All business owners tend to think of their business as if it was their baby, and each new branch office they open is like a newborn child brought into the family. As they grow, even with the same name, culture and values you instilled in them, they begin to develop differences you would never have guessed.
Some of those “kids” produce great results and clearly have a bright future; some turn into quirky lunatics who find their way even though you don’t quite get it; and some… well, let’s just say you are still grateful for having them.
But they are all yours, and their problems are your problems too.
Of course, branch offices aren’t people – they are business units and you could have ten, 100 or even 1,000 to manage; and you are not a loving parent guided by emotions, but a logical and result-driven strategist with vision and reason. Your task is to make each cog work as planned in order to keep the machinery moving forward – to implement a cohesive business strategy that will be achieved in a timely manner with a fair contribution from each business unit.
This, however, is easier said than done. In theory, there are many things that may go wrong, and in reality, thousands of them actually do. And you don’t want that. And the branch office managers probably don’t want that either. And your customers certainly don’t want that. Therefore, it is up to you to figure out how to overcome all the difficulties and make your business grow as if it was a single organism.
Since I’ve had the privilege to talk to several multi-office business owners, I have come to the conclusion that a lot of of their troubles can be sorted into one of several categories. The good news is that clever tech people of the world have already recognized this and have figured out how to make money out of it by solving your problems with suitable tools. What you need to do now is to decide which of the following are important issues for you, and explore the solutions offered.
Challenge 1: Important information doesn’t reach everyone
When you open a new branch office, it is very important to make sure everyone knows what you want them to know. For years people have been using emails to disseminate information throughout the company, regardless of how many offices it has, but this has not proved to be the most efficient method for communication between professional groups.
Of course, sending an email to an employee or a coworker is the most reliable way of ensuring you will receive a reply, but when it comes to addressing multiple participants – and getting the feedback – this can turn into a nightmare. First of all, you might forget to cc someone. Even worse, you might cc instead of bcc someone else. And the absolute worst, a couple of not-so-bright employees might hit Reply to all once or twice with a casual informational note to 125 participants (and don’t tell me it has never happened to you) and make everybody instantly question their life choices.
Then, in 2013 several guys grew tired of this and created Slack. If you’re reading this, there is a good chance you are already using it, and secretly thank heaven for its existence; but for those who aren’t, I’ll elaborate.
Slack is a cloud-based communication platform, available from a browser as well as a desktop or mobile app. It is basically a group chat for business, but even better because it allows you to control who will see certain matters, while at the same time it minimizes spam. You can create “teams” (there can be a team for each branch, functional department, or even executive board members, you name it), and within each team you can have a large number of “channels” which are separate chats with different topics. The program gives unobtrusive notifications for each message received, there are “@mentions” in case you want a certain person to see the specific message in a group chat, and you can also start a private chat with any user, or a number of users. And oh yes – each message can quickly be replied to with a “reaction,” which saves time and reduces the number of messages. Seriously, you need it.
Challenge 2: Branches don’t communicate with each other effectively.
This is an unavoidable quirk in any organization with “headquarters” or a “main office.” Somehow all the information gets sent to “head office,” expecting that it will be magically delivered to those who need it. In the majority of cases, unfortunate mediators simply forward it to those whom they believe should receive it next, until the message finally reaches the intended receiver some two months later.
But seriously – it is extremely important to put an end to the information clutter wherever possible. There are numerous sharing tools in the market, designed for employees across teams and branch offices to easily and efficiently report, inform, and give and receive feedback. So, let’s just use them, for everyone’s sake.
Trello is a well-known collaborative tool that organizes different projects into boards. It allows participants (which can be modified for each “project”) to see what’s being worked on, who’s working on what, and where something is in a process. It is great for giving feedback, checking on the progress, comparing updates, and everything else that requires multiple people working together. This type of collaboration is even greater for people who don’t communicate with each other on a regular basis, because it leaves the formalities behind, and lets them focus on important stuff, simply and efficiently.
