Are There Real Benefits to Follow the Sun and Remote Working?

I’ve had a couple of first hand experiences using both Follow the Sun and Remote Working models for both engineering design and software development. In each case the model was based on moving the work between sites in different time-zones/geographic locations and the results were mixed. Recently, the issue has come up again at work, as a result of a recent business acquisition and there have been numerous debates on how this might work. So the help clarify my thoughts, I want to consider the costs and benefits, together with some ideas for making and objective decision.

Potential Benefits

  • Reduced project delivery schedule / elapsed time (time to market)
    This is a clear benefit, but may result in higher overall projects costs compared to an equivalent project completed by a co-located team because of the additional communications overhead.
  • Access to global resources at lower costs
    This only becomes a valid cost saving in the case where the operating and labour costs are much lower, such as in locations like India or China. In my experience the additional cost of communicating requirements and changes on a daily basis erodes the labour cost savings for all but the simplest business problems. This is probably why call and support centres are able to function (maybe not well, but well enough) using this model.
  • Facilitate and enhance international partnerships
    The case for building international partnerships is only valid when there is an appropriate business motivation and therefore not valid in all cases – especially for outsourced projects. A valid example might be the case of a business acquisition and need to harmonise organisational culture and working practices.
  • Leverage skills and experience across all sites
    The potential to leverage a broader and/or deeper skill base is a valid benefit and can offer a business unique skills otherwise unavailable and therefore provide an important competitive advantage.
  • Frequent peer checking leading to increased quality
    Peer review is a valid benefit and consistent with agile principles, but assumes that the same task is being progressed at each site rather than simply being divided amongst the sites. Peer review can be achieved in many other ways but the turn around time in this model is a real advantage.
  • 24hr availability without shift working
    Business functions that require 24hr availability, such as call or support centres, can benefit from this model. However these business functions rarely involve the task being passed from one time-zone or location to another and so the required communication and infrastructure is significantly reduced.
  • Reduced software licensing costs
    In certain situations the cost of software tools is a significant proportion of the project costs. This is often true for specialised engineering tools (particularly CAD, FEA and CFD). When software licensing permits, there is a potential opportunity to share the license costs over more than one time zone thereby reducing the total number of licenses required.

Potential Costs

  • Reduced customer contact and engagement
    Software development and engineering design typically suffer when customer contact is reduced. However, there are instances when the constraint of limited customer contact has the effect of focusing the communication and ensuring that the limited time is used effectively. Communication can also be enhanced with web-based project management tools such as Basecamp or Unfuddle.
  • Increased infrastructure complexity needed to facilitate data sharing
    Information security policies typically restrict the sharing of company data across the open internet. As a result, additional infrastructure is needed to secure access to private networks.
  • Higher start-up costs associated with resource allocation
    The additional complexity and communication overhead associated with making the necessary resource available for a project typically increases the start-up costs.

Making an Objective Decision

  • Clear business objectives
    It is important to be clear about why a Follow the Sun or Remote working model is being considered. In the present case, when we began to discuss the issue in detail it was unclear if we were; (a) attempting to create a global development team, or (b) trying to maximize the opportunities to share developed software or (c) trying to forge stronger links between the two businesses. As it turned out the business objective was both (b) and (c) and these can be achieved without attempting to use a Follow the Sun working model. In any case, the set up costs are significant and so it pays to be clear about the objective as this will determine what benefits can be realized.
  • Challenge the assumption that costs will be reduced
    The advancement in communication technology has somewhat fuelled the hype around global teams and working practices. Despite this enthusiasm, the benefits can only be realised in certain situations and therefore it is important to challenge the benefits to ensure they are achievable.
  • Peak Oil and travel costs
    The case for remote working and less onsite travel will strengthen as the cost of travel increases. This will probably result in more emphasis on local resources, however the advances in communication could counter this effect.

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