A winning strategy in the war for talent

Toy soldiers line up for battleUnemployment remains disturbingly high in the United States, and at the same time, employers can’t seem to find the right people. Despite there being a massive surplus of people looking for work, companies are having a hard time finding talent. You can read about companies’ struggles statistically in the recent Manpower Talent Shortage Survey (“52 percent report difficulty in finding the right talent, up from 14 percent in 2010”), or you can look at the “We’re Hiring!” billboards lining the freeways in Silicon Valley. When big companies like Zynga, Facebook and Groupon need to take out billboards, you can imagine how the fierce competition weighs on small- and medium-sized companies. Why the short supply on local talent?

There are a few factors involved. Manpower notes that many jobs in the 21st century are evolving quickly, and job seekers haven’t yet mastered the necessary range of skills. And there’s the classic problem of the right talent not being where the jobs are. A dozen software engineers might be fighting for one job in Portland while companies in Los Angeles can’t find anyone with that same skill set. Manpower recommends that companies “manufacture” talent, investing in training their teams and in paying to relocate the right people to fill key vacancies.

Move the work, not the workers

I believe that talent is always a worthwhile investment, but relocating skilled workers isn’t going to be enough to close the gap between the growing demand for talent and the limited local supply. Why relocate the worker when it’s so much easier — and far less expensive than packing, movers, rental housing, etc. — to relocate the work? Yes, some positions still must be filled locally, but in a world with email, instant messaging, desktop sharing and video conferencing, a lot more jobs can be easily moved out of the office and onto the home desk of the best-qualified candidate, wherever he or she may be.

At oDesk, our remote contractors outnumber our in-house talent by four to one. We rely on the same online work marketplace that we’ve built for our users to supply our own team with the talent we need. For example, the majority of our customer support team comes from the Philippines. That team has excellent English skills and is very well educated, motivated and great with customers. We’ve had so much success building a strong team in the Philippines that we never had to look locally.

Rebuild your management and culture from the bottom up

But building this kind of team doesn’t just require a different approach to hiring; it requires a whole different approach to management. You can’t manage by walking around when the team is remote. So how do you keep track of the work and how do you keep both your remote and in-house staff engaged? The things that are important in the face-to-face business world are only amplified online.

Here at oDesk, we had to develop both our management and our culture to meet these challenges. To replicate the most important elements of face-to-face group communication, we outfitted a few conference rooms and meeting areas with microphones and cameras to create cohesive group chat experiences for team calls. Our team relies on Skype video calls for small group and one-on-one remote meetings, to create a stronger rapport among the distributed team.

We also had to make sure management was clear about where the company is going, how the employees’ can help us get there, and what metrics we’d use to measure success. We do this by having a shared company dashboard, which profiles the performance of our key business metrics. Each project has its own goals, which are reviewed regularly within each department, and our monthly company “stand up” meetings are open forums for departments to share their progress and answer questions from the rest of the team. We also have an all-hands quarterly business review meeting, where results, insights and lessons learned over the past quarter are shared.

Step into your employees’ shoes

We also had to shift our culture to be more conscious of what it’s like to work online. To do that, we had to be comfortable with working online ourselves. You never grasp how hard it is to be on the other end of the phone, when everyone else is in the room; or how creative time with your team has to be scheduled, rather than a casual gathering around the water cooler. At oDesk, we encourage our local team to work from home every Tuesday so that they can feel firsthand what it’s like to work online – both the challenges and the freedom. One of the outcomes of these remote days is a set of meeting best practices drafted to diminish the negative impact of being off-site (issues like dropped calls, frozen slides, or even a presenter who wanders away from the microphone.)

The results have been astounding; we’ve been able to double our business every year, servicing more than 1.5 million users with only 55 in-house employees–total. We’ve found that remote teams are a solution that is faster, more flexible, and more cost-effective than importing talent from other regions. Sure, it takes some adjusting. But the ultimate result is an integrated staff who has a clear sense of how their work contributes to the company’s goal. That should be the goal of every company.

Gary Swart is CEO of oDesk. He has more than 17 years’ experience in enterprise software, working at such companies as Intellibank, IBM and Pure Software.

Image courtesy of Flickr user dpape