"I can’t wait to work with you!’ I’ve figured out a solution for my family - I’ll do 11 months from Melbourne and go back to visit them in Bali once a year."
Damn it! We’d spent so long searching for a new .NET developer, and had found the perfect person. He had a huge amount of experience and his skills were first class. He had worked at other agencies, his credentials checked out, he was aligned with our values, and better yet, he was prepared to move to Melbourne from Auckland for the role. He was fantastic.
But how could it work? Having him spend most of the year away from his family wasn’t something we could ask him to do, and it didn’t align with our values. We were so conflicted.
"Sorry Yoki, but we can’t give you the role knowing that you’ll be spending that much time away from your family. It just doesn’t align with our values," I told him.
He said: "I know it’s going to be hard. My wife’s moved back to Bali for health reasons. Auckland and Melbourne are too cold, so she won’t be joining me in Melbourne and my son needs to be with his mother."
Andy and I were bitterly disappointed, but couldn’t see another way to do it.
Then Yoki’s response changed our thinking.
"Well… what if you opened an office in Bali instead?"
He was crazy. But it was the kind of crazy we liked.
After all, we’d found the right person, we had opened in other locations and we already had people working remotely. Our business had already put in place a range of structures to support distributed teams across Australia. Why would Bali be any different?
So, we did it. Seven weeks after our conversation, we opened in Bali.
Why outsourcing was not for us
The difference between outsourcing and having a geographically distributed team is immense. When you outsource, you palm off the work to a person working from a company overseas and they are never part of your team. You take little to no responsibility for the quality of their working lives. They’re not team members. They’re simply resources.
For us, this is a model that does not work. We’re about people and quality.
Anyone we bring on board is a team member, not a disposable resource. Having someone join your team from a remote location is welcoming them into the fold and genuinely working towards a symbiotic working relationship. With Yoki and the Bali office, we grew a new arm to our company; an extension of our team in a new location. It’s been a challenge but the results have been extraordinary.
In this last year, we’ve grown our team in Bali from one to five and learnt some pretty big lessons along the way.
Not only has the process allowed our team in Bali to grow and thrive, but our Australian teams have mastered new ways of working, improved their communication skills, and developed a whole new approach to what it means to work ‘remotely’. In essence, everyone is now ‘remote’ - as the concept of distributed teams means that with the right tools, we can work from just about anywhere. I truly believe this is the way of the future.
Here are some of the key takeaways we’ve gathered from the past 12 months of having an offshore office:
#1: Be prepared to embrace differences
We knew that opening in another country would come with a unique set of challenges, but we weren’t entirely prepared for just how significantly some of the cultural nuances would play out, and how we would need to adapt our way of thinking.
For example, in Indonesian culture, it is considered impolite to speak up when you don’t have the answer – you just work harder until you find it. This doesn’t align with the way we do business (or a model based on time logged), so we needed to find new ways to bridge gaps, make briefs better, and remove barriers to asking questions and getting our Bali team what they needed.
Different religions come with different sets of restrictions – allowing time for prayer in the afternoon, adjusting celebrations and meals to work within worship practices, or supporting our team through Ramadan whilst trying to dial them in to our monthly team lunch.
Another difference we learned to be mindful of is around holidays and leave. There are new public holidays announced regularly in Indonesia, and with little warning that they will be taking place. Back home, we have public holidays that take place on Balinese working days, so we have to be agile in our approach to resourcing and make sure our Bali team has everything they need to carry on uninterrupted while we’re offline.
It is being mindful of these lifestyle differences that creates a respectful working relationship. They know that we care, and we learn the importance of flexibility with international customs.
#2: Leverage technology
On any given day we generally have four or more people working from home, some people working on site with clients, and people working from offices across Sydney, Bali, Brisbane, Adelaide, Albury and Melbourne.
The challenge of managing a distributed team is ensuring that people feel connected. Given how integral face-to-face communication is to the way we understand each other – through eye contact and body language – we have learned to lean on technology to replace the quick tap on the shoulder so many of us are accustomed to.
In just about every meeting across our organisation, we utilise tools such as ‘Google Meet’ to ensure people can be involved. We’ve invested in our office spaces so that meeting rooms in each of our locations have a television with a camera, a Chromebox, a good microphone, and in some cases, soundproofing on the walls.
Each day we communicate to the wider team about the status of where people are, via daily email updates and internal status boards. Wherever possible, people are accessible via Google Meet, a desk phone and instant messaging through Slack.
Technology has provided an ability for us to radically change the way we work, and we’ve embraced it.
#3: Communicate, communicate, communicate
At Luminary, we have people with backgrounds from 21 different countries. For some, English is a second language. We’ve taken the approach that you can speak whatever language you like in our offices, providing that briefings and general meetings are conducted in English.
But communication runs further than just the language being spoken. As I touched on earlier around embracing differences, there are also cultural nuances and understandings to take into account.
We recognised this challenge early, and so one of the ways we went about supporting all of our team members to get the most out of each other was to hire a communications consultant from San Francisco, who provides communication strategies and training to technology businesses from startups to large companies.
We charged him with providing everyone in the team with a voice, and over several days he trained us in everything from understanding what’s behind people’s communication (their “hidden motivator”), to how to get your opinion across and the age-old challenge of having an effective meeting.
We conducted this training across our offices, and the response was extraordinary. It provided every member of our team with the same set of tools and access to be clear, concise and heard.
#4: It’s all about relationships
Going to work is about more than just the task at hand or the time logged. It’s about relationships. It’s a place to connect, to have a conversation, to meet new people. ‘Watercooler chat’ is something technology can only go so far to replace.
Recognising this, one of our key strategies to support our new way of working is to ensure that we have people moving between offices on a regular basis – visiting different teams, connecting with them, understanding them on a more personal level, and ensuring that no one’s left out.
To facilitate this, we have introduced a policy to allow every team member to travel to Bali once a year. We cover flights and accommodation, and each team member has the ability to go and work from Bali for the week with their colleagues.
This builds relationships with team members, breaks down barriers, and provides an amazing opportunity for team members to learn the different culture, gain a deeper understanding of their colleagues’ environment and work together in a completely different way.
There is no doubt that opening in a remote location is a significant undertaking, and there is a lot of learning to be done. But it can be incredibly rewarding, it can present new opportunities and it will almost certainly broaden the horizons of your team, company and culture.
Our team in Bali paragliding to celebrate our 18th birthday.
From top left: Angga, Andik, Reggie, Marty, Hadi. Front: Our original Bali team member, Yoki. (Matt Lee from our Sydney office can also be seen paragliding above the group in the background!)
Our Bali office opened in June 2016.
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