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Going Global: How to take your startup across the border in a remote environment   

ritam-gandhi

Taking a brand overseas and opening headquarters in a growing array of locations is a goal for many entrepreneurs. However, international expansion plans have naturally been disrupted since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.  

 As businesses settle into new working arrangements, economies reopen and restrictions loosen, I would hazard a guess that startup founders across the UK are putting these plans firmly back on the agenda.  

Studio Graphene was fortunate enough to have tripled our headcount during these trying times. It was an ambitious goal, but our four international studios, located in the UK, India, Portugal and Switzerland, are now staffed by a 100-strong team of talented individuals.  

Here are some of the important lessons we learned along the way…  

Considering the practical elements  

We have leant on the side of caution throughout our recruitment efforts, allowing time for prospective candidates and the team members they might eventually be working with to connect a more personal level. Whereas before the pandemic we might have only needed one or two interviews to assess cultural fit, we have conducted more rounds of interviews and facilitated greater interactions between applicants and our current employees.  

Naturally, mistakes were made along the way, particularly in the initial stages. Those who have spent the majority of the past 18 months on video calls will know how difficult it is to forge meaningful relationships when you can’t pick up on the non-verbal conversational cues. While facial expressions and tone of voice are still observable through a screen, most body language is lost making it difficult to sense mood and personality. Over time, we were able to refine our judgement and establish more rigorous tests to ensure a good match.   

Importantly, by affording potential hires the opportunity to get to know us better, and vice versa, we were able to feel confident that we were adding someone who could not only perform the role well, but also contribute to a positive working culture.  

Scaling workplace culture 

Onboarding new hires and helping them comfortably settle into their new roles is never easy, but it is even more difficult in a digital-first environment. Like all businesses, we had to form new ideas about social interactions for distributed workforces – ones that would allow us to get to know the people behind the Slack avatars and build meaningful relationships.  

Without regular in-person contact and opportunities to socialise, our sensitivity to issues that team members might be facing and their individual wants and needs was reduced. To overcome this, we opted for virtual team events and ice breakers between different studios, to some success. The challenge here was to establish a fine balance between organised fun, and genuinely valuable opportunities for employees from across professional backgrounds and cultural barriers to share their thoughts, ideas and experiences. As opposed to pre-planned Zoom meetings, which can be restrictive, more spontaneous and activity-led social events allowed us to connect with team members on a deeper level.  

The importance of adapting your management style 

Burnout is all too common in the new digital-first world, with managers and business leaders often unable to see what’s going on behind the scenes, and what issues employees might be facing. Clearly communicating the importance of wellbeing quickly became an imperative, as well as encouraging people to put their physical and mental health above productivity.  

It became critical to lead by examples; rarely, if ever, are emails sent outside of dedicated working hours. While time differences might mean that our four studios are working to different schedules, there is a mutual understanding that tasks won’t be acted upon outside of their respective “office” hours. We have also discouraged employees from performing excessive or unnecessary overtime to complete tasks quickly. This has helped our team members to establish a work/life balance that works for them, while strengthening the mutual respect between colleagues.  

More generally, business leaders must actively make time to check in on colleagues. With chance encounters in the office largely out of the question, managers must show that their metaphorical doors are always open when employees need help, support, or just a chat – whether that is through a quick call or virtual coffee.  

Adopting the right tech  

It is difficult to discuss the future of work without a nod to the importance of tech. Here at Studio Graphene, we have prioritised quality over quantity, and have aimed to establish streamlined lines of communication. For some teams, this might mean that all in-house communication takes place via Microsoft Teams; for others, Slack might be the best option. One of the key lessons that we have learned is that having too many different channels is more distracting than it is productive, and serves to splinter critical lines of communication.   

Beyond this, businesses should explore solutions that will help employees from different locations to feel involved in the wider organisation. Technology is quickly evolving to support new working methods, and simple elements like speaker attribution can make a real difference to the employee experience. In large videoconferencing session, this will allow participants to dedicate their full attention to what the speaker is saying.  

The main lesson, in our experience, has been to constantly assess where practical changes to processes can make remote working a more comfortable managerial experience, and consider with care how employees may be challenged by working at a distance from their colleagues, and supporting them appropriately. The coming months will certainly be a turning point as businesses review their plans to scale, and we look forward to seeing many more ambitious startups taking their offering to new locations.  

Ritam Gandhi, is the Founder and Director of Studio Graphene – a London-based company that specialises in the development of blank canvas tech products including apps, websites, AR, IoT and more. The company has completed over 100 projects since first being started in 2014, working with both new entrepreneurs and product development teams within larger companies.