Six Virtues for Distributed Offices
As companies grow, their leadership teams eventually grapple with a common question: Should we open a remote office?
The impediments to opening an additional office are manifold: cost, communication overhead, co-ordination challenges, and cultural dissonance. Each of these risks can be mitigated independently.
Cost can be contained by starting in a small, co-working space. Communication overhead can be reduced by keeping offices in the same timezone. Co-ordination challenges can be minimized by delineating responsibilities among offices. Cultural dissonance can be avoided by maintaining offices in the same country and region.
My company (AppDirect) is headquartered in San Francisco. Our first expansion was to a co-working space a mere 40 miles away in Sunnyvale. This exemplifies the lowest-risk way to add a new company location. There is continuity between the two offices, helped by the fact that some employees split their time between the locations.
Operating multiple offices becomes more complicated across geographically distant locations. Company alignment and coordination are harder to achieve with differences in language, culture, and timezones. Organizational complexity is multiplied with each additional office. Despite the obstacles, many companies operate internationally and reap the benefits of a distributed team.
Starting an office abroad takes a lot of work, but that’s just the beginning. Maintaining a cohesive distributed team requires additional effort: thoughtfulness and communication for employees in every location.
Just like a newly planted tree needs sunlight and water to thrive, a newly established office will only take root with proper nurturing. Company leaders must embrace these 6 virtues for successful distributed offices:
Establishing a new office goes beyond simply leasing a physical workspace. It all starts with the selection criteria of the new site: What is the business rationale for selecting this location?
There are numerous reasons why a new office may be strategic for your company, and here are some common ones:
- proximity to customers and business partners
- access to a diverse pool of talent, complimenting the existing team
- “follow-the-sun” technical support
There could be multiple reasons why a opening new office would be advantageous — but that’s not always the case. Company leaders need to clearly understand the value propositions of a new location before making the leap.
Once the purpose of a new site is defined, the company has to commit wholeheartedly to its success. That requires investing in facilities, identifying business functions to be housed there, diligent workforce planning, and communicating with the new remote team on a regular basis.
All of these activities must be on-going and therefore ingrained into the operating rhythm of the company. Otherwise, the effort of establishing a new office will be squandered.
A workplace that is not the corporate headquarters is essentially a remote office. This may seem to be an oversimplification, but it is absolutely the case — especially if all the functional department heads are located at HQ.
I learned this firsthand at a prior company, where I was hired as VP of Engineering to lead a global team and to establish a new office in San Francisco. Despite the fact that I was the head of my department, I was the initial sole leader in my office. Our leadership team was distributed: our co-founders were in Sydney and our other department heads were in Austin. I was isolated as a result of geography and timezones.
Corporate leaders need to understand the operational challenges for employees in other offices. These remote employees do not have the benefit of working at headquarters, and do not always have the full-context behind company initiatives. It’s easy to underestimate how much information flows naturally from hallway conversations, or from observing the body language of attendees in a meeting. Employees in remote offices have limited sources of corporate information: electronic messages and chat, scheduled meetings, and the corporate intranet. To offset the communication mismatch, leaders must consciously push information to other offices.
To further gain empathy for employees who work outside of headquarters, leaders should “walk a mile in their shoes” and spend time working from each office. During my recent visit to India, I experienced first-hand what it was like to interact with my team and peers in SF. When I worked normal business hours in India, I couldn’t respond in near realtime with my counterparts at HQ — something I take for granted when working from SF. Each morning in India, I would experience a deluge of email from the office on the other side of the planet.
Schedule regular visits with your team members in distant offices. It will remind you to be deliberate in your communications, and to be cognizant of scheduling constraints for inter-office meetings.
Increased distances between offices generally means an increased delay in communications. More specifically, large timezone differences between offices results in a longer time to “close the loop” on open questions.
For example, Montréal and Buenos Aires are separated by 5613 miles (9032 kilometers). Despite this vast distance, there is only a 1-hour timezone difference between these two locations. This results in almost complete overlap of normal business hours for the AppDirect offices in both of these cities. Team members can easily schedule interoffice meetings for effective discussions. Establishing offices with minimal timezone offset fosters realtime (or, near realtime) communication — enabling offices to adapt quickly to each other.
By contrast, traveling from San Francisco to Pune involves flying 8413 miles (13544 kilometers) almost completely in the longitudinal direction. California and India are literally on opposite sides of the planet, resulting in a 12-hour time difference between locations. Meetings between these two locations are hard to schedule, and involve one-side working outside of normal business hours for their timezone. Decisions that require agreement between both offices can be delayed by 1 or 2 entire business days. With this type of arrangement, employees in different offices need patience when working together on shared decisions.
Communication and coordination across corporate offices are required for running a company. But it’s crucial to minimize the amount of coordination required between offices, particularly if they are in extremely different timezones.
Corporate headquarters will always be the hub of a company; it will be involved in nearly every facet of the business. Defining specific areas of focus for other offices will reduce the communication overhead for daily operations.
Some offices may be purely customer-focused, staffed primarily with Sales and Support team members. Other sites may be Product and Engineering driven, and will have populations driven by those two departments. This is one dimension by which offices can be themed. But office themes can (and should) be defined at an even more granular level.
Common sense dictates that a customer-focused office in Munich should primarily service the European market. That was likely the reason for establishing the office in the first place — for proximity to customers in the EU. Having a company location nearby a customer facilitates in-person meetings, which is the way most business is still conducted.
Sites that are primarily for Product and Engineering can be further defined by identifying a specific area of ownership. Providing a mandate to an office helps by empowering the local team to make decisions and galvanizing employees around a common goal. Identifying the raison d’être of a particular locale enables a company to co-locate team members, which in-turn reduces (but does not eliminate) the need to coordinate across sites.
Underlying the success of distributed offices is trust, which must be extended in all directions.
Corporate headquarters, as the hub of the company, needs trust to extend radially out to each of the distributed offices. Similarly, each office needs to have faith not just in the leaders at HQ, but also across to sibling locations.
Trust is the basis of any relationship — especially a long-distance one.
The best distributed teams are like a quilt, where independent panels are interconnected to one another. Each section may have its own unique design and purpose — only when an admirer steps far enough away can the entire work of art be seen. A quilt is not diminished by the differences among its sections; on the contrary, the diversity of patchworks makes it more interesting.
If one planted tree can be nurtured to full maturity, so can an entire garden. Each flower, shrub, and tree may survive on its own, but can be pieced together into a thriving ecosystem.
Strive to instill a sense of unity among your globally distributed team.