“Face to face not always better. It’s all about teamwork.”

BY Reinier Van Scherpenzeel

Our Operations Director Reinier van Scherpenzeel moved to Kampala, Uganda, in January to coordinate our projects. Read about his experiences, ambitions and his love for Africa.

“I never have to wear a coat anymore, and my lunch has changed from grilled cheese sandwiches to rice, chapati and mukene. Yes, there are more than a few differences between my old job in the Netherlands and my current work in Uganda. But most importantly, I’ve learned a thing or two about the nature of good teamwork and why you don’t always need face to face contact for it in my first two months at Tunga.”

Face to face contact

“Working in a small country like the Netherlands, we had the luxury to solve everything face to face. There are some questions about the requirements? Get in your car and seek each other out. Need to organize a kick-off for a project? Get together for a lunch. The client is unhappy? Uh oh, better get there as quickly as possible. And I’ve always thought that was the best way to solve things. Even more so, I thought this was the major downside of outsourcing; that you need face to face contact to truly understand each other.”

A lot of benefits to working remotely

“Now, when you are working with 300 developers across Africa, for clients all over the world, regular face to face contact is of course no longer possible. So coming here, I thought this would be my greatest challenge. However, it turns out there are a lot of benefits to working remotely. One of them is that people achieve better productivity when working at a time and place of their own convenience. According to surveys, it makes it easier to create your own distraction-free zone. Another interesting aspect is that it makes it easier for people to work more hours. If you have to run a couple of errands, you can do so and continue working in the local cafe (or KFC, as is used mainly here). Or if you’re feeling a little bit under the weather, you can still continue working from the comfort of your own home.”

Extra effort to communicate without face to face

“But the most astonishing thing I found, was that despite having no face to face contact people actually report they feel more engagement with remote co-workers! Now, why is that? To find the reason, we have to look into a strange phenomenon. When having a phone call, skype call or whatever kind of call, did you ever notice yourself talking louder when the other caller was further away? Strange, right, since the distance shouldn’t matter to the technology. Don’t worry, you’re not alone, most people do this. I’m pretty sure there is a psychological term for this. The thing is, people still perceive the distance and make an extra effort to communicate. So they’ll talk louder, use more clarification, and in general put more time and skill in understanding each other.”

We are more engaged

“Luckily, there are also less obnoxious ways for people to put more effort in. With help from online communication tools (we use Slack, like most), people give more updates, share more information and add more emoticons — which is a matter of taste of course — to the conversation. Makes sense, because why would you use Slack if your co-worker is right beside you. Except that you don’t ask them the question when they are sitting there! And you do if you perceive a greater distance. So I’ve found out that I put more effort into understanding my teammates, clients and partners in my new job, and as a result, we are more engaged. Guess I was wrong.

Luckily, some things do stay the same. Like talking about the weather. And traffic. My oh my, the traffic.”

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