5 Ways for Onshore and Offshore Outsourcing Teams to Work Well Together
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 straightforward things you can do to make sure 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 directly reports 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 using these techniques 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 in your particular work environment:
1. The Buddy System
This is essential: you should “buddy” your offshore person with your onshore person (This means that the offshore buddy’s schedule should have at least 50% time zone overlap with the onshore buddy’s). There are three key 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, undefined, or can span a variety of different tasks, I absolutely recommend buddying your offshore team member with ONE person onshore. This is basically the same thing 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 workflow (i.e. the 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 makes an effort to understand their partner to cut any confusion between them, make their 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 on costs. And when done right, it can make the onshore 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 it 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 among their onshore folks.
(Disclosure: At Fair Trade Outsourcing – 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, it’s not in today’s working world.
Your offshore teammate should be no different. I recommend a group Skype chat between you and your offshore teammate 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 when working with your offshore teammate. If you’re having regular meetings with your team, then make sure the offshore person is included. And, it should be the same with all-company meetings (even if they’re working 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 make sure 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 teammates 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 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, 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 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 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 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 effective 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 the 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 the topography of our workplaces 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 a long 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!