Branching out is never an easy proposition. Whether it's a new location or employees telecommuting, there are many questions you need to answer. Where do you start? How do you get set up? How will your employees communicate effectively and more. CIO.com talked to Michael Rosenbaum, founder and CEO of Catalyst IT Services, a provider of Agile outsourcing services, to find out what it takes to branch out and maintain in this brave new world.
If you plan is to open a new location, step 1, according to Rosenbaum, is knowing when to make your move. "Before we even decided to open a second office, there was careful evaluation deciding whether or not a second location was worth the investment. For us, we waited to reach a tipping point that was a convergence of client need and increased geographical reputation," Rosenbaum says.
Related Article: Why Remote Offices Mean Better IT Teams
Keeping Your Culture From a Distance
Maintaining the company culture is a critical factor. "The biggest challenge and focus has been making sure that our Portland office is really an extension of our organization in Baltimore, and that it doesn't become its own entity," Rosenbaum says.
"If you've worked hard to refine and develop something excellent in one office, but you aren't able to replicate that in another location, you are creating a disparate geographical hub that can potentially generate an inconsistent and negative reputation in a remote market. That's really dangerous from a business perspective," he says
When Catalyst IT Services realized it needed to expand, it sent 20 employees from its original office to set up the new digs. Using employees from their original office ensured that the company mission and culture remained intact.
"The initial team comprised employees that represented our company culture exceptionally well, to make for the best foundation in our new location," Rosenbaum says. Once they had employees in house that were familiar with their systems, getting set up was a much easier task.
Rosenbaum also notes that many times when dealing with IT issues in a remote location, it's better to send an employee to the remote location to fix issues rather than doing it remotely. They could potentially find other issues that wouldn't have been found and more times than not, other less critical problems that might have fallen through the cracks get fixed as well.
"The team will generally always chime in with other things they need, but that they wouldn't normally bring up because, 'we wouldn't want to bother you.' It's just basic human nature that we don't want to inconvenience someone with a laundry list. By showing a willingness to support, in person, our remote office, we continue to build that camaraderie and company culture," says Rosenbaum.
If you're considering allowing employees to telecommute, understand that each business is different. Start small and work with the employees in your pilot program to figure out what tools are necessary to get the job done and how best to communicate.
Don't Fail to Communicate
Developing a communication plan is paramount. If you've worked remotely before, chances are at some point you've felt isolated. All parts of the team have to work even harder to ensure this doesn't happen. Communication is a critical part of any business, and this becomes amplified when you add remote offices into the mix.
Set up a weekly or daily call, even though you think you won't need it. It isn't unusual for these to get canceled due to other priorities or tasks on occasion, and that's OK. However, setting aside this time will provide the time to talk about more than just the most urgent tasks and projects at hand. It's also an opportunity to brainstorm ideas, which can be difficult to do via instant message or emails. Video conferencing is another great way to keep your locations in tune.
That said, nothing is better than real face time, and Rosenbaum recommends meeting that way often. "Nothing can replace face-to-face interaction. Because of this, we've put heavy emphasis on enabling cross-country travel as often as is necessary between teams, says Rosenbaum.
The bottom-line is to know what works for you and turn to it often.
4 Communication Tools to Stay Connected
Instant Message--Messengers like Yahoo, AIM and Google Talk are free and are a staple in most offices these days.
Video Conferencing--Conferencing solutions abound from elaborate and costly setups like Cisco tele-presence to free solutions like Skype.
Intranet--Build a great company portal that supports discussion, collaboration and HR information.
Telephone--Of course, you say. Make sure you use a quality phone system. Sometimes a phone call can save a dozen emails.
Collaboration: Where to Begin
Collaboration tools play a crucial role when you are dealing with offices or clients separated by time and distance. They provide an environment where your employees can share and build ideas. There is a myriad of options out there such as Basecamp, Fuze, Sharepoint or Trello to name a few. Google offers free alternatives such Google Drive and Calendar. Whichever software or service you choose make sure of the following:
It is easy to deploy.
It protects your IP.
It integrates with your current systems.
It comes with solid support.
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Make sure the tools are in place to coordinate tasks among all your team members regardless of their physical location and prevent your teams from becoming single-faceted. "Distribute projects between teams in both locations, so that work isn't siloed on one particular side of the country or another. Cross-pollination is really important," says Rosenbaum.
Final Thoughts on Remote Possibilities
Deciding to open a remote office location or allowing workers to telecommute are big steps and ones that should be made with a solid strategy and planning. Technology, however, is making those plans feasible. The current state of collaboration tools and cloud technologies has, in many cases, made geography relevant.