Managing a global, multidisciplinary team: challenges and opportunities

9 May 2018

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2017 Annual Review. ]

OTT Consulting Ltd was set up in early 2017. It acts as OTT’s consultancy arm,
allowing our international team of experts to deliver advice and support to
our clients across a wide range of areas including strategic communications, monitoring and evaluation, funding approaches and governance. This work combines initiatives designed and implemented by the team, such as the
OTT School, as well as demand-driven projects like the MEL digital dashboard for IFAD.

OTT Consulting is quite unusual in its set up. While the formal company is registered in the United Kingdom, there are no staff based there. The director sits in Peru, supported by a group of freelancers who live across five continents and seven timezones. This can make day-to-day management and administration difficult.

With this in mind, we have spent a reasonable amount of time testing and choosing the right systems to support what we do, and how we do it. A strong focus on maintaining good communication channels has been a key part of this process. To reduce unnecessary – and hard-to-manage – email traffic, everyone in the team uses Slack. This cloud-based collaboration tool helps us track and share information across a range of projects and themes. For urgent or time-sensitive business we rely on WhatsApp. Evernote has also been useful, as have Dropbox and Google Drive for larger, more complicated projects.

Establishing an efficient and cost-effective set of finance systems has proved a little more challenging. For example, our bank of choice no longer provides an account manager with whom we can communicate directly over email. This means all our interactions now happen over the telephone, which is both time-consuming and costly.

To pay our consultants, we have tended to use bank transfers. What is important for an international operation like ours is to have a reliable banking provider who can handle multi-currency accounts, coupled with an intuitive online banking platform to process payments quickly and easily.

But working with different currencies brings its own challenges. International transfers are expensive and banks often offer poor exchange rates. Receiving funds in different currencies (e.g. Canadian dollars into a US dollar account) also comes with exchange rate loss risks. Budgets therefore need to be constantly updated to reflect this and proposals need to factor this in as well.

A great alternative to international bank transfers is TransferWise – a peer-to-peer transfer service. In our experience, this platform has been most effective for sterling to US dollar transactions. TransferWise is also developing a borderless account, which we hope to use to make and receive international transfers via a single, multi-currency account in the future.

We have also made changes to our accounting software. Dealing with different currencies was not the strength of our previous system, so we moved to Xero, which fully supports our global set up much more effectively. 

To better track our cash flow and help us make planning decisions, we have established a simple tracker. This stores details of all income and expenses across currencies and accounts. This system only works if we update it frequently, which is something we need to improve.

Going forward, we will continue with our flexible approach to make sure our way of working is fit for purpose. We will maintain our focus on keeping the team close using online platforms, but we will also continue to invest in bringing the team together properly through our annual conference and core team retreats. While virtual spaces work well, we have found that creating opportunities for well-structured and strategic face-to-face interaction is much better for building team cohesion and developing new ideas.