Expanding across borders is becoming more common for growing business, but how do you cope when that means staff working in different timezones? Daniel Foster of 34SP.com gives his views
In today’s globalised economy, more and more businesses are looking to supercharge their growth by having staff in multiple timezones. However, this requires a very different way of working, which naturally brings with it certain benefits and drawbacks.
When I set up 34SP.com with my friend Stuart Melling straight out of university in 2000, I could never have envisaged how far this journey would take me.
Back then it was just the germ of an idea but today we have clients all over the world, data centres in Manchester and London, and a rapidly expanding head office in Manchester city centre. We’ve also seen our headcount rise and rise.
Most of our team is still based in Manchester these days but in recent years we’ve had to adapt to having staff overseas. That’s because a few years ago, Stuart decided to move to Salt Lake City. And we were fortunate enough to attract Derek Vaughan, a highly respected figure in the global web hosting industry with 15 years’ experience, who is based in Los Angeles.
Integrating US-based staff into our existing UK business required something of a change in approach at 34SP.com. More specifically, we found it necessary to make greater use of certain online tools to improve our lines of communication and productivity. And we had to update our working practices and business processes to ensure the quality of service we offered to clients wasn’t affected.
Let’s start with the tools. It probably goes without saying that email is essential, but we also moved to supplement that with online messaging services such as WhatsApp, which is great for more informal communications while out and about. Meanwhile, our technical background is reflected in the fact that we’ve used Internet Relay Chat since very early on to talk to one another, while Skype has proven great for face-to-face conversations. And we’ve managed to stop people in different locations unwittingly making changes to the same document or spreadsheet at the same time by moving everyone over to the cloud with Google Drive.
This brings us onto working practices and business processes. Flexibility is the key to working across different timezones, which in practical terms means that sometimes I need to work a little bit later and our people in the US need to get started a bit earlier just to ensure our paths cross. We’ve also had to introduce a bit more structure into our weeks. So every Tuesday afternoon, for example, we have scheduled catch-up meetings with our colleagues across the Atlantic although of course we still talk about more pressing matters on an ad hoc basis as and when required.
These measures really help us to function more effectively as a business but obviously they’re not perfect. I do sometimes miss being able to ask a casual question across the desk to my colleagues. And communication isn’t just about the words we use, it’s also about body language and being able to make eye contact with the person you’re speaking to, so not having that can be tricky sometimes. Moreover, it’s easy to forget that Stuart and Derek are cut off from the atmosphere in Manchester, so occasionally they might not realise when we’re particularly busy for example.
That’s not to say there aren’t significant benefits to working this way though. From the perspective of our international clients and suppliers, it can be immensely helpful because it allows us to work with them and answer their questions at a more convenient time. Some of them must think we work all day and night when in reality our American-based staff are just doing their regular hours!
It also gives us a bit more breathing space to work on collaborative efforts without fear of disturbance. If we’re working together on a major project, for instance, I can add my contribution from the UK and go home safe in the knowledge that my colleagues in the US will then provide their input while I’m away. This means that nobody treads on each other’s toes.
Since 34SP.com first started to have staff in different timezones, the whole team’s had to change how it works. Admittedly, there were a few teething problems in the early days and we’re not saying we’re perfect, but I think we’ve now settled into a system that works really well. And I’m sure it could be easily replicated by other businesses in a similar situation.
I’m getting more used to it these days but if I’m honest, sometimes I still have to pinch myself when I hear colleagues talking about our team in the States. It’s amazing to think how far we’ve come in a few short years!
For more information, please visit www.34sp.com