All too often, the news and analysis about globalization is limited to manufacturing and supply chains. Discussion of how globalization is transforming white-collar or knowledge-based work is less common, and even then the focus is limited to business process outsourcing, such as moving a company’s call centers to the Philippines or getting your X-rays read in India.
As with so many other changes, the technology sector has led the way: it’s common now to find software teams that span Silicon Valley in California to Bengaluru in India. Arun Kumar, Founder and CEO of Kerika, argues that widely distributed yet superbly coordinated teams will become commonplace in all sectors and professions, as companies vie for global market share.
This includes sales teams that help land large clients by coordinating their efforts across every country where the client has an office; marketing teams of people from multiple countries that craft and launch plans that deliberately aim for a global impact; and consultancies that leverage specialists from many regions to create solutions for their clients.
A closer look at the collaboration challenges facing these distributed teams shows that there are actually two different scenarios that must be considered.
People’s workdays often don’t overlap perfectly, or at all.
There’s the ‘same time, different places’ scenario, where people are available to collaborate at the same time, from different locations. For this scenario, tools like Zoom, Skype and Teams have already proven to be indispensable, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing a giant beta test of these tools.
Then there’s the scenario of ‘different times, different places’, where people’s workdays often don’t overlap perfectly, or at all. This scenario is more common. Even if all employees are based in a single country – and let’s say that country is the United States – then there are nine time zones to deal with, which means not everyone is going to be ready to hop on a Zoom call together at the same time.
If the first scenario is all about “Can we look together at this?”, in the second scenario, the key collaboration challenge is “What happened while I was away/asleep/in a meeting/traveling?”. In other words, if I log in to my computer hours after you left your office, how can I quickly understand where you left things, what changes were made and what needs my attention?
To handle this challenge, a new type of work management tool has been developed by companies like Kerika, which has always been focused on improving the productivity of remote teams. From its beginnings more than two decades ago, Kerika has operated as a distributed team, so the folks there have had plenty of time to come to grips with the challenge of helping remote teams get more done.
According to Kumar, for remote teams to work effectively across many time zones, there are three core elements that must be present in any solution.
Passing the baton
First, it should be easy to hand work off from one person to another. So someone in Bengaluru, for example, can easily pick up something that their colleague in San Francisco has partially completed.
This is possible only when work is packaged, with the help of an easy-to-use app, in smart containers that include everything that is relevant to that particular work item. This means going beyond just the description of the task to be completed, its due date and other status information. It includes what everyone has been saying about it (with chat replacing emails as a smarter alternative); the content that’s related to that task, such as files, videos, or internet links; and, of course, all the history and status of that task. That is, who worked on it last, what got done and what needs to be done next.
It should be easy to hand work off from one person to another.
This is easy to do with virtual or browser-based task boards, where each task is shown and arranged in a workflow that makes sense to the team. The simplest task boards might just have three stages to the workflow: Waiting to Do, In Progress and Done. But the concept can be scaled easily to handle more complex workflows. One of Kumar’s customers used Kerika to handle all the operations of a 24/7 mine, and that board had 26 steps in its workflow.
Employing effective replacements
Second, we all need to get away from email and spreadsheets as a project or task management tool. Email was never intended to be used to manage projects, but because it’s ubiquitous, it’s used in that way. It’s easy to blast everyone in the vicinity with an email, even if most of the recipients don’t really care about the subject enough to get a blow-by-blow account of how a topic or task is evolving.
The smarter alternative to email, according to Kumar, is chat that is closely tied to specific tasks – so when you open a task on a board, you see everything that people have said about that particular task and nothing else. For chat to be an effective replacement to email, the messages need to be linked to specific tasks. This linkage ensures that people’s replies are always on-topic, and that’s a big improvement over the internal spam that is generated when people thoughtlessly ‘Reply All’ and introduce tangential topics into the original discussion.
Additionally, spreadsheets don’t work well for right-brained people who find it a lot easier to navigate visual task boards. Many traditional project and task management tools cater to left-brained or analytical individuals. These tools really short-change a lot of folks who could otherwise contribute a lot more to their teams, if the tools they had were more visual than list-oriented.
Less is more
Third, the tools must be very easy to use. This might seem obvious, but many tools give the distinct impression that they were designed by techies, for techies. They work great for software engineers in open-brick lofts in San Francisco, but they can baffle or alienate what Kumar calls “regular folks”– people in sales, marketing, HR or even finance.
Every button or feature adds to the cognitive burden of the user, so it’s important to only include what is absolutely necessary.
Designing simple tools is harder than designing complex ones. Every button or feature adds to the cognitive burden of the user, so it’s important to only include what is absolutely necessary. At Kerika, Kumar tries to stick with adding only those features that most people will need to use, most of the time. This means that a lot of great ideas that could make power users happy have to be abandoned if they add complexity to the average user, but it’s essential in maintaining a more user-friendly, effective system.
As you consider how your own teams need to be better at working with remote colleagues who may be thousands of kilometers away, also think about what kind of tool they need to use to be as productive as possible. Using a task management system that makes it easy to answer the question, “What happened while I was away?” can streamline your workflow and lead to better communication and cohesion within your teams.