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How to Make an Offshore Team Feel Included

Building A Team
Remote
Company Culture

11 May, 2021

Gregory Witek
Gregory Witek

Engineering Manager at Booking.com

Gregory Witek, Engineering Manager at EclecticIQ, tells of his efforts to make an offshore team based in the Philippines feel included by building remote-first culture spanning the whole organization.

Problem

Back in the days when I was working in Singapore, I had to deal with the highly competitive market of Southeast Asia. A great number of big brand companies were coming to Singapore and hiring local developers. Since they were able to offer better salaries, they would be the first choice to consider for most developers. Though we were able to attract some top talent who were keen to work in a startup, the pool of candidates was not growing. We started thinking about having an offshore team, but it was not as easy as hiring someone to work remotely.

Years ago, I was in a situation where I was one of three remote people out of 40 engineers. I didn’t stay too long with the company because I felt that many things were decided on-prem, and I would only learn about them weeks later. The whole company was very office-oriented, and the remote staff was an afterthought. That was a mistake I didn’t want to repeat.

Actions taken

We spent a couple of months before we established an offshore team, ensuring that the whole company is on board with the idea of remote-first culture. Every week I kept repeating to management that everyone needed to embrace a remote mindset if we wanted to be successful in our endeavor. That implied that all team discussions should happen online and be documented, since a lot of discussions were happening between people communicating in person.

However, some teams were not very excited about the idea. They couldn’t see why they should change how they operated because it was my team that would establish an offshore office. Since they would continue to work from the office, there was no need to switch to remote-first. However, it didn’t take them long to understand that working with anyone on my team would require embracing remote-first culture. All of us would, regardless of if we were in the office or not, work remotely. It took a few months for others to accommodate and for us to prepare for what was coming. It was enough for us to become confident about hiring a remote team that would feel included and welcome.

We then had to decide where we wanted our remote team to be placed since we didn’t want people dispersed across all different time zones. There were so many things to consider when making a choice -- working culture, language, communication style, transportation, etc. For example, we were considering Indonesia because it was close to Singapore, but after conversing with some recruiters from there, we realized that their spoken English would make communication difficult. Eventually, we decided on the Philippines due to its many similarities with our working culture and advanced English proficiency. It is always useful to know some local people who could help you familiarize yourself more with the market.

Finally, we wanted to make sure that the people we hired would stay on the team. In countries popular for their offshore workforce like India or the Philippines, people tend to change companies frequently. A lack of integration efforts makes many of the new hires feel like outsiders, which is a leading cause of attrition. Remote staff would most likely communicate among themselves and rarely interact with people outside of their group. No wonder they would leave once they would receive a better offer because nothing connects them with the company.

To avoid that mistake, we mixed people from Singapore and the Philippines and would have them work together on the same projects. We also invited people from the Philippines to come to Singapore and stay at headquarters for a month. They would have lunch with the CEO and co-founders and get to know many people across the company. At the same time, every month or two, we would send developers from Singapore to visit their offshore teammates and work from the same office. They would have an opportunity to spend a lot of face time and work together.

That approach worked rather well that the people who initially joined the company are still working with them. Moreover, they replicated the same approach in several other places, not only in Asia but also in Europe and made it work across different time zones.

Lessons learned

  • Be well prepared before you start to hire people remotely. Do thorough research to understand what options would work best for you: would you rather hire contractors or establish a new business entity in another country? Or, if you hire freelancers, would you be able to give them shares? If you hire remotely, what public holidays will they observe? Before we started hiring offshore, I was never thinking about those issues, but they are critically important for the success of your business.
  • The whole company needs to be on board with the remote-first idea. That means everyone has to be committed to leaving a paper trail, even that most would still be chatting at the office. More specifically, all the decisions need to be documented and accessible online, which often requires an orchestrated effort.
  • The onboarding process, especially for the first few candidates, has to be quite welcoming. If they don’t feel included, then all of your efforts will be in vain. The critical moment is the moment when they go back to their office after spending the first part of their onboarding at headquarters. They must feel like a part of the company, not a disconnected offshore office. Talking with other companies that tried to establish an offshore office in the Philippines and failed was also helpful. We realized that the key to success is to make people feel appreciated and included.

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