Having an offshore development team often sounds like an attractive option for many technology companies.
After all, the thinking goes, half your team will be working while you’re awake. As you’re settling in for a good night’s sleep, another team of engineers is preparing to start their day. You’re getting twice as much work done — sometimes for a fraction of the cost.
The reality, unfortunately, is often very different.
I’ve actually experienced the pros and cons of an offshore team from both sides. When I was in India after my undergrad, international companies were setting up offshore development centers to move projects to India because it was much cheaper. After I moved to the U.S., my company had an offshore team in India, so I was able to experience the interactions from the other side. Now, I’m in a startup environment where I’m experiencing a similar situation with our remote team.
From what I’ve seen, the productivity level doesn’t double. In fact, it actually goes down. You may think that’s impossible, but it’s actually a very common result.
Poor communication, uncertain expectations, distant time zones, and even cultural differences can all conspire to undermine any benefits of a remote team.
You have to build and manage the team properly, or you could very well end up worse off than you were with just your local team.
Here’s how to make it work:
1. Make the offshore team feel like part of the company.
It’s essential for leaders to work to make sure their remote employees feel like part of the team — and are committed to working diligently for the company.
Typically, a company will bring a remote team to their main offices for a month or two in order to meet their coworkers and learn the ins and outs of the business. The visiting employees then go back home and start working on their own.
But that’s only the beginning.
Working from a laptop — without any direct contact with peers — can be isolating and even demoralizing if not handled correctly. Regular, thoughtful communication is the best way to keep people engaged. Even doing small things, like remembering birthdays or anniversaries, can make a world of difference.
Even the smallest efforts can help make your offshore workers feel like part of the team.
2. Give remote teams ownership and responsibility.
If you’ve been spending time getting an offshore team up and running — creating documents, communicating, even flying them in to meet your local team — then the last thing you want is for people to begin leaving for other jobs.
Turnover can happen quite easily if you aren’t giving remote teams enough important work to do. It’s easy for them to find other jobs and opportunities.
Onshore teams have a tendency to keep the interesting work in the office, close to home. When it comes time to decide what to give to the offshore engineers, it’s very easy to delegate boring or menial tasks while keeping the best stuff for the people who you physically interact with every day.
That’s not a great idea if you want your offshore engineers to stick around for any extended period of time. It’s up to leaders to manage power dynamics and ensure that all the busy work isn’t being given to the people who aren’t in the room.
3. Try to minimize the wait time between teams.
Initially, it may seem to make sense to have the remote engineers working together with your on-site team on one component of the project.
What you’ll find, however, is that this creates a lot of unnecessary back and forth between the teams. Questions inevitably arise and issues have to be resolved. Teams end up waiting on the other.
Let’s say your on-site team assigns the remote engineers something to work on. The remote team runs into a problem, but they can’t get a hold of anyone because it’s the dead of night across the world. The only time both parties can get together is during an odd, late afternoon or early morning time frame — which ends up destroying productivity for everyone.
Part of the solution is simply to make sure you’ve created a strong system of documentation that can direct remote workers when no one is awake to help out.
However documentation can only go so far.
What you really want to do is give the remote team an independent project they can build from start to finish on their own. You’ll still need scheduled check-ins every so often, but it shouldn’t be a constant back and forth. When the remote team finishes the component, they can hand it off to the on-site team and receive something new to work on.
That way, not only does the remote team make significant contributions, but both sides don’t have to waste as much time attempting to communicate on every little issue. This also gives a sense of ownership to the remote team.
4. Keep cultural differences in mind.
We often get so used to the way we interact with people in our own culture that we forget that’s not the way everyone communicates around the world.
In the United States, people are very direct. “This is what I want. This is what needs to be done. If you have any issues, just tell me.” And when we ask someone if they have a problem, we assume they’ll tell us if they do.
In other countries, that just isn’t the case. People tend to avoid direct communication. So a remote employee may have trouble committing to a deadline, or even expressing the fact that he or she needs help with something.
In some cultures, there’s a tendency to be wary of showing any weakness. Someone who needs help may not ask for it. And when that problem comes to the forefront toward the end of a project, it can seem baffling that it wasn’t communicated earlier.
If your teams come from two very different cultures, it’s important to have some sort of sensitivity training to ensure everyone knows how the company operates and how each culture generally behaves. You may have to compromise on certain cultural norms, but as long as everyone agrees to work on the same page, you’ll be just fine.
Remote development teams can work, but you can’t go into the situation unprepared. Take the necessary time beforehand to ensure you’ve prepped both teams enough to succeed in their roles.
Thanks for reading!
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