AtlassianConfluence is pretty much the same, except that it has a more flexible pricing strategy that might fit you better than Trello’s. It also has an option of hosting it on your own servers, if that’s what you prefer.
Weekdone is another project management collaboration tool, but this one is designed for more centrally-controlled activities. It is intended for week-to-week planning and managing, which makes it good for all those small projects that you need certain teams from all the branches to work together on, but with you still in the central position.
Challenge 3: You are not sufficiently aware of the current activities in branch offices
Now this is a vital issue, especially for physically remote offices that are hard to keep an eye on. Just as it is important for the information to reach all the way down to the bottom of the hierarchy, it is also crucial for it to go back up as well.
Most large companies struggle with this, even within the same building, and it gets exponentially crazier as the number of offices grows, especially if they are located further away. Depending on the type of data you want to get to, choose something from the tools discussed below.
Turbine is a web-based tool that replaces almost all the paperwork in offices, sorts them beautifully, andlets you access and manage them more efficiently. It provides all the information about purchase orders, employee expenses, and even lets you know who is absent from work and why. It can also be used via a smartphone app, which is quite handy when on vacation or a business trip. Needless to say how eco-friendly this tool is.
WorkPuls is a time and project tracking tool that automatically tracks which task or activity is each employee working on, how much time did each task or activity require, as well as how different apps and websites were used, to give you a detailed overview of project workflow. Besides, you can see who is actively working in real time, in which program or website, and for how long. It also shows the daily, weekly (or any period of time) data for each employee, team, or a certain software app, which is useful for creating productivity reports and spotting trends, or identifying the source of problems when it comes to underperformance in certain branch(es). Additionally, it can capture random screenshots if that’s your thing, or serve as a tool for tracking attendance and calculating the payroll. Moreover, you can also use WorkPuls as a remote employee time tracking and remote employee monitoring software.
15Five can help if you want to know what the vibe is like across branch offices. It is designed so that employees can provide feedback by answering the questions on anything from personal productivity to the team morale in approximately 15 minutes, which can then be read and answered by managers (or you) in no more than five. The best thing is that the reports can be submitted to anyone in upper level management, so that really important issues can receive the needed attention and reaction within a reasonable time. It can also be used by HR, to give appraisals or gain better insights into office matters, and consequently reduce employee turnover.
Challenge 4: Meetings are costly and take up too much time and energy
The solution to this one is quite simple, really – video conferences and virtual meetings.
I am constantly amazed at how much time people are willing to spend on follow-up meetings that could simply be done online in 15 to 30 minutes. Technology has advanced enough to be able to share anything but the taste and smell, instantly, in high quality, with an unlimited number of people, and yet so many people seem to be okay with spending an hour and a half, or even worse, days and thousands of dollars for the plane tickets and accommodation, to exchange the information that could be done almost just as effectively via laptop.
For those who haven’t tried it before, Zoom, WebEx and Adobe Connect are all decent solutions, but the alternatives are numerous. Select one in accordance with the size, type and purpose of your meetings.
Challenge 5: Kids are getting jealous
You know what I’m talking about – a healthy dose of competition is always welcome, but people have this weird trait of tribalism that tells us that we are better than them, even when “them” means Lisa, Jack, Patrick and Sofia from the third floor. In other words, we tend to dislike other groups just because we don’t perceive them as our own; which is bad, because you really want all your employees to see themselves as a part of the same entity.
The bad news is, they won’t. However, the good news is that you can help them to make it happen. Unfortunately, there still isn’t a tech tool for this; at least not without some good ol’ human contact beforehand.
To get people to cooperate and perceive others as part of their team, you should encourage and facilitate regular contact, and provide the means to do this. Instead of letting branch office managers have separate team building sessions for each office, arrange for one office to host a company-wide team building event.
Depending on the remoteness of the offices, it can be a one-night party, a weekend in another city, or a yearly cultural event abroad. Whatever it is, be sure to rotate the hosts periodically, and make employees stay connected via at least one Slack channel afterwards so that the memory of the experience will last longer than the memory of the costs.