative.
4) Daily meetings and common online time should not be easily dismissed, even when they are not very convenient for every participant, daily routines are a powerful organisational and motivational tool and even the highly motivated professionals start to miss deadlines when the work must be done by “sometime tomorrow”, not “be ready to be shown on the daily meeting on Thursday at 5 pm“.
5) If you can, sometime gather all employees in one place at one time, like a group vacation or a conference. It must not be team building exercise per se, even a simple handshake allows people to bond. Such events may cost a little bit more than you anticipate, but if you can allow it – then better do it than not. On a side note: probably such events loose their purpose when the company reaches a certain size: at least Tiens Group 20th anniversary looks more like a PR stunt to me.
6) Use communication to learn and improve: we arrange regular lectures for developers and sometimes the lecturer comes from another country and another continent, such opportunities must not be missed.
As a conclusion, I must say: at some point I doubted that remote management may even work and pushed for the greater independence of the different offices, but now I think that if your remote management is good and works, it allows you to keep an employee in case of relocation, it allows everyone to feel more freedom, even to bridge cross-cultural gaps.
And, of course, the development of telepresence technology helps immensely! We use a telepresence robot so intensively for the last two years (I even use it to visit New Year Parties) that it started to look somewhat “bruised”: stairs and thresholds do happen!
Our second expert is Keith Brink, CEO of Twassistant, an international recruiting and management firm. Twassistant is an ethical outsourcing firm, working on creating as many middle-class jobs in developing economies as possible. In addition to recruiting top talent, Twassistant provides local businesses with their expertise in cross-cultural and virtual relationships so that international staff are effectively engaged in the vision of the client’s business. Keith has worked with several companies to integrate a remote IT team into their business and helps them overcome the challenges involved.
Insights gathered over the last several years
1) You need someone invested in your vision who has the technical experience to manage the remote team. If you have no technical expertise on your team at all, you will not understand the challenges of development work and will have wrong expectations about delivery times and costs. In addition, you will not be able to properly evaluate the scalability or quality of the delivered product.
2) You need to understand and adjust your working style to account for the culture of the remote teams. You cannot manage someone in India like you would manage someone from the USA. Gain at least a cursory knowledge of the business culture of the country that your team is from, and manage accordingly. If you don’t, it will drive you crazy. For example, verbal and written agreements have less meaning in India than they do in the USA. It’s much more about your relationship and the trust that you have in the person, and holding them to a strict deadline will damage your relationship and significantly decrease the quality of the work you receive because they dislike you and feel offended.
3) Be a part of the team as much as possible, even if it’s just a daily, “How is your family? Did you do anything interesting over the weekend?” You should consider them as a key part of your business and integrate them into the vision of what you’re doing and care for them as individuals. Transactional approaches only work in the short-term, but for a larger project, it’s all about a strong relationship that will sustain a healthy ongoing development team. The soft skills are usually the missing ingredient in a failed remote development team.
Jon Jones being our next expert is the Content Curator for the Unreal Engine Marketplace at Epic Games. Specialized for 9+ years in remote project management in the video game industry, he variously runs art teams of 5 to 60 people spanning multiple countries and time zones for companies of every size.
1) If you’re working with an international team in a country in which your native tongue is not their first language, the style of writing documentation is crucial. Keep the style of writing very simple, keep the images simple and without any additional or unnecessary text, and don’t use videos with voiceover. This goes triply if the work you’re performing is technical or involves proprietary software. Some overseas content providers have full-time translation staff tasked with re-translating documentation, videos and emails, and it makes their job harder if you’re embedding content that isn’t in their native language. Ultimately, it becomes far more error-prone.
In studios not large or sophisticated enough to have a dedicated translation team, it pays to find out the exact chain of communication between your primary contact point, the team lead, and the team itself, and to subtly discover the language and technical barriers that may lay between each contact point transmitting your input and direction down the line. If technical directions are filtered through a person with excellent English skills but limited technical skills, that’s essentially the same level of potential error as someone with high technical skills but poor English attempting to communicate that to the next person.
Keep the language simple, understand the relative specialization of everyone in the communication chain, tighten up the manner in which you communicate, process document and direct to buffer against it.
