How to collaborate with remote colleagues

During Global Entrepreneurship Week, entrepreneurs and start-ups are being encouraged to think globally and realise the potential of working with, and in, countries around the world. So, what are the practical implications of working across time zones and being geographically disconnected from your workforce and key partners? Neal Gandhi, chief executive of Quickstart Global, has this advice for entrepreneurs.

My company has more than 750 staff in 16 locations, and over the last four years I've learnt a great deal about effective distance working.  In fact when I set up Quickstart Global I was in the UK, my chairman and co-founder was based in the States and our first employee was in India. Skype and video conferencing allowed us to catch up as if we were in the same room - without it we just couldn't have grown the company so quickly and easily.

Whether you are establishing working relationships with people across the UK or across the world these four principles of embedding a remote team or partner is a good place to start:

  • Communicate clearly and regularly. Transparency creates trust, boosts credibility and improves understanding. Sounds simple but companies still get it wrong!
  • Create and embed a strong vision within a clear connected culture. This acts as glue that holds diverse and distant teams together, and enables better communication
  • Establish peer partnerships, so that members of the team build up personal relationships with their distant team members. Avoid the 'them and us' by not referring to them by their location
  • Meet - physically or virtually. Bring remote staff and partners together in the same office, to soak up the culture, interact with local teams and feel part of the business. At the very least enable virtual meetings including video calls and web-conferencing.

To get your global operation off the ground which collaboration tools should you be considering? At a recent Quickstart Global Client Forum our clients who operate IT Development teams abroad cited these tools as essential to ensuring their offshore team(s) got up to speed quickly:

  • Project management tools that allow real-time collaboration e.g. Pivotal tracker, which is free to use
  • Voice and video calling, and the ability to view each other's computer screens e.g. Skype or Microsoft Lync server (previously known as OCS)
  • Instant messaging, but designed specifically for groups e.g. Campfire which ensures that team chats always take place in the 'room' and that no one is excluded due to their location
  • Video conferencing. You will have to invest around £2,500 for each high definition unit but it is well worth it as it enables regular face to face contact. Many of our teams conduct daily 'stand-ups' where the two remote teams do a daily video conference meeting for 10-15 minutes to go through the day's priorities and discuss progress on specific projects. This is often described as feeling like the offshore team is in the next room, rather than in a different country
  • And it was noted that technology is developing all the time. Two gadgets noted as possible tools of the future were 360 degree video cameras and Cisco Telepresence which is too expensive for small businesses at the moment, but again may  be worth looking at when the technology comes down in price

I'd like to give you a note of caution at this point. Technology can be fantastic in allowing these relationships to work but can sometimes make us lazy.  Email can become the easy way out - enabling you use a 'fire and forget' method of getting your point across, issuing an instruction or complaining about something. The reality is that email is one of the biggest trust and relationship destroying tools available within a global company, especially an SME.

Emails can be misinterpreted, misunderstood or poorly written. Issues often escalate as increasing numbers of people are copied in and drawn into the discussion. A direct conversation in the outset can normally clear the issue up much more quickly.

Empower your teams to ditch the email for every day conversations and encourage them to use some of the tools outlined above instead.

The benefits of having remote teams around the world are becoming realised by many start-ups, as it offers way to expand an operation quickly and cost effectively, securing talent which isn't available in the UK - or is too expensive. It can, however, throw up challenges which need to be addressed from day one in order for the set up to be successful.

Working across time zones and being geographically disconnected means you need to overcome any challenges of cultural difference, distance and communication to ensure that local and remote teams interact and integrate effectively. Interaction fosters integration. When offshoring or remote team working is successful the company benefits from the wider knowledge base at their disposal and reaps the cost efficiency and talent security benefits.

Neal Gandhi is the chief executive of Quickstart Global, which helps companies to expand globally, and the author of Born Global which offers practical advice to entrepreneurs.

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