Have you ever tried to coordinate a Skype call with another person halfway across the world? Was it tough to find a time that works for both of you? Was it disappointing to finish the conversation early because your 5 PM is their midnight?
Now imagine doing that every week. Or every day.
I recently had a chance to sit down (well, have a Google Hangout) with Łukasz Orłowski, our Head of Service Delivery in Piła.
The topic we chose to tackle was remote work across significant time differences.
Łukasz is currently working with a fintech client in the US - the total time zone difference is 7 hours. That’s almost the entire business day.
How can you handle such a time difference and cultivate a productive work relationship? Here’s what Łukasz has to say.
What are the challenges in global remote work?
Working across a significant time zone difference can be true hell if you don’t do it right. Here’s just a few issues you need to brace yourself for:
The time difference makes communication very difficult.
There’s often a very short time slot when the working hours overlap. In the case of Łukasz and his team, that’s just 1 hour. If you’re lucky, you might have 2 or 3 hours at your disposal.
But sometimes the business hours don’t overlap at all. In that case either one side is getting to work early or one’s leaving late. So you need strong rules for strong communication to work on the project effectively.
Inevitably, you will have questions about the project that you’d like to ask the other side. Maybe the project requirements aren’t clear enough or perhaps a complication popped up that you haven’t foreseen.
If that happens, you’ll have to wait. A question on either side will usually sit in their inbox until the next day before it gets an answer. You can safely assume that you may get a reply after 24 hours.
But the process could be even slower if the reply you get is “the person responsible is currently ill”. As a result, you may be facing delays and missed deadlines.
No human interaction
One thing we agreed on with Łukasz is how global remote work can be lacking in actual human interaction.
In the worst case scenario, you and your partner only ever communicate via text. The human factor is completely eliminated.
When you can’t hold a videoconference, can’t see or hear the people you’re working with - you’re essentially working with a ghost in the shell. Both teams can feel isolated from each other.
As a result, sometimes you have to write a 300-word email just because you can’t get the other side on the phone for 5 minutes to explain a problem.
Moreover, communicating via text eliminates crucial nuances in your communication. There are some things that are best conveyed by your tone of voice, not by words. (Like when you tell your spouse “Of course honey, I’d be delighted to take out the trash.”)
It takes effort to maintain a productive work relationship across a big time difference.
When it’s morning at your client’s and late evening in your country, your energy levels will obviously be different.
The arrangement may require you to also work later than you usually would. You could start work at 11 AM and finish at 7 PM, for example. And even though you may not be working longer, it still feels like you’re working harder because you leave the office last.
Working with a long-distance client, it’s hard to feel like you’re really off-duty. Describing the Poland-US partnership, Łukasz mentioned that once you leave the office, you still feel the need to check your inbox because our partners in America just woke up with fresh new ideas and questions.
So yes, sometimes work doesn’t really end at 5 PM, or even 7 PM. You find yourself working throughout the evening because your support is needed. That’s part of the sacrifice you have to make to keep the relationship productive.
And of course, that goes for both parties. You can only commiserate with your global outsourcing partner who has to get to work at 7 AM to attend a call with their friends in Poland.
How to work out an ideal global work partnership
Łukasz made it clear to me that offshore outsourcing isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. But over the course of working with our client, he has found a way to make it work.
I asked him how to create the best global partnership possible. Here’s what he recommends:
You only share a few business hours per day - use them to their full potential. Łukasz and his team only have 2 hours that they can realistically use to communicate. That’s very little for complex projects that need strong synchronization and explanations on many levels. Luckily Parkinson’s law applies - if you have less time, you will use it more effectively. It’s easier to focus on the goal if you know time is short.
Take the time difference into account from the very beginning. Ideally, your cooperation with a foreign client should begin in the first place with an emphasis on the time difference. After all, it’s not going away anytime soon. It must be taken into account for feature releases and meetings.
Both sides must be willing to compromise and prioritize. Sometimes Łukasz’s client has to drag themselves to work at 7am to accommodate his team. Sometimes the Poles will stay in the office until the evening to have a chat. Without such sacrifices, the relationship would quickly turn sour and unproductive.
Establish a system of who is needed, when, and how often. This way you don’t have people attending meetings at ungodly hours unless it’s absolutely necessary. Sometimes you only need a client representative and a SM/PO to meet - there’s no need for the entire team to take part. Ideally you have performed a deep analysis of who’s needed when, complemented by a precise project roadmap. With such practices in place you can stay in daily sync without overburdening either side.
Remember about DST. Did you know that the switch to Daylight Saving Time occurs at different times in different countries? I didn’t. Take this into account so you don’t find yourself an hour late for your meeting - or an hour early!
Use a ‘world clock’ app in your phone to keep track of your partners’ time.
Keep the human factor alive by trying to hold video calls whenever possible. Everyone likes to know who they’re working with. Make sure you see each other’s faces from time to time and have some real human interaction.
Boundaries. Everyone has a private life. We have families we want to spend time with, hobbies we want to get lost in. Both sides need to take this into account. So make sure to set clear boundaries. As an example, you can signal to your foreign partner that you’re available most times during the week, but you’ll be ‘offline’ on the weekends to focus on private matters.
All of the tips above really boil down to one main insight: Take care to keep both sides’ needs accounted for. You want both sides to feel like they’re being supported.
What makes global outsourcing worth the trouble?
I decided to finish my conversation with Łukasz on a positive note. It takes a fair amount of elbow grease to make an offshore outsourcing partnership work. What’s the return on that effort investment?
Offshore outsourcing can be cost-effective. Money is the first obvious reason to decide on outsourcing in the first place. Even taking into account the time difference considerations, your bottom line still ends up benefiting from the partnership.
Marketing opportunities. You can show that you’re working with notable partners across the world. Highlighting the international character of your company can be a great boost for lead generation and sales.
On a personal level, it’s a great experience in terms of communication. Every country has its own business culture. Offshore outsourcing allows you to draw inspiration from the way people do business across the world. Łukasz mentioned that he’s learned a lot about how to give and receive feedback by interacting with foreign clients.
And thus concludes my report from my hangout with Łukasz. I hope it helps you get a fuller picture of the way offshore outsourcing works.
The challenges are many. You’ll be facing odd working hours, availability considerations and some dry, wordy emails that perhaps should have been a more friendly video call.
All of the challenges can be overcome. If both sides set boundaries, put in the effort to accommodate each other and stay in sync through key points of contact, you can work out a relationship that brings results.
It’s worth it. Offshore outsourcing can help you save money, boost your marketing efforts and learn inspiring business practices from other cultures.
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