2) Understand that companies in low-cost countries often can’t build out the power grid fast enough to match the growth of the industry. Understand your vendors’ power and data backup plans, the types of generators they have at their disposal, how much fuel they have in reserve, and how often brownouts or blackouts occur in the region. How much risk are you exposing yourself to by sending your work to that hot up-and-coming city in China? Ask detailed questions you’ve prepared in advance, and do your research on the area before you visit.
3) An external vendor that has their own inhouse school/job training system is usually touted as a plus but isn’t always. Running a business and a school are two fundamentally different ventures, and the points of crossover need to be explicitly defined. When inquiring about the school, I typically dig into who is training them and for how long, with an emphasis on finding how much hands-on work the business’s lead/senior staff devote to the educational side of their business. This can highlight risks of skilled leads being pulled off of your project for education. Likewise, it’s important to understand at which point the early/young students graduate into the workforce. Will your project be the latest graduates’ class project? If so, what measures do you have in place to know exactly who’s on your project and when people are cycled off and on?
Mark Tuchscherer, the President of GeeksChicago is our next expert. GeeksChicago, a web development company in Chicago, specializes in all digital solutions. From mobile app to building websites, GeeksChicago has efficient teams that can handle any project size in any given budget. Their development office is 100% overseas and Mark has built two other offices overseas.
Mistakes we see from clients after having a bad experience outsourcing
1) Never make your choice based on price. We have many clients come to us
with applications or websites that are in horrible shape because they thought they could get a developer for $10 per hour. Don’t get greedy, you will get what you pay for. Outsourcing will save you money, but you need to be realistic.
2) Work with a company that has references and check the references. Outsourcing has become such a big market that you no longer need to work with some developer that is working out of their basement part time. You can find a ligament company, like us, that can take on your work and do a great job. Some of the worst stories we hear are from people that hired a freelancer on the other side of the globe working part time. Most of the time it ends up with that person running off with your money and not doing quality work.
3) Never prepay for any work with an overseas team. A real company will not make you pay for work before they start and will most likely have a contract for you to sign. Someone with a US office is the safest way to go.
Sean Si our next expert, the CEO and Founder of SEO Hacker and Qeryz. A start-up, data analysis and urgency junkie who spends his time inspiring young entrepreneurs through talks and seminars. In his blog Seansi.org, he writes about starting up two companies and life in general. He manages team remotely and here is his advice on how he does it.
Significant steps for management
1) Everyday, the team has to login our communicator. We use Skype currently because it doesn’t make sense for us to go with Slack at the moment due to the running costs.
2) I think the really dangerous pitfalls that you have to avoid when you’re managing a remote team is quite a few, but it’s very important to know early on. One of them is accountability. It could be easily overlooked especially when you’re paying them per output. However, if you guys are not accountable to each other (yes, even the manager has to be accountable to the rest of the team because it boosts their trust and morale), it eats up your openness to each other as a team. And a team that is closed isn’t going to perform well. We use Hubstaff for our time tracking for accountability and I make sure that my team also sees my hours.
3) Another pitfall is constant communication. It could be about work or it could be about personal stuff – the important thing is, you are constantly communicating with them. If there is no relationship, there is no real drive for them to work with you. I found this to be true on multiple occassions – I’m not a guy fond of constant communication at first especially to people who I don’t see on a regular basis. But I realize it’s much more important to communicate with people who you don’t see but work with you.
4) Another pitfall will be pushing your weight around. Sometimes as a remote team lead, you find yourself easily agitated and irate with the smallest mistakes – and that’s because you have a lot less relationship and good emotions to build on due to the fact that you guys don’t really see each other. How I got to deal with this is I always try to put myself on their shoes. It made me a lot less grumpy and a lot more considerate on my team.
We have the last advice from Taylor Murray, project manager for a contact call center, CallTools. Taylor manages a full team of content writers, Graphic designers, Freelancers and outside vendors.
What I understood hiring remote team
1) The pitfall of hiring remote workers are that you don’t get to develop a personal working relationship with them. I think its very important when you know someone better and you work with them closely, things go a lot smoothly.
2) Another pitfall is when you hire a remote worker with a different time zone. Sometimes things break and you need to contact someone who can immediately fix it. When hiring
remote team you don’t have that luxury; either try to fix it yourself or you have to stay up late to give instructions to the remote worker. These have been my personal experience when hiring remote workers.
Now with all these expert advice, with no doubt I can say that this helps managers get a clear reflection on how well remote teams are managed while apart.
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