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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

the new office - set them free

I was doing some work for an outsourcing company and encountered a fairly typical problem. The company has 85% of its employees in India and 15% in US. Most of the work is done in India and the sales and coordination is done from US. There was a small process within the HR department which dealt with US hiring. There were 3 recruiters who worked in the evening shift, and recruited people living in US for projects in US. The management had not dealt with the evening shift before. Mostly the guys in US did the work in US and the guys in India did the work in India. This was the first time, that an employee based out of India was supposed to function entirely in the US market and do a job that previously would be done by a US based employee. Firstly the management slotted these people as Indian employees who just worked in the evening. That worked fine, till they realised that no one in india interacted with these employees. Lets call them the Offshore Recruiting Team or ORT. Now the ORT interacted primarily with project managers in the US, sales managers in the US and client managers in the US. They gathered requirements from them and searched online job boards like monster/dice etc ..called candidates living in the US and then arranged for interviews and finally filled up vacant positions. The senior management in India had no interaction with the ORT and didnt have much idea about what they did in their time. Even the holidays, peak hours, business environment of the ORT adhered to the US conditions rather than Indian conditions. So they started to go in for dual reporting. Now the ORT reported to the Indian head for adminstrative purposes and to the US head for business purposes. This lead to further confusion and the ORT got caught in the middle of two different work environments. Finally the situation resolved itself by evolving into a telecommuting paradigm. The management realised that it would be far simpler to treat the ORT as US employees who telecommuted from India. So the only responsibility of the Indian office was to provide them infrastructure to be able to telecommute. The most important person in India, to the ORT, now was the Infrastructure Head. They only had issues like the bandwidth being down, the air conditioning conking out in the summer heat, the phone lines acting funny with calls being disconnected midway or incoming calls disappearing down some black hole. This is where I came in. To anyone who has worked in an outsourcing environment this would sound familiar.

I realised that even though the situation was much better than it used to be, it was still far from perfect. The telecommuting paradigm hadnt been stretched far enough. It was pseudo telecommuting, not real telecommuting and there was a potential bottleneck built into the system. The potential bottleneck was the Infrastructure head. If for some reason, the fat pipe connecting our office to the world wide web started to go wonky, then the entire ORT would be like a person cut off without oxygen. Try as hard as you can, if your pipe, which is your only medium connecting you to your workplace, constricts then it directly impinges on the effectiveness of the organisation. So the pipe was the bottleneck, just squeeze it and make it narrower, and the entire operation's productivity would decrease by the same factor.

If we had faced this situation while telecommuting from Jersey to California what would we have done. Well, firstly, we would have backups and alternative pipes. If your landline phone went kaput, you could dial that important call from your cellphone. If your internet connection went out, you could pick your laptop and go to a nearby wi fi or have another ISP account as a backup.

The solution was very simple and very neat. The ORT was provided with laptops. These laptops had a wireless cellular access card. This meant that they automatically would receive the internet wherever there was a cellphone signal, which in this day and age means almost everywhere. The laptops were fitted out with wireless headsets running on bluetooth.Then after comparing a few different services, we settled on skype. Skype ( ) offers two services. One is the incoming call facility. This means if you purchase a Phone Number from Skype, for a flat fee you get a US number which u can choose, and if anyone calls that number, the call comes to your desktop Skype application and you can pickup the call and talk using the headset and there is a voicemail facility built in. The second service is the outbound call feature. If you purchase credits from skype, you can make calls to anywhere in the world using those credits and the charge for a US call was 2 cents a minute which seemed pretty reasonable.

So now the ORT had an alternative pipe built into their work machine. They could plonk the laptops down on their office desks, attach a lan wire and use their desk voip phones and work as they used to. But in case of any problems, they had an alternative system built in, which was fully independent of any other system.

The benefits of this arrangement started to show up soon. The ORT started to take work home, since it was in their laptops anyway. They were able to check their voicemail anytime they wished and even respond when out of office and on weekends. The cellular ISP provided a roaming service, so one enterprising ORT member took a weeks vacation driving from one town in rajasthan to the other in the day and working during the evening using the laptop. It made the team more plugged into the work cycle and the feeling of being a call centre worker who worked a 8 hr shift in a cubicle was lessened. They started to show greater involvement in business discussions and started to drive things. There was some misuse, but regular review of ISP logs, Skype logs and maintainence backups on the laptop kept things well in line.

The best part about this was that the ORT used to travel by a company cab to work and back. The average commute time was one hour. With business growing fast, and cash incentives in place for better performance, the ORT soon was utilising the commute time for work. The cab driver became our biggest fan. The sight of his passengers engrossed in clicking away on their laptops instead of being half asleep or gossiping was fascinating to him. We are trying to convince him to invest in a similar system for himself so he can utilise the waiting times to surf the net, talk to people all over the world and educate himself..... will update on how that effort goes...

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