What makes a stellar offshore team? – A series of articles

Toronto born Eric Muth and his firm Support Adventure specialize in providing offshore technical support & customer service solutions of excellent quality. In this series of articles, Eric will share some of his experience in making his outsourcing solutions a success for everyone involved.

2 – Efficient Communication and Remote Team Building
By Eric Muth
Founder, Support Adventure

I’ve built my business on the fact that, given the right structure and management, remote workers abroad can be just as effective as workers in offices, like those located in business capitals such as London, and do it for a better price. We have the same VOIP phones, software, e-mail systems and the same ticketing systems. However, we miss out on company parties, meals together, shaking hands and the pleasures of sitting together in the same open plan office space with our colleagues from afar.

This article will explain options for strengthening remote relationships, explaining the best technologies to connect the team and how to use them most effectively and practices to avoid.

Telephone

It is my opinion that, in tech support, each staff member should be reachable by phone and that this should be the primary method of communication in situations which are time sensitive. Whether it’s a mobile phone of a sales staff member meeting clients, a VOIP App like Zoiper running on the smartphone of an engineer on site, or a Cisco VOIP Handset on the desk of an offshore helpdesk technician, everyone in your organization should be reachable by phone as much as possible, preferably with a direct phone number. It needs to be made clear to staff what situations necessitate a phone call, but once these are established, you have the most effective tool of remote communication ready when you need it. There is no substitute for this.

E-Mails & Ticket Notes

In this day and age people often respond to e-mails instantly. This is excellent, but there should be no pressure to do so. E-mails don’t go anywhere if you don’t answer immediately. Online chats and phone calls, on the other hand, do.

Ideally, e-mails between staff members and notes written on service tickets should be as detailed and complete as possible so the person who reads it later, whenever they get the chance, can pick up the case with all the information that they need to take the next action steps.

For example, when my engineers are escalating a service ticket, I have them fill out the following form:

Escalation Request Form:
The issue as it currently stands (in 25 words or less):
Things I have tried to resolve it:
Why I cannot resolve or complete the ticket:
Any other information the engineer receiving the ticket should know (e.g. callback times, alternate contact, etc):

This ensures that they have at least taken the time to provide basic information so that the person looking at the ticket or e-mail can, at a glance, see what it is about without going through pages of notes which have not been summarized.

In an age when some of us get hundreds of emails each day, not getting an answer is something which has become common. In this case, just a one to three-line follow-up asking if they have read it and supplying any new information is the best way to remind someone to write back. If they don’t write back to you, do not take it personally. Everyone is busy and way too overloaded with information these days. Keep on following up.

Chat Applications (Skype, 8×8, etc.)

Having been on a couple teams which have used chat applications to connect employees, I can say that no other communication technology has wasted so much time. The tendency for staff quickly becomes to rely on chat as the primary form of communication between each other.

There are two main problems with this:
-Questions or requests (perhaps even urgent ones) which could be solved in 30 seconds on the telephone end up taking 3-5 minutes while we wait for an initial greeting to be returned, the person starting conversation to type their message, the response to be written and the conversation that continues from there. It’s a big waste of time and a constant distraction.
-Information that is not time sensitive or at all urgent, which should be sent in an e-mail, is put into a chat window and sent immediately, distracting the recipient from what they were working on. This leaves them feeling obliged to respond immediately and, if they are unable to, leaving the information in a place where it is likely to be neglected or forgotten.

The rule should be to avoid using chat whenever possible. It’s too easy to distract your colleagues and waste their time with chat and I would advise all remote teams to find strategies to minimize its use as the primary form of communication between staff members.

With that being said I have noticed chat to be quite useful in the following situations:
When you have two engineers in different locations working on the same issue. One is on the phone with the client and the other is providing advice or backend support (perhaps while working on another ticket):

Example of a useful chat:
First tech: They say that the Internet light on the router is off.
Second tech: Have them reboot the router and I will watch on the portal to see if it reconnects.
First tech: Okay, they’re rebooting it.Waiting for it to come back up.
Second tech: Okay, I’m getting a response from it now, have them test their connection.

