Imagine trying to hire for a critical project, knowing that you know just the right person for the job, but not being able to work with them.
That’s exactly the personal pain that Upwork (formerly Elance-oDesk) was born from. One of our co-founders, Odysseas, lived in Silicon Valley and urgently needed to hire a highly-skilled developer. His childhood friend, Stratis, was perfect but lived in Greece. The start-up Odysseas was at hesitated to hire Stratis due to the distance, but the two friends created a new online platform to provide visibility into remote work and instill trust in work relationships happening via the Internet. The technology worked so well that they started a company based on it with the mission of empowering people around the world to find each other and work together. They aimed to close the painful talent gaps holding companies back.
If you’re under pressure to get more done — faster — you can probably relate to the above scenario. It’s almost impossible, at times, to find the help you need. Job listings, especially for tech jobs, remain open for months. The Brookings Institute recently reported that “science, technology, engineering and math jobs take more than twice as long to fill as other openings.” Concurrently, there’s a huge competitive disadvantage to not finding the talent you need: A recent Fortune article, “The Global Talent Crunch,” proclaims that “companies that don’t have up-to-date, evolving skills sets will fall behind.” I’d add that they’ll fall years behind.
IDC estimates there are 11 million developers in the world. If you’re only interested in the top 1% of these developers, that’s still a pool of 100,000 — more than the number of full time employees at Google and Facebook combined.
And yet, most of us continue to only hire from within our tiny professional networks or try desperately to source the skills we need from a limited local talent pool. Meanwhile, our competition is vying for the very same candidates.
The talent outside our personal networks has been difficult to access. But thanks to the digital revolution and the rise of online work, that barrier is rapidly disappearing.
Open source communities provide a great blueprint for this much-needed reinvention. As a working model, they have always been fully distributed and, as such, have greater access to global networks of talent. Tom Preston-Werner, founder of popular code-sharing site GitHub, often says that if you do not have a distributed team you are, by definition, not working with the most talented people.
Of course there are challenges to building a team this way. Important things I learned from creating our own team, excerpted from my ebook, Hire Fast and Build Things, are:
Hire the best talent — don’t just focus on cost.
When you hire online, your process should be the same as hiring someone who lives three miles away from you. Interviewing, team coordination, open communication and collaboration, and most everything else that goes into building a traditional team still applies. This isn’t about finding the cheapest person online and sending them tasks to check off. You wouldn’t take this approach if you hired someone locally — why do so when you hire remotely?
Additionally, use compensation to show your appreciation for their support — this is a must if you want the relationship to last multiple years. Our developers get regular increases. And keep in mind that inflation and market rates may be increasing faster in the developer’s country than in your own market.
Communicate and collaborate often.
With distributed teams, and particularly when time zones, languages, and cultural differences come into play, it is better to over-communicate. This isn’t nearly as time-consuming as it might seem — in 15 minutes every day with each of your team members, you should be able to define clear tasks for the day and review any blockers that impeded the previous day’s progress.
In addition, encourage face to face time. At Upwork, we organize occasional in-person get-togethers, sending all members of a team to a single location for a few weeks at a time. Many of our remote team members also travel to our headquarters in Silicon Valley, usually once every 18 months or so. These visits are extremely rewarding and important since they help distributed teams stay connected with what’s going on while also fostering collaboration and improving team dynamics.
Be persistent and expect there to be a learning curve.
Setting clear goals, particularly at the beginning of a relationship, is a best practice. It is even more critical when managing a distributed team. Don’t let things drag out, and avoid misunderstandings by articulating short-term goals for the new hire, ideally with daily granularity. Check in often with your distributed team, particularly with the new hires.
Create overlapping availability for your team to be online
At Upwork, we align schedules to maximize the overlap of availability between our American and European developers. Typically there are two good times for teams to connect: in the morning and late in the evening (U.S. time). Overlapping time helps teams synchronize communication and collaboration. When the schedules don’t overlap, teams collaborate using tools that are designed for asynchronous communication.
Make remote team members feel just as important as on-site team members.
If you treat your remote team as low-value labor, then that’s what you’ll get — subpar work with little documentation from a generally unmotivated workforce. However, if you treat your distributed team members as important contributors, they will respond in kind with high-quality work and enthusiasm.
Regardless of location, take pains to be sure each team member is always included in all relevant project communications, meetings, and events. All meetings with our distributed teams are done via videoconference. This gives us that “watercooler” vibe you just can’t get any other way — people joke, get to know each other, and shoot the breeze in a way that can’t be replicated on the phone.
Somewhat counterintuitive, but interesting nonetheless — we’ve found that meetings in which all or most members are remote via videoconference are the most productive. Basically, it puts everyone on a level playing field, as opposed to having six people in a room together and one or two on video.
These are some of the ways we’ve ensured our own global team functions as seamlessly as possible. There are challenges to not being co-located, so it’s important to put in effort. But the upside of accessing top talent is enormous. There are amazing universities around the world that rival Stanford (apologies to my alma mater) and MIT. Students graduating from these institutions are eager for opportunities with exciting businesses around the world. The biggest barrier that companies have to hiring them is realizing that this possibility exists and making it happen.
Today, our company has a hybrid team of 500+ freelancers spread around the world and 300 full time employees. There’s simply no way we could hire all the people we need just in Silicon Valley, nor would it be as scalable. When we need different skills, we look online. We’re fortunate to have a community of 10 million freelancers with more than 2800 skills at our fingertips via our site. Rather than spend the weeks or months it takes to hire traditionally, we hire freelancers in an average of three minutes.
I expect distributed teams, and the ability to hire more flexibly, to become the norm for businesses in the future. Upwork — the world’s largest freelance talent platform, a site people can log onto to find each other, collaborate and get paid regardless of location — is empowering this reimagination of the way we work.
We’re partnering with Medium to launch a series of stories dedicated to exploring the future of work. Called Work: Reimagined, the series will take on themes like location independence, micro-careers, cultural attitudes to freelancing and what a corporation might look like in 2050. Follow the Work: Reimagined publication for updates.
This piece is adapted from one originally published in InformationWeek.
Work: Reimagined is a series of stories dedicated to exploring the evolution of the workplace.