In the 1970s if you wanted to run a small business you were limited by the skills around you. In a world where cookie-cut cubicles, hard copies and landlines were the modus operandi of most, small businesses found their entire organisational structure and work patterns shaped by proximity to labour. Local talent was at a premium, meaning most employers needed to set up shop in the cities in order to have access to the workforce that would drive their business forward.
In today’s digital world we are bound only by bandwidth; as the fibre and satellite networks grow, the world shrinks, bringing competition and opportunity to every connected city, town, hamlet and shire.
But with new opportunities comes new challenges. The sheer scale of a global team changes the playing field by requiring leaders to think in terms of time-zones, not timetables. Today, it is easier to access talent, but how do you build and lead a team, that you may never meet?
Picking the right people
Scott Sherwood is the founder of UK-based software testing tool TestLodge. The company has users in over 110 countries and boasts an intercontinental team, having worked with associates based in Italy, Brazil, India, New Zealand and the USA.
Scott suggests that the key to building a global team was picking the right people: “When you remove the barrier of working in one geographical location, you open your business up to a lot more highly skilled workers. Unfortunately, in the UK we have a shortage of specialist skills, especially in emerging web technology, coding and UX development. Recruiting remote workers overseas helps combat this problem, bringing the talent pool to you.
“However, employing workers remotely comes with its own risks, as it is harder to have a direct, hands-on influence on them. It's also harder to get a feel for their ability, meaning it’s tougher to see if they are a fit for the company.
“One way to mitigate this is to initially open projects up to a number of workers, giving individuals different aspects to work on. For example, we recently commissioned a pool of nine blog writers to work on various articles for our website, and from that pool of nine, we selected three writers to work with on a long-term basis. Having seen all of their work, writing styles and how efficiently they communicated and integrated with our workflow systems, we were confident that they were the right fit for the company.”
Communication is key
As any football coach or life skill survey will tell you, communication is key. Many a fruitful plan, idea or strategy has been devised following a constructive discussion in a boardroom, coffee shop or over a water cooler. But what if your designer is in an office 300 miles away? What if your water cooler is the Atlantic? Fortunately, there are a plethora of communication applications and tools that make global chit-chat a doddle.
Scott said: “Whilst applications such as Skype and Slack are fantastic for remote working, they don’t tend to work well when you are dealing with a much larger time difference, such as the US or Oceanic regions. When trying to organise a team across long distances, clarity is king. The easier you can get messages and instructions across, the better. It really is important to strive for brevity.
“However, at the same time, you don’t want to be clogging up your already busy e-mail with conversational messages. We find that organisational tools such as Trello or Basecamp can actually serve well as messaging platforms, and help focus conversation to individual tasks. Therefore, when discussing a range of items with several different remote workers, individual 'cards' or action items on Trello allow all those added to that 'card' to understand the context of each discussion, without the need to emphasise what aspect of the work you are referring to.
“For example, when discussing a project with our designers, instead of having to refer to different aspects of a project before commenting on it, we can leave simple comments on each action card. Then if something requires a more in depth discussion, we can arrange a time for video conferencing through Skype or a web-based tool such as Appear.in.”
When trying to organise a team across long distances, clarity is king
Adaption and flexibility are traits synonymous with lean digital businesses. In order for small business owners to organise and lead teams across the world, ergonomics has to be written through the company like a stick of rock.
Scott argues that business owners need to have a universal DNA. “As a company, it’s important to try and build wide-reaching functionality into your foundations. For example, we deal almost exclusively in US dollars, as this is a currency that is recognised worldwide. This also makes transfers through tools such as PayPal or TransferWise far simpler.
“This strategy can also extend to your software and digital tools. For example, we use Google Docs, rather than Microsoft office, due to its ease of remote access. We use Adobe Sign so that we can get contracts signed digitally, again making business simple no matter the geography.
“Finally, I think it’s important to try and make sure you take time to converse with your team members. Whilst brevity is important for organisation and work issues, it is important to get a holistic perspective from time-to-time. Make room for a wider conversation once a quarter, where you can get to know team members and listen to their views and thoughts on how you work together. Some of the most important improvements to our processes of working have come through getting feedback from team members across the world – they will have perspectives on items that you simply cannot know without asking. We’ve always had a culture of listening at TestLodge, whether that is our user base or our team members, and that flexibility shows through in your final product.”