Building and Leading an Offshore Team Across the World's Time Zones
It surprises me to no end that so many people believe there is a shortage of tech talent in today’s globalized business environment. The world has flattened and become hyper-connected. Why are companies still restricting their potential talent pool to a two-mile radius of their physical office?
And who needs office space anyway? According to Hired.com, an engineer in Austin making $110,000 would need to make $195,000 in San Francisco to support the same lifestyle. Similarly, a $1 million budget for engineering can get you 10.5 engineers in Atlanta, or eight in New York.
For an entrepreneur who is trying to give birth to an idea with limited resources and is trying to make these limited resources go a long distance, hiring in these tech hubs is is beyond their scope.
However, the best talent does not necessarily reside in these tech hubs. If an entrepreneur is able to tap into offshore resources that are cost effective and offer a wide variety of talent and expertise level to choose from, they can achieve a lot with the same resources.
I have been on both sides of the table. I worked at a Citigroup BPO for four years with several U.S. clients. In the past five years, I’ve grown a marketing, analyst and engineering off-site team for a startup.
An entrepreneur can source offshore talent from various platforms such as Upwork, Toptal, Hired, Gigster and many others. Quite a few platforms have sprung up, mobilizing the freelance economy. These platforms provide access to a vast pool of talent available all over the world, capable of all kinds of tasks - from high-end software development to basic customer service.
Each of these platforms work differently. In some of them, you list your requirement, get applications and then screen candidates. In others, you just have a list of pre-screened candidates from which you can select the most suitable candidates, and conduct a round of interviews.
In addition to screening the candidates for the required expertise, there are few critical things I would mention when hiring offshore candidates.
Conduct a video interview.
Conduct a video interview as well as a chat interview over Skype, Slack or chat tool of your choice. Communication is very important, which is taken care of by the video interview, but when managing and working with an offshore employee, the majority of communication is going to be via chat. This process ensures that you are selecting someone, who has good communication skills over both of these mediums.
To build an off-shore team requires a conscious effort to build a quality team and not necessarily a cheap one. Quality engineering by offshore talent could effectively cost as much as on-shore talent, but it’s not just cost and quality that matter.
There is also throughput and the ratio of throughput to cost. It’s far more favorable with offshore resources. Employees can be productive in their pajamas. They are able to balance their family and work, and not just be a weekend parent. This work scenario actually increases productivity for motivated workers.
Hire for a short-term, trial period.
Hiring on a one-month trial period can be a good way to test talent. Employing contractors is more expensive on a monthly basis, so your costs may be higher if you institute this period, but it will give you an excellent evaluation of the employee’s capability and work ethic. Make this condition known upfront.
Select self-motivated individuals.
You should always hire motivated individuals, but it's especially pertinent when hiring offshore employees. Companies should hire individuals, who are motivated, committed and driven to complete their tasks. It is not easy or possible to monitor daily tasks of offshore employees, and if they are not self motivated, it will be an extremely tense relationship.
Hiring an off-shore team is only a small piece of the entire process, managing them is another challenge. Here are my views and learnings on how to manage an off-shore team.
Don’t try to waterfall projects.
Giving an outside team a particular project, then forgetting about them for a while, is a recipe for disaster. We don’t treat our internal employees like this, do we? They have to feel they have a clear line of communication to someone, who can make decisions, and guide them in case they run into any issues. One way of ensuring this is by holding a weekly video call.
Schedule a weekly call.
And always treat it as sacred. Try your best not schedule anything over it. Do a video call, as this brings a huge amount of comfort and connectivity. If you do this regularly, they will feel like a core part of the team, and their responsibility and ownership toward the product and project will be sky-high.
Encourage team bonding.
The first contractors, if well selected, will build a team around themselves by hiring their friends, who are equally good or even better. Being surrounded by friends will help them have fun while working and adhering to the adage that the whole can be great than the sum of its parts. This will give them an even greater feeling of participation and a sense of responsibility as well. It will also help the company in building a stronger team. This has been an extremely effective strategy for me, whether it be for marketing, analytics or engineering. One caveat: Reserve the power of interviewing and direct hiring for yourself.
Remember that office culture is not the only type of culture. You don’t need a physical office space to have a highly social, integrated team. Rather, culture is a product of leadership. Culture is the message you as a leader deliver consistently to your employees through your actions, words, meeting style, work ethic and your focus on customer.
Meet in-person when you can.
A critical aspect of creating an amazing, distributed team for long-term work is to meet them face-to-face. Fly them to your city occassionally, or organize a retreat where all employees get to meet each other. The rapport that is established during these informal meetings gives a massive boost to productivity when everyone returns to their respective places.
Building a cohesive, highly skilled team does not have to come at a high cost. Digital connectivity offers us a great opportunity to hire the best around the world but managing them is definitely is a different than managing someone who is physically sitting in your office. In my experience though, it's totally worth it.