The myth about out-sourcing. How to work with remote teams

Carl-Johan Kihl15 Aug 2019

Introduction

For the last years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with remote teams over different continents.

The company I worked for was growing globally and wanted a robust software-development site in the Philippines. They have been present in the region for a while but things were not going as smooth as planned.

My job description was abstract but exciting:

Go to the Philippines, and figure out what is not working.

And away it was! ✈️ I packed my bags and took a flight to the Philippines.  3 years later, I’ve learned a lot. I learned that a lot of assumptions about “Out-sourcing” and “remote teams” couldn’t be farther from the truth.

The Philippines does not only have great developers they have great beaches too.
The Philippines does not only have great developers they have great beaches too.

Myth № 1: Outsourcing is “Cheap”

Long gone are the days of so-called “out-sourcing”, where you can find cheap labor in other countries to do the work for you for a fraction of the price.

Thank god for that! 😅 After working with software development for the last decade, I’ve learned that this is not sustainable, efficient or cost-effective in the long run.

Your best employees that are performing very well will quit will sooner or later and move on to new opportunities where they can get a raise in salary. Talented developers know their value in a very attractive global market. The time and cost of constantly changing, educating and onboarding new people all the time is not worth it.

A more efficient and sustainable way is to find a great team, pay them well, treat them well and make them stay.

Find a great team, pay them well, treat them well, make them stay.

I don’t use the word “out-sourcing” because of its bad reputation and a strong connection to a system that doesn’t work anymore. In the rest of this article, let’s talk about “remote teams” instead.

Myth № 2: Code-quality is not good enough.

This is far from the truth. Since I came to the Philippines, I’ve been working with some of the most talented developers I’ve met. They have all been studying at universities, have strong coding skills, motivation and passion for their work.

The reason why many associates remote teams with bad code-quality is because of another reason which I’m going to explain to you later in this article.

Myth № 3: The language barrier is a problem!

The language barrier was a challenge for sure. The company I worked with was from Sweden. Project descriptions, User Stories, tasks, and conversations in slack was written in Swedish.

I realized the language barrier didn’t originate from the Philippines (where English is a national language together with Tagalog). The language barrier came from Sweden. We Swedes are good in English but very comfortable using Swedish at work and in our daily conversations! 😊

For a year, we worked towards the goal to change the company-culture and habit of using Swedish in our conversations and transform our way of working.

Today the Swedish company is a global organization with offices in 6 countries. I strongly believe that the effort everybody put in, helped us transform our “Swedish” company into becoming an international organization!

The offshore team pushed us to transform into and international company.

If your company doesn’t have the vision of being an international company, then a remote team might not be for you. Otherwise, getting a small team in another country is a great opportunity to push your limits and grow.

Now let’s talk about the two real challenges when it comes to remote teams.

Challenge № 1: Quality of Communication.

As I quickly realized, the quality of code is not a problem, it was the quality of communication.

A famous study from the University of Pennsylvania is stating that 70% of our communication is body language, 23% is voice tone and inflection, and only 7% is words!

Words are only 7% of our communication

So what does this mean for remote teams? Imagine we are sitting in a room together. We’re having a discussion about a problem where we after a while we will reach a conclusion. As we can see each other, we can confirm that we have understood each other and agree that we have reached the same conclusion.

However, if we only write in words, it’s harder to understand if we have reached the same conclusion, and I mean MUCH harder. 14 times harder to be exact since we’re only communicating at 7%.

This is a challenge in software development since misunderstandings is a great time of waste.

The myth of bad code quality originates from bad communication!

It became clear to me as I, myself had more challenges communicating with my colleagues back in Sweden than my colleagues in the Philippines.

  • Don’t underestimate communication. Remember that you’re only communicating at 7% capacity in writing.

  • Have as much video calls as possible. This not only helps with the improves communication, but it’s also an exchange of motivation, focus, and energy.

  • Don’t make assumptions. Always verify that the information was communicated as intended.

  • Write brief and comprehensive user stories and descriptions. We’ve created a proven pattern for creating and working with User Stories that works amazingly well.

Challenge № 2: Different Time Zones

This is a tricky challenge since it directly affects our daily communication.

In our case, the time difference between Sweden and the Philippines is 6–7 hours, which means we only have 3 hours of communication a day! The solution here is to adapt to each other time zones as much as possible. We worked earlier in Sweden and later in the Philippines. Those extra hours are valuable. We carefully planned and improved our meeting-schedules to adapt to this new way of working.

Conclusion

Remote teams are not something that just works out of the box. Then everybody would have done it already. 😉 Those who expect it will “just work” will be disappointed, turn down the idea of remote teams and say that it doesn’t work. I’m here to say the opposite:

It works great, and it’s worth it.

As with any business model, an effort and some tweaks are needed. Know the challenges and solutions and you can save a lot of time and money. As the world is getting smaller, we are working more global than ever. We’re finding talented individuals all over the world and ore and more employees want the freedom and flexibility to work remote. My opinion, If your company wants to grow internationally, the challenges with remote teams will eventually come sooner or later.

That’s why you should start today.

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