When asking whether someone is free to take a call which has come in for them:

Example:
Dispatch: Hi, I’ve got Kevin from SalesTech on the line for you, transfer?
Manager: No, it’s a sales call, tell him I’m busy and to send an e-mail to info@techfirmamazingcompany.com

When e-mails between staff members start to resemble a back and forth conversation about an issue both are engaged in, the features on chat can speed up the communication process if telephone communication is not feasible.
In order to maximize the benefit of chat without the drawbacks, I suggest the following guidelines:
If the issue is urgent or somehow time sensitive, try calling them first, and if that fails, then send a chat message that the person would see when they return to their desk.

If the issue is not time sensitive, send an e-mail, or use the ticketing system, to communicate the information or assign the task which needs to be completed.

When initiating a chat with a team member, type your greeting and whole initial message to the person before sending anything. This won’t distract your colleague from their work by having them wait two minutes while you type your message following your greeting, it will all come at once and they will begin responding as soon as they see it.

If something sent to you in chat is information you will have to refer to later, instruct the sender to e-mail it to you instead. This trains them to use e-mail for such messages and makes sure you can easily find the information that they are sending later, rather than having it lost in endless chat logs. I don’t mind being informed via chat that important information for later has been emailed to me, but I don’t think that chat should be where such information is transmitted.

Tele/Video Conferencing

In the 21st century we have the luxury of being able to make video calls in which we can see the person that we are speaking with. When I was a kid I used to watch Star Trek and dream of what could be done with this possibility. These days it is a reality.

In order to build the friendliness and rapport that a team working across national borders thrives on, I strongly suggest you use video for online meetings and chats. Audio works too, but video adds a whole other dimension of communication.

I realized at a recent staff party that the contractors I had assigned to my main client had no idea what the managing director looked like as he doesn’t like to use video chat. To them he was just a voice on the phone who called up and gave orders. I tried to explain to them how charismatic a character he was in person, but they almost didn’t believe me. I then had to find them a picture of him so they could at least know what his face looks like. This made me realize that for the sake of virtual team building, I need to implement better strategies in the future to have staff members get to know each other.

Creating face to face rapport amongst team members online is essential to getting the team to feel as close and connected as possible.

On my teams we haven’t used video conferencing between my team members and end users, but I would like to see it in the future as it can have a similar effect in creating rapport.

Scheduling times to connect

While running a remote team for a company that had documentation that was hard to navigate, we started having escalation meetings in a video conference on Skype for Business. All three of my remote technicians, my dispatcher and the senior help desk engineer in London would have meetings multiple times a week to discuss issues which needed to be solved with input from the main office. This had many different effects.

First of all, if an issue wasn’t incredibly urgent, it was saved for the meeting. This significantly cut down on time-consuming chat conversations and endless threads of emails, which allowed everyone to focus more. Anybody who has been in a management position knows how difficult it can be to have a productive day when those you manage frequently contact you with the dreaded “got a minute?” requests. It’s more useful to arrange all non-urgent “got a minute?” incidents into a scheduled block of time when everyone can hear the questions and answers to them, drawing on and raising the knowledge of the whole team at the same time.

Second of all, it gave the guys a chance to feel like they were a team, make jokes amongst each other and actually get familiar with each other as human beings, something which can be incredibly lacking in most remote working situations. Establishing a team dynamic helps us collaborate better, especially the more socially inclined of us. For those of us who work our jobs remotely, sharing laughs with colleagues and learning about each other helps us feel welcomed and valued as team members, despite the fact that we live far away.

While holding meetings every day where everyone talks about what they’re working on might be a waste of time, doing it at least twice a month should be the bare minimum to make your team feel like a team. Do not underestimate the power of this.

Conclusion – Time and Focus are a priority

Overall, we have an excellent variety of tools which we can use to connect teams working in different physical locations so that they can be as effective as people sitting next to each other. In shaping your company culture’s methods of using these various tools, you need to make sure that those methods make the best use of people’s time and allow them the biggest chance of having blocks of time where they are able to focus on issues without interruption.

I’m sure there’s many more exercises, games and online activities which could be done online to strengthen a remote team, their rapport and their communication habits. However, I would first make sure that you address the basics outlined above. Remote working and communication is one of the glories of the 21st century, if applied correctly, but can turn your life into chaos if it is not. Make sure that your organization has clear guidelines on how remote communication should be used.

Next week there will be no newsletter due to the holiday break, but we’ll be back the first week of January with more tips on how to make remote working a success.