If you’re currently working with offshore staff or thinking about it, you’re inevitably working through or trying to envision what the daily pace of work will be like. It’s a really common concern and one that, if not properly addressed, can raise itself to the level of anxiety.
Anxiety is never good, but the reality is that there are 5 straight-forward things you can do to ensure that you have smooth interaction with your offshore staff, especially when they’re coupled directly with your onshore staff.
This article is written for those of you that have at least one offshore person, who is serving in a direct reporting relationship to someone on your onshore team. These techniques can also be used if you extend that relationship to a team with 2 offshore to 1 onshore person, but probably not above that. Additionally, I’d recommend that these techniques are used for those roles where at least 50% of the work they’re doing is not completely repeatable. Think software developer, graphic designer, or bookkeeper (to a certain extent) but NOT customer service, CAD drafter, or all things to do with data manipulation/collection.
These tools are not a playbook you should follow nulla quaestio; they are guidelines to give you ideas to help you structure your team for maximum effectiveness for your individual working environment:
1. The Buddy System
This is essential: you should “buddy” your offshore person with your onshore person (This includes offshore buddy at least 50% time zone overlap with onshore buddy). There are three keys reasons why you should use the “Buddy System” in small teams involving offshore:
First, when the nature of your work with your offshore team member is irregular, or undefined, or can span a variety of different tasks, I absolutely recommend buddying up your offshore team member with ONE person onshore. This is basically the same you would do if the person were sitting with you in the same physical office. This is essential to the success of the arrangement, because with irregular work, there are lots of questions. And if the offshore person doesn’t have someone directly to answer those questions, you can quickly waste the effort/money you’re spending (see #3 - “Have regular meetings,” below).
Second, the onshore team member will be held naturally responsible and accountable for not only the quality of the offshore person’s work but also their work flow (i.e. quantity of work they do). Not only will this require the onshore person to use the offshore person, but it will also teach them to be a force multiplier for your company - enabling you to save money and get more work done.
Third, the buddy system promotes the progress of the relationship over time. Each buddy is motivated to understand the other, since that will reduce confusion, make daily work smoother, and in general, make everyone happier. No one likes a contentious or uncomfortable working relationship (many studies support this), so each team member is intrinsically incentivized to cultivate a good working relationship. For managers, it promotes the ability to move other tasks to the offshore buddy and save costs, and when done right, it can make theonshore buddy a champion of the model.
2. Standardize communication tools
This one seems obvious of course. When you’re working with someone at least a continent away, you better know how to get a hold of them, or what do you have really? Someone you’re paying for work you may not actually be getting.
This is a huge issue in the outsourcing industry, and can be a huge cause of concern for those people who have never worked with an offshore team - many managers who have onshore/offshore couplings report that prior to implementing this structure, this is the #1 fear about offshoring their onshore folks report.
(Disclosure: at Rethink Staffing - which I founded and run - we use implementation coordinators and a standard set of tools to prevent this feeling from turning into an accepted fact from day 1 - contact us to find out how.)
Email, while necessary for some things, should be limited in its use. Email is an asynchronous communication method - asynchronous meaning not at the same time. If you work in the same physical office with someone and want to talk to them, just them, would you send them an email or would you turn around and just talk to them. Of course you would do the latter. If you use email (with or without a time difference) you automatically cause a delay in communication. That may be okay for some things, but generally is not in today’s working world.
Your offshore team mate should be no different. I recommend a group Skype chat between you and your offshore team mate that others can join if necessary. If you’re using slack or another messaging app internally, make sure they’re on it. Talk via voice frequently, or use video when you can (it’s been reported that 90% of all communication is non-verbal - the most common cause of things “getting lost in translation”).
3. Have regular meetings with your offshore staff
As a manager, you wouldn’t have a team in the next office that you didn’t check in with regularly. Again, there should be no difference with your offshore teammate. If you’re having regular team or group meetings, then make sure the offshore person is included; and it should be the same with all-company meetings (even if they work for a vendor).
For the buddy relationship between the offshore and onshore person, you’ll want to meet daily initially. This daily interaction is critical for doing 3 key things:
1) clarifying workflow to ensure tasks are being done in the right order,
2) giving the offshore team member any supplemental training that may be needed as tasks are done (especially new ones), and
3) giving both sides the chance to ask questions.
This third one is where we see the most trouble between buddies happen - when it isn’t happening. Let’s face it, getting questions answered is the currency of closely working together. You probably ask your existing team-mates a dozen questions in a day and not even realize it. This is probably where most customer concerns get resolved - one teammate driving the others to get answers to questions and resolve issues before they escalate.
But oddly enough this is one of the most common complaints when working with offshore “They just didn’t understand.” I can tell you from direct experience in working with India and the Philippines - culturally they won’t necessarily ask you questions unless you give them the opportunity, and permission, to do so. You will get a lot better results when you do!
So hold regular meetings so your teammate knows that they can get their questions answered and won’t be afraid to do so. You’ll get a lot of questions in the beginning, but that will wane over time. I’ve never seen offshore folks not want to learn, and getting questions answered is the primary way most of us learn.
4. Manage the workflow
No matter where work is done, in our modern working environment, you have absolutely no excuse not to have some type of workflow management solution in place. It doesn’t have to be complex, or full-featured, or anything more than a shared to-do list. But it must be visible to all, must have a way to communicate priority, and it must record who is changing what.
There are a number of different tools with these essential qualities. If you need something with time tracking that’s full-featured - I’m partial to Jetbrain’s Youtrack (it’s also very good at managing per-piece work); It can do time time tracking, priorities, and gives you a visual view of what’s work is
in what status (via a kanban board).
For the most simplistic view, a shared google sheet is sufficient. Just have columns for work description, work type (helpful for grouping things and seeing patterns among tasks, essential for growth), submit date, due date, notes and of course status. You may add columns as your specific style of work requires. I used to use a tool called workflowy which was great for me individually, but one team member used to have trouble working with it in shared lists, even though we worked closely together; but it’s a dead-simple solution.
Asana is probably the best solution in between the two (though I’m sure there are others). It’s much more team focused, and the ability to put things into projects, or share projects among a bunch of different people is great, especially when you need your offshore person to interact with more than just their buddy on projects.
As I’ve said before in this post, 90% of all communication is non-verbal. I’m not sure I believe it’s that high, but ultimately when working with offshore what this translates into is simply less efficient communication. So, if in our modern workplace we rely on communication to get someone up to speed, then inherently that communication is going to be slower, and thus progress of training will be slower, because the person we’re trying to train isn’t right in front of us. Logical.
But all is not lost. A LOT can be done through video/voice, and even text chat. There’s a lot that CAN’T be done through email. It’s best to accept the fact that our workplace today is increasingly distributed, and will continue to be so. The salient fact is that your communications with your offshore buddy won’t be as speedy as with someone face to face. So having a little patience with this understanding will go along way toward making you successful in working with your offshore folks.
If you’re currently working with offshore staff or thinking about it, take these 5 things to make your daily work with them faster, better, and smoother, I know you’ll be happy with the results!