Looking at the previous two Tales from the Trenches, a reader could get the impression that all web workers are employed by small firms or as independent contractors. But large organizations are putting the advantages of wired working to use as well, including global telecom giant Orange.
Mark Fitzpatrick, the head of workplace development at Orange Business Services, knows this well. He has put together a team of internal candidates from the best and brightest Orange has to offer. The result is a team spread from Dallas to Delhi, some working in Orange offices and some entirely from home. How does he manage to coordinate a group of talent spread across nearly every time zone? WebWorkerDaily spoke with him to find out.
The flexibility provided by remote work tools allows Fitzpatrick to source the best niche talent. The result is a globally dispersed team with a powerful set of skills. “There was no design to create a remote team,” he explains. “We were looking for some pretty unique combinations of skill sets; for example, a person with a great deal of real estate and telecom experience. If that particular rare animal shows up in a city that you really didn’t have in mind, then you’re choosing the person, not necessarily the location.”
The global reach of his team’s work also means that even if he had hired his next-door neighbor, that co-located worker would soon be handling projects around the world. “The guy in Dallas, for example, has been the primary project manager for our major service center in Cairo,” Fitzpatrick says. “We’re only going to run one of these projects in Cairo about once every two or three years, so we’re certainly not going to try and source someone in the Middle East when that person would end up having to manage another project in Petrópolis, Brazil. “
Being blind to distance has helped Fitzpatrick build an exceptional team, but the variety of time zones is also a hurdle. Old-fashioned flexibility is key. “Someone has to suffer and do a two a.m. conference call,” he says. Also, the team has learned to be mindful about decision making. Fitzpatrick is based in Europe but has an employee in Sydney. “We couldn’t be much farther away,” he explains. “If he has to get my approval, then it can add a day, and if I have a question for him, that costs us a day. So we don’t ask each other ping-pong questions that take a whole week that, if we were in the same time zone, would have taken minutes. You have to plan when and where the decision is going to be made, who has to be involved, and minimize that.”
Different situations call for different tools, according to Fitzpatrick. If “it’s a non-real-time decision you want documented, then email it is.” But his team is also finding some “interesting combos,” including audio conferencing plus instant messaging, very useful.
“The thing about audio conferencing is, you can set a date and then everybody has agreed to a decision time frame. But once you get these players involved, they use instant messaging during the audio call,“ he says. “You can have the conversation outside of the conversation. Everybody is listening to what the speaker is saying, but underneath they’re writing each other instant messages and building agreements. They’re rapidly forming little subcommittees and building up to the decision, so the decisions happen faster. That combination is becoming vital to the way we make decisions.”
This sort of thing, Fitzpatrick adds, works less well with video conferencing. “What we found is a 10-minute subject on audio conference should be moved to more like 20 minutes on telepresence. The additional time was created by the fact that everybody’s fully engaged, so you are going to get more input. But also, the informal agreements haven’t really happened, so people are trying to determine in that slow way that we do in face-to-face communication.”
Having managed co-located teams previously, Fitzpatrick has noticed one big difference with his current distributed team. “When there’s the ability to bring multiple people into the same room, it’s not so much your relationship with the employees, it’s their relationships with each other. Whereas when everything goes remote, there is more of a hub-and-spoke kind of relationship. I sometimes feel like everyone has a relationship with me that is stronger than their relationships with each other.”
To encourage interrelationships among team members, Fitzpatrick has learned to “delegate and walk away. They tend to develop their own relationships that way.” He’s also learned that building team cohesion takes a conscious effort from him in the form of a simple behavior change. “I became much more mindful of my instant message status,” he says. “At the coffee cooler, you see the person. You know that they’re not occupied, but when you’ve got a telephone, there’s no way to know, so use instant message to say, ‘Yeah, I’m available.’ It’s really important to turn your status to green even though you’re super busy.”
Fitzpatrick also notes sociological research showing that “the old expression ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ is actually completely wrong.” Reduce your contact with someone to less than ten times per year and science says it will changes your relationship. “I believe it’s called Dunbar’s number,” he says. “We can all keep about 150 relationships close, but once you get beyond 150, relationships start to fall apart. So if you’re going to be one of the 150 with your team, frequency matters.” A recurring meeting in Outlook makes sure he has regular one-on-one meetings with all his employees where they can discuss any issue on their mind.