It sounds like a story of technology overcoming bureaucracy, of good government beating bad government, of common sense vanquishing mind-bending stupidity. Writing in the Harvard Business Review in November 2020, Prithwiraj Choudhury, the Lumry Family Associate Professor at the Harvard Business School, described his research into MobSquad, a series of co-working spaces in Halifax, Calgary and other Canadian cities.
Choudhury and his team interviewed an engineer who had been born abroad but who had moved to the United States at the age of 12, after graduating from high school. At the age of 16, he enrolled at an American university and within three years had earned degrees in math, physics, and computer science. At the age of 19, as other young people were just beginning university, the graduate was working at a medical technology company, where he would, no doubt, have been on track to a high-paying career while applying his genius to help a local company beat international competition.
Instead, he was refused an H-1B visa and faced deportation. MobSquad brought him to Calgary but instead of finding him work with a local Canadian company, the engineer was able to continue working remotely for the same medical tech business.
A US company had hired a uniquely talented foreign national born in a different country but unable to keep him in the US, continued to employ him in a third country.
That isn’t the kind of solution that virtual work technology was intended to provide but it does show the breadth of use that remote working tools can offer. When you can communicate in real time with anyone in any place not only do you not need an office, you can also regard the world as your entire employment pool. You can employ coders from Riga, marketers from Derry, data analysts from Tianjin, and financial officers from Finland. If immigration controls don’t allow you to bring the best workers to your own country, you can move them to a third country and still hire them. Borders no longer have to limit who you can employ. You can simply hire the best talent you can afford.
Covid has made that possibility look and feel much more realistic than it once did. We have all become accustomed to staring at Zoom screens, sharing documents over cloud services, and running projects without ever meeting in person. While the gradual return to offices will come as a relief to many, the awareness that it is now possible to be productive without the commute, the high urban rents, or the absence from home, may well affect future work. Employees are likely to demand that they work from home at least some of the time.
More Zoom Than Ever
A survey into remote work conducted by McKinsey found that more than 20 percent of the workforce could work remotely between three and five days a week, and be as effective as they would be if they working in the office. If everyone who could work that way were to do so, the number of people working from home could be as much four times higher than it was before the pandemic.
That would have a profound effect on cities, from pubic transportation to the viability of sandwich stores. But the growth of virtual work would also make international remote working more acceptable.
If you can keep your marketing officer productive and employed when they live 500 miles to the east of the office, why not also employ someone who lives 500 miles to the south, even if they’re over the border?
One advantage of that international virtual teambuilding won’t just be a bigger pool of talent to choose from. It will also be a cheaper pool of talent to choose from. People who live in places with lower costs of living can afford to accept lower pay without harming their standard of life.
The starting salary for a computer programmer in the United States, for example, ranges between $50,000 to over $100,000. Start-ups in in Silicon Valley, can expect to pay even more. In Nairobi, Kenya, a foreign-funded start-up can expect to pay a top-end, experienced coder around six million shillings ($58,000) a year. That’s the low end of the price a company in the US would expect to pay for a new graduate.
Remote Team Solutions, an employment agency that specializes in outsourcing remote work to staff in Mexico, says that its candidates can save US and Canadian companies as much as 60 percent of their employment costs. The agency offers staff for a range of positions including typical backroom tasks such as tech support, invoicing, and executive and legal assistance, but also engineering design, marketing, and mechanical engineering.
What Remote Team Solutions is offering isn’t just offshore employment solutions but nearshore teams. Staff are located in a different country, with lower living expenses and employment costs but within the same time zone. That makes deadlines easier to meet and team chats simpler to organize. When everyone is working at the same time, they’re better able to work together, ask each other questions and receive immediate feedback.
But while Barboglio argues that Mexico can supply an entire workforce, some countries are better known for some skills than others. India produces more computer science graduates than any other country: about 215,000 each year. That’s 30,000 more than China, more than three times the number produced in the United states—and almost 200,000 more than the number of computer science graduates each year in Russia. They also have the advantage of being native English speakers, making communication easier.
Those extra numbers can help in areas with skill shortages such as computer programming. But quantity isn’t the same as quality. One study in India has found that while local institutions and universities churn out more coders than any other country, their skills are usually much more limited. Reports have even suggested that 90 percent of computer science graduates in India can’t write code. US graduates, the study found, face more competition from coders in China.
Assessing Foreign Skills
Skill assessment, then, is one challenge that employers face when they recruit virtual workers in foreign countries. Local employers can trust universities and colleges to do much of the filtering for them, and they can rely on them to deliver the knowledge that graduates need. They can struggle provide the same trust to educational institutions that they’ve never heard of in places they don’t know.
Building an international, virtual team then might allow a company to fish in a bigger pond and for less money, but it also increases employment risk. Educational achievements are harder to assess. References are difficult to track down. Even work samples, although easier to match to an employee, can be faked.
Pedro Barboglio recommends that even employers who are using agencies to find international workers talk to the prospects themselves. “You should never delegate the selection of your team,” he says. “Make sure you interview the candidates and that you have the final word.”
Assessing the skill of a candidate in Mexico or India or Russia is only one of the challenges that employees face when building virtual international teams. Management is also important. Virtual team tools can help make sure that staff members are keeping and meeting their responsibilities but one of the benefits of hiring virtual team members is that you don’t have to employ them full-time. Hire people on a freelance basis and you can still benefit from the lower wages and higher skills—if you can identify them—but you won’t need to make a commitment and you can adjust your outgoings to match current demand.
The drawback, warns Barboglio, is that staff won’t feel part of your company and won’t be loyal to you. He recommends employing all team members on a full-time basis but also says that companies should make sure that everyone feels that they’re an important part of the team, as valued for the work performed in Mexico as the team member performing their work in Calgary. They might be paid different amounts but each team member should feel equally valued.
“Some companies focus so much on costs that they pay very low wages and the working culture is not great,” he warns. “Therefore, their employee turnover rate is higher. Remember that training an employee, especially a remote one, is costly and takes time. You don’t want that employee to leave you in a year.”
That does require thinking of your international virtual team in a very particular way. It’s tempting to regard foreign outsourcing as a way to reduce costs, to obtain skills found anywhere at prices found only in a few places with a low cost of living. But it’s better to think of building a virtual international company as a way of casting a broader net to build a stronger team.
Make sure that you check potential team members as much as you can. With choices this broad, there’s no reason to take unnecessary risks. Review samples, conduct interviews, set tests, and offer provisional periods. Decide whether you need everyone in the same time zone, and if you’re working with an agency to build your team, make sure that they fit your culture and can scale with your company.
But once you’re confident that someone fits the team and meets your criteria, make sure that they feel welcome. Add them to the Slack group. Get together with video chats, and try to meet in person whenever you can. Distance—and more lately, disease—might not make that travel easy but paying everyone to come together at a central venue can give a virtual international company the kind of team togetherness it needs to stay together for the long term.
And if one of your most talented team members wants—or needs—to move to a third country, know that you can continue employing them wherever they are.