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03 Mar 16 Collaborating Internationally through Google Apps

A peak behind the scenes at ShuttleCloud

Something that you’re probably not aware of about our company ShuttleCloud is that we have offices in both Madrid, Spain and Chicago, IL. Now for the record, this amounts to a seven hour time difference which we have to work around every day.

While it should be no surprise that we are completely reliant on Google Apps for working together – yes, we do check in daily using Google Hangouts and yes, everything is saved to the Google’s cloud – the real key for why we can successfully work while separated by thousands of miles is our overall approach to work.

Decentralizing the office

First, we have to recognize that business is trending towards a more decentralized workplace. More and more companies are outsourcing, hiring contractors or freelancers, or leveraging new virtual office assistant solutions like Zirtual or FancyHands for a variety of reasons. Our ability to hire and work without the limits of physical borders has never been better, and both employers and employees are enjoying the benefits.

I mentioned earlier that as a basic practice we save everything we work on straight to Google Drive. This means that as long as we have an internet connection and device that can connect, all of our vital files will be accessible from anywhere in the world. Another benefit is the ability to easily share these files with colleagues or supervisors. By default, we set all non-sensitive Drive documents to be searchable and discoverable by anyone within our Google Apps domain. This means that it does not matter which project we’re working on, whom we’re working with, or where we’ll be specifically working from – we’ll always have the right files at our fingertips.

With that said, we generally hold ourselves to a unique, or maybe not so unique, policy that coming into the office is not always necessary and working remote is actually a part of any job.

Yes, this applies to all levels within our company – members of our senior management regularly work weeks, if not months or even years, from remote locations. So, how is this possible and how does one manage a team from thousands of miles away?

Employee agency and self-motivation

It’s actually incredibly simple to manage people who are driven by their own motivations to succeed. The crux of our approach to work is to hire good people – we’ll be talking more about this later – and to engender a solid sense of self agency in every single hire. If it becomes clear that characteristic is lacking, well, then something about the situation has to change.

While this approach is definitely not suggested for every company, it is also not a novel solution to employee management. If you’re a manager or a team leader of any kind, please consider taking some time to read Dan Pink’s Drive (available on Amazon for less than $10!). Admittedly, unless you’re a complete psychology nerd, it may be a bit of a dryer reading. Still, Dan presents a clear and concise picture, backed by contemporary academic research, of the scenarios that best allow employees to be self-driven instead of manager-driven.

By encouraging everyone to take responsibility for their work, management spends a lot less time micro-managing or worrying about what everyone else is doing. We’ll discuss more of Dan’s ideas and suggestions later, but right now let me share some insights specifically for meeting virtually across a 7 hour time difference.

Check in regularly using Google Hangouts

Every company has meetings, departmental meetings, team meetings, meetings dedicated to specific projects, ad nauseum. While one of the benefits of the physical office is the ability to meet with anyone at anytime, research has also shown that maybe some of us spend a bit too much time in meetings to actually be productive.

We split our meetings into two types – one is a “standup” that serves as a daily check in with the rest of the team and the other is a full fledged “meeting” with a set agenda planned ahead of time. Each person who joins an full meeting should have all the documents and talking points ready prior to the start, whereas daily standups are for informal updates and are capped at a maximum of fifteen minutes.

Regardless of whether we’re getting together for a meeting or just a standup, we prefer using Google Hangouts. It’s remarkable how much smoother these go and how much more enjoyable they are when we can see each other’s faces. While it can’t replace face-to-face interactions, it’s the next best thing for a company separated by thousands of miles.

The time for meetings or standups is allocated weeks if not months in advance, so habits are ingrained early on and, at the very least, everyone should expect to check in with the rest of their team during the daily standup. While much more informal, expectations for the daily standups are also set ahead of time. We check in with what we accomplished yesterday, what we plan to accomplish today, and any immediate blocking points for today.

In conclusion, we plan both the time and the agenda for meetings and standups far in advance so that everyone knows what to expect. We do meet on a daily basis, but for the vast majority of people, it’s only 15 minutes per day. And we can trust that everyone is getting the necessary work done during the rest of their day, because we make sure to hire good people and encourage these good people to care about what their doing while feeling supported doing their tasks.

As always, thanks so much for the read! Please let us know if you have any feedback on our process or if you just want to talk more about managerial or operational tactics by emailing [email protected] Subscribe below or follow us on Twitter for updates!

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