The one at the other end
Right about the time when Samantha is dropping off her two kids at school, Fatima is kissing her two young daughters lightly on their forehead as they drift off to sleep on the other side of the globe. Both women will then head off to work and within the next hour will greet each other on Skype cheerfully and start taking stock of work that needs to be done in the next 8 hours.
Samantha and Fatima might or might not exist in real life, but millions of people like them do, working together across time zones, across countries, cultures, and etiquettes; each with their own socio-economic realities, yet coming together in one seamless venture, sharing one common goal.
I am sure that you must have read a lot of erudite pieces explaining remote working. This, here is the human one. And the reason why the human side must be presented is because too often, way too often we forget that this entire wondrous exercise is ultimately a human one; that the person on the other end, speaking in a funny accent, is not a robot, but a living breathing human being, just like your colleague who smiled at you over her laptop screen, or the one who passed by chirping a “Hi Joe!”. By forgetting this minimum basic, we end up failing the very people who are propping up our businesses. And when we fail the people in business, can we really hope to succeed in the business itself? I guess not.
As someone who started his career as a telemarketer, the word “empathy” was drilled into me from Day 1! Empathy, we were told, is the single most important tool, something which can make you both acceptable to the customer and help you put the hook in to go for the sale. It sounded pretty cold as advice in some situations, but it is the best piece of advice I have ever received. For managing your remote staff effectively, that’s also the best piece of advice that I can give you.
Empathy is the first step of humanizing the voice at the other end, the unseen resource who is making as important a contribution to the cause as any local staff, if not more. By realizing and acknowledging that Fatima has to turn her life upside down so that Samantha does not have to, is the first step towards gaining trust and ultimately loyalty from your remote staff.
Remote work in India, Philippines, Malaysia etc. is employing millions and your business is critically important to those resources, but it is important that you also realize that their contribution at a fraction of the cost is keeping you competitive. By empathizing with your remote workers, you are being effectively inclusive. Workers working for clients abroad in countries like India often feel that while they contribute as much as anyone else, they are ultimately treated differently and are perceived as inferior to the local, in-house staff in the home base. Empathy goes a long way in eradicating such feelings and fostering a healthy work culture.
Talk, talk and then talk some more
The biggest mistake that I have seen entrepreneurs do is, not communicating often with their remote staff. Yes, your remote employees are supposed to be professionals and you are actually outsourcing to gain expertise, not the other way around. So you might feel that you don’t have much to contribute and prefer to maintain long periods of radio silence. However, while logically it may sound fine, it is strategy fraught with risks. Pick up the phone or go on to Skype just to say “Hello!”. Check in on your staff from time to time. Trust me, it works wonders. It gives a message to your employees that you are involved and are interested in the nitty-gritty of their work. This will help them open up to you and suggest innovations and ideas which might not just improve the final product, but actually, save you a lot of time and in many cases money.
Remote professionals working dedicatedly for a client will often treat the project as their own if the client (that’s you) is actively involved in the day to day execution of the project and will hence want to impress by exceeding their brief. Clients in the US and EU have often been pleasantly surprised at the involvement and dedication shown by their remote employees. I have personally known PHP development teams in India to have worked 100 hours straight to fix a bug in a client’s website, practically eating and sleeping in the office. Needless to say, that the sort of rapport that the client had built up with his remote staff over time to be able to command such dedication and loyalty, was a pretty special one.
Trust me, for I am yours!
Trust! That one thing that is pretty much impossible to build sitting a million miles away! Hence one used to get iffy sharing credit card details to buy services being peddled by call centers situated in India and the Philippines. Trust is fragile, it takes entire edifices of positives to be erected to mean anything and yet can be brought down by a single loose brick! While buying anything online, the mind will automatically register the negative reviews first, and while there might be a hundred positive ones, we will retain the negative ones the most! That’s human instinct for you, one of the few times when we betray the animal within us. And no matter what I say, I cannot convince you to be rational about it. I myself won’t be rational about it. However, without trust, remote work is not possible.
So? Hence we have safeguards. For starters, always hire remote staff through reputed agencies. They are a tad more expensive, but when you are saving up to 70% already, do you really care about that extra 5%. Yup! That’s all the difference, not more! By saving 5% less, you can at least engage an agency which follows stringent data protection protocols and have as much to lose from a bad review as you would from a botched project. For the premium outsourcing companies in India, a bad review from an unhappy client can result in losses to the tune of millions of dollars in revenue going forward.
Secondly, sign an airtight NDA with your remote resource individually or ensure that the agency signs one with the resource on your behalf. Once you have these in place, you can carry on offshoring the project confidently. Once you are confident of trusting your resource with sensitive information, you will automatically build trust and loyalty within the resource for you too.