When the Hudson Bay Company began sending traders to the New World in the 17th century, it developed protocols for managing a distributed workforce that are pertinent today. The small headquarters staff in London chose independent adventurers capable of self-sufficiency, but they provided mentoring and training. Importantly, the company stayed in communication — as best they could when annual letters to and from the traders arrived by schooner. The lesson learned? “We call it the balance of trust and control,” says Cliff S. Moser, AIA, operations director of the Los Angeles firm Cadforce, which facilitates communications between U.S. architecture and construction firms and outsourcing teams in India. The traders were required to keep daily diaries, which became, in today’s parlance, the “knowledge base” that enabled the Hudson Bay Company to gradually improve the operations.

Nasa picture
Photo © NASA TV/Epa/Corbis
Judicious use of technology (and a little TLC) can help keep off-site staff from being isolated.

Despite vastly faster communication speeds, modern companies face similar challenges of trust and control with off-site workers. Each case is different, but the balance can be adjusted with the use of technology and an understanding of the cultural barriers created by geographic separation.

Outsourcing CAD work to India is only one (extreme) kind of distributed workforce. Every firm experiences some distancing daily, such as when a principal leaves the office to attend a meeting, or when an architect visits a job site for construction administration. Protocols for staying in touch via telephone or e-mail are relatively simple in these cases, but the situation gets more complicated when a long-term stint in a construction trailer is involved, or when a small group of designers occupies a satellite office, or when an employee “telecommutes” from a home office. Other examples of dispersed workers are temporary contract staff and even a firm’s regular consultants. Regardless of the worker’s relationship with the firm or how long a separation may last, the challenges are to maintain clear communications and to provide the remote workers ways to feel connected to the firm, both professionally and socially.

In at least one important way, the nature of modern work makes these challenges more pressing than they were even a few decades ago. Digital design processes demand a certain degree of standardization. Whereas the Hudson Bay traders could indulge in idiosyncrasies in work methods and still be effective, freestyle design documentation and communication is seldom acceptable. Computer-based design systems require strict adherence to standards, and individuals are responsible for keeping track of vast amounts of information. Sometimes just knowing where to find the latest version of a model or document can be challenging. Luckily, technology also contributes to the solution through a range of organizational systems, collaboration tools, and effective communication media.

Overcoming cultural divides

One challenge that invites creative solutions is the social isolation that remote workers may feel. Moser recalls being in an out-of-town construction trailer and receiving an e-mail notification from his firm about a free-lunch seminar later that day. Eventually repetitions of such messages eventually became unpleasant reminders of his remoteness from colleagues. Years later, now that he works to connect distant teams with each other, he tries to create virtual “free lunches,” where people can “get together,” by videoconferencing, for instance, to get to know each other in an informal setting. Even simple strategies, like e-mailing family or vacation photos back and forth, can overcome unfamiliarity, even when the disparate team members come from different cultures. When it comes time to iron out work-related misunderstandings, Moser says, having established social ties is invaluable because “it helps to be on the same boat going in the same direction.” In the case of Moser’s outsourced Indian teams communicating with the U.S. staff, culture sharing involves, for example, each group learning about and celebrating the other’s special holidays. Even between U.S. teams, where cultural differences are not so distinct, new means of informal sharing can ease communications that once relied solely on face-to-face meetings.

Even though remote teams can’t give actual handshakes or receive many unconscious cues from body language, digital technologies can substitute for many other communication needs. E-mail is of course nearly ubiquitous in professional circles. Instant messaging (IM), no longer the domain of teenagers, can be a useful substitute for telephoning. Unlike a phone call, a person in the midst of a text “chat” can send a digital file, like a drawing, photo, or schedule to support the discussion. Like the telephone, but unlike e-mail, IM requires the various parties to be engaged simultaneously. Skype is an Internet-based instant-messaging system that also supports Voice-Over-Internet (VoIP), which is essentially a toll-free telephone service.

Videoconferencing can substitute to some extent for face-to-face meetings. One advantage it has over teleconferencing is that the body language present in actual meetings can also be perceived through the video screens. The GoToMeeting Web-based meeting service also enables videoconferencing participants to share live computer presentations or software demonstrations. As sound fidelity and screen resolution improve, high-end videoconferencing is being termed “telepresence,” with the expectation that in the future the illusion will be so flawless that participants may forget that they are not in the same room with their distant colleagues.