I recently returned from a trip around the world, during which I traveled, over the course of 10 days, from India to New Zealand to Australia to the U.S. to the U.K. – and then back to India. On the flight leg between Sydney and Los Angeles, I was thinking (you have a LOT of time to think on those flights) about how technology allows me to be in my office wherever I am. The flight that I was on had internet connectivity for most of the 14 hour flight leg. Whatever time zone I was in I continued to be in constant touch with my team members, whether by email, phone calls or videoconferencing. Work continued as usual, be it budget planning (we were preparing for the new fiscal year), delivery reviews or contract negotiations.
It got me thinking about the recent policy change at Yahoo, where CEO Marissa Mayer eliminated the company’s work-from-home option. Critics of the move said it was a step backward for workplace flexibility, which they say increases productivity. The Yahoo CEO said that people working together in the same place fosters innovation, by ensuring the chance meetings that spark new thinking.
Without weighing in on that specific debate, let me offer some thoughts about how to make things work when people don’t have the option of working side by side. That’s the situation at a global IT services provider like HCL Technologies, where members of the same team often work, by necessity, in different countries or on different continents.
At HCL, I am Executive Vice President responsible for Global Delivery of our Consumer Services and Government Businesses. What I love about my role in HCL is the fact that no two days are the same – I get a chance to travel a lot, meet with our customers and employees in different parts of the world, and learn every day. I am based out of our Bangalore offices, but almost all of my delivery teams are located in different parts of the world; the bulk of my own team is split between Noida and Chennai in India.
Managing in today’s connected world, and with a global workforce, requires a different mindset. It requires us managers to put a premium on results, rather than effort. It also requires us to set aside traditional notions of what a work day is – being part of a global workforce means that work necessarily happens at odd hours, with calls/meetings late at night or early in the morning.
Some things are definitely done better face to face, and so a willingness to travel and be there when the need arises is an important component of being a global manager. But for the most part, you don’t really need to be in constant physical proximity to your team.
An important consideration in making such a setup work is to manage work-life balance. Truly global organizations like HCL with a large distributed workforce have adopted the most pragmatic approach – which is to be flexible with the time an employee is required to be physically present in a work place and in allowing him or her to work remotely. Enabling this effectively requires some serious investment in technology (VPN, videoconferencing, collaboration tools, audio and meeting bridges, etc.), as well as a workforce that is technically savvy enough to be able to troubleshoot connectivity issues, since connectivity is your lifeline to productivity. It also requires discipline – to set aside time to be with loved ones but not be distracted by them when work needs to be done.
The most important element for achieving success with this model, however, is your people, who need to be self-driven and focused on achieving results. You need to identify the right talent that can thrive in this environment. You have to have people who are able to work independently, leverage technology to stay connected, reach out for help when required, but always with the focus and drive to deliver.
And this includes me. To put it simply, if I cannot manage my team remotely, why would any potential customer think that I could help them run their critical business systems more efficiently with a distributed global workforce?
And what about you? What has your experience been in running, or working on, a virtual team?