Manging extreme remote workers

In November, when Pip Hare races solo around the Vendee Globe in her 60ft IMOCA, it is said that at certain points in the Southern Ocean she may be closer to someone on the International Space Station than she is to anyone on Earth. But in her recent blog post she says: “I won’t be alone. Alongside me will be 33 fellow competitors, overseeing us all will be the race committee at their HQ in France and on the shore I will have my team, watching my progress and ready with support.”

As many people around the world are adapting to working from home and businesses are learning to manage and communicate with remote workers, Pip compares how the race committee and shore teams manage communication with skippers and how she manages her comms with her team. Not an easy task when a voice call costs £5 per minute.

Daily check ins – the drum beat 

The drum beat of this communication is the daily check in, this can be done by phone and via text or email.  It’s a scheduled communication to establish my welfare, to get the ‘heads up’ for any problems I may see arising in the future.  

The Race committee will check in regularly with all sailors on the water. It allows them to ‘health check’ the fleet and build a picture of how the race is developing and what might happen next.

I choose to check in with my shore team once a day by phone. We schedule the calls one week in advance, to reflect the time zone I am traveling through and ensure we are both ready for the call. 

I manage routine voice calls on two basic principles: honesty and focus.

Honesty: 

Both my team and the race committee rely on me to tell the truth about the situation on board every time I check in. From a risk management point of view it is better for the committee to know that I had a problem and fixed it, than for a problem to escalate.  

Focus: 

Quite often there will be little time to convey information. The satellite signal may be weak or something may happen on the boat which requires immediate attention. In these situations, we need focussed and efficient conversations. The objective of the call is to establish my welfare and the current status conditions on board; this is always done in the first few minutes of the call. My team have set questions to ask and once this is finished we can move onto ‘any other business’ which adds colour to the picture. At times when I am not able to stay on the call, I can confirm everything is ok then add information later using email or text message. We use messaging systems such as What’s app to great affect via satellite. The ability to send photos, videos, voice recordings and text messages takes a lot of the leg work out of sharing information quickly and simply.

We can use What’s app via a satellite data network to send diverse information quickly and efficiently when at sea.

Reporting Problems 

Our performance will be monitored and any unexpected course changes or drops in speed will raise a flag to race control.  If I don’t check in to explain drastic changes in performance the race committee will try to call me and contact my shore team to see if they have any information. 

It is down to me to report to the Race committee any problems on board which affect my performance – this can be done directly by me or relayed through my shore team. Once reported the committee will assess the level of risk and advise a further communication plan going forwards, involving the shore team.  

Crisis Management

Communication between my boat and the shore changes very little when a problem is escalated to ‘crisis’ level – there is simply more of it. However, when a crisis occurs, the wider communication must be addressed, this includes:

Other competitors: Those within close geographical range may need to be alerted and on standby to provide help if necessary. 

Rescue Services: In extreme cases race management will need to work with Maritime Rescue Co-ordination centres to divert rescue services or commercial shipping to help.

The Media: Details of any emerging crisis will need to be communicated in an appropriate way to the press, with content and time lines agreed both by the Race management PR team and the PR teams from my own team and sponsors. At the start of the race there will be a crisis management protocol in place, nominating the individuals who will should be notified and will be consulted in the event of a crisis. 

Problem Solving – Remote Help

Despite being single handed I am allowed to receive help and advice to help me fix problems on the boat. This advice is limited to the fixing of equipment or medical support but it cannot stretch to performance related advice. When I have a problem, I am not able to fix alone I will reach out to my shore team and network to help me find a solution.  Satellite data and call charges are expensive, so it is important for me to be precise and concise in my communications. Before reaching out for help I consider the following things.

Speak to the right person

Who is the best person to speak to about this problem? Who is an expert with this piece of kit, type of repair? Who has experience or understands the limitations of working alone on a moving boat? Do they know what tools I have available? I may need to speak with more than one person, but the responses should be co-ordinated to avoid going over the same ground or conflict of instructions. 

Pre-load information

What information can I collate and send to help them understand the situation?

I like to ‘preload’ information before making a call, I will use videos, photos and will normally set out my issues in an email, this way I can ensure all information is given and can be understood before I speak in person to anyone. 

Timing

I need to set out my time line, including expected response times from the team. This considers, the rate at which a problem is escalating, current weather, other immediate issues in my own environment, business hours to get hold of experts in different places around the world, and daylight hours if this is important to my work. Once initial contact has been made the team will set out a schedule of comms to help manage a quick solution and ensure I do not miss a call. 

Escalation

Once again this is down to me to report. If damage starts to get worse, or if I am ill or injured and other symptoms start to develop. I must communicate any escalation to the team ashore to ensure everybody is working from the most up to date information.

Problems solving – emotional support

Being alone is something I am very comfortable with. I actually enjoy it and when I am absorbed in the everyday business of sailing my boat I don’t often feel the need to chat. That said, there is something very comforting in knowing that another human being is there to listen after a particularly hard day, when facing disappointment or when I am scared.

This type of communication is less structured, it’s a getting it off your chest offloading of emotion. I don’t need or want to speak with an expert at these times. Instead I will choose one or two people to speak to when I need to offload. The importance here is that the person on the end of the phone is able to understand the context of my situation and not to panic if things sound bad.  Sleep deprivation has a massive impact on emotional response, things that are said during an ‘in-the-moment’ outpouring, may seem entirely irrelevant after a 30-min cat nap and a hot cup of tea. Often a response is not needed, just an ear to listen.  

Sharing the good times  

In order for our race to be successful we need to share the story in a consistent and engaging way throughout the entire duration of the race. A vital part of my job afloat is to get my story off the boat. This will be communicated through video, written pieces and in telephone interviews. This type of communication is uniquely me, I will be really trying to share my experience in way that can be understood by everyone. Yes I am a sailor, taking part in an elite sporting event, but I am also a human being and to be alone for three months, sleep deprived, pushing myself physically and mentally, dealing with the challenges alone, being knocked down and getting back up again, smiling, laughing, crying – these are all experiences we can relate to and this is what I intend to share.

Pip’s full blog can be read online.

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