2.4.08

Best Practice - This stuff takes time...

I've written before that companies outsource or go global because they want to be cheaper faster or better. Usually they start with cheaper.

So it's no surprise that they will often add offshore staff (whether through contractors or through a captive development center) and then freeze or reduce staff levels onshore. This is fine except that adding staff offshore is a productivity tax in the short term. So while they're getting cheaper, they're also getting slower and their quality is going down.

In the case where onshore headcount is frozen or reduced, senior managers will often take a hard line on the subject of productivity and quality during the "ramp time" for an offshore team. They'll adopt a both / and approach, saying something like "bring this new team up to speed, but don't let your day job slip."

This approach is bad for a few reasons.

First it creates a perception that managing the offshore team (or ramping them up, or answering their questions, or any of a number of tasks associated with being a global team) is not part of the day job. It should be.

Second it creates a nights and weekends level of priority that will doom the offshore staff to periodic and sporadic responses to their questions. An offshore team in this environment will not ramp up as quickly, and may never achieve their potential.

Lastly that approach creates resentment among the onshore team. I've heard people say things like "Wow, I get all this extra work and responsibility, no extra pay, and ultimately I'm training my replacement. Great!" This resentment cripples the performance of the offshore team while gutting the motivation of the onshore team. A nice two-for-one special, that.

A better approach is to acknowledge that the initial ramp-up and knowledge transfer stage of a new offshore team is a huge productivity tax requiring dedicated onshore resources. Don't do it in the middle of a time-sensitive project. Do it between projects. Or better yet carve out staff to handle the ramp up and keep them out of the critical path during that time. Acknowledge that being a liaison for a group of engineers somewhere else on the planet is a job, not a hobby. Tell people that this is what they're responsible for. If you ask them to do extra stuff (like getting up at 6 AM for conference calls or traveling a lot) give them extra perks (like a new laptop or a one-time bonus). But most importantly, acknowledge and stress that the tasks associated with bringing the offshore team up to speed and keeping them at speed are now part of the day job for the onshore staff. Plan accordingly and don't ask them to layer this new work on top of an already crammed and stressful 50 or 60 hour work week.

Actionable recommendations:
  • Ramp up offshore staff using resources who are not in the critical path for any of your projects.
  • Make sure you and they understand that there will be a productivity dip during the ramp up phase. Remember that your efforts here will control the duration of that dip - but that the dip is inevitable.
  • Don't send the message that managing the offshore team is "extra credit" work. Make it the day job.
    • Create a new job designation or specialization. If someone is the liaison to an offshore team, make them a Remote Team Lead. In your project plan allocate them 100% to the task of leading the remote team.
    • If someone manages an offshore team of contractors acknowledge them with the title of Remote Team Manager. Make sure they get the right training to be effective at that job.
    • Most importantly, make sure everyone in the company knows that managing or leading offshore teams is a real job and that a lot of the work happen outside the core 9 to 5 business hours. Cut these onshore leads and managers some slack on the core hour attendance. If they are doing their jobs well they are working many more hours than what you may see in the office.
  • Recognize and reward the changes you're asking people to make to their work norms and behavior.
    • If you ask someone to be on-call during evening or early morning hours pay them for that on-call time. Give them a $50 a week bump if they have off-hours responsibility. This recognizes that you're disrupting their home life and gives them a cost-effective token of appreciation.
    • Do the same thing when you make someone travel in support of their offshore team. Not everyone on your team will like to travel. Some will hate it. Make it easier and nicer for them. This one is easy. Just say, before they leave: Make sure you get out and do something fun while you're in (India, Russia, China, or wherever you happen to have your remote team). And make sure they know that's code for "have a nice time (within reason) and expense it."

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