What is a borderless company and what are its benefits?

Kalo founder and CEO Peter Johnston discusses the rise of borderless companies and its impact on businesses today

11Oct

At first glance, "Avengers: Infinity War," "Solo: A Star Wars Story," and other tentpole summer fare might seem like Disney’s attempt to widen its net of lucrative film franchises. But look a little closer, and you'll see these films — and others — are more than that.

They're borderless companies, organizations that bring myriad people together from all over the world to work on a project for a set period. Once the project is done, every person goes back to his or her regular life and moves on to the next.

A decade or so ago, that wouldn’t have been the case — at least not in business. One of the first steps in setting up a company was almost always to hire a bunch of full-time staff members to do the work you couldn’t do or didn't have time for. If it were a technology company, for example, you’d hire an engineer, a project manager, and a few salespeople.

However, every current business, no matter the industry, is becoming an internet business. It’s just the way companies are being built, and this provides a lot of flexibility in how a business is structured. Sure, you still have to come up with an idea, pick a couple of co-founders, and incorporate it, but why not engage talent on an as-needed basis as you take off? Going borderless is a convenient way of putting maximum efficiency into both short-term and long-term projects.

Businesses without borders

Chances are, some aspect of your business is already borderless. You just don't see it as such because it's either not a core function or not part of the company's day-to-day operations. Think about a background check, for example: It's an infrequent task.

But let's say you're about to bring a new product to market and you need content to support its launch. Why not ramp up talent with a freelance designer or copywriter until the project is done? When Airbnb or Facebook launches a new service, it's not like the company rounds out its talent needs with full-time employees. It relies on freelancers to take photos, design imagery, and translate the copy into other languages.

For example, look at the current business model of most content and publishing companies: entities like Time Inc. or CNN. While not all the way borderless, digital publications are a concrete example of how adopting borderless properties pay dividends. Rather than staff their properties with a full team of editors and writers, digital platforms hire full-time editors and rely on freelancers in select cities to report and file stories from where the news is happening.

This isn't just a cost-saving measure, though that's a huge benefit. Digital publications, and borderless company like it, have a level of flexibility and control over their product that non-borderless companies don't possess because they aren't limited to just local candidates. It doesn't matter where your engineer, designer, or customer service rep calls home as long as he or she can access the tools necessary to get the job done. If you have the technology, there's no reason to restrict employees' geographical locations to near your office. You can hire someone - freelance or not - in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, or Portsmouth, England.


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Breaking boundaries

The decision to go borderless isn't one-size-fits-all for every organization. But to make it happen, companies need to take a hard look at their resources, their infrastructure, and their employees to determine whether its a move they want to make. These strategies should form the base of any business's potential shift to a borderless approach:

1. Start small. You don't need to overhaul your entire company to go borderless. It's something I'd never recommend — unless, of course, you're a startup. Then, you have the luxury of outsourcing right from the start.

Instead, start with one department. Looking companywide, executives and product developers might not see the need to outsource some operations to a freelancer. Your creatives might not feel the same way, though. Your editorial or marketing team might see a content opportunity that requires travel that can be outsourced to someone instead of tasked in-house.

And what about the events staff, which deals with regularly scheduled and seasonal gatherings? Borderless companies can break tasks off piece by piece and deploy small teams to carry out initiatives.

A borderless company doesn’t happen at the snap of a finger. It’ll take time, patience, and calculated strategies, but a commitment to rolling it out in small doses will reveal big changes to your company down the road.

2. Utilize technology. The number of companies relying on freelance and in particular remote workers seems to grow with each passing year, yet the vast majority has the infrastructure only to manage and support in-house, full-time employees.

Technology allows that ability to be broadened. My company, for example, is based in San Francisco, but technology allows us to connect with and employ quality talent outside the US. If you want to take advantage of the cost and talent benefits associated with the freelance space, invest in technology to make it possible to work with anyone anywhere in the world.

Technology is the foundation upon which freelance business approaches build upon. Any company that’s thinking of going borderless needs to have a rock-solid technological structure in place. Previously, technology helped HR departments manage on-site employees and however many freelancers the company employed. It’s now a resource that can facilitate operations for entire departments and enable a borderless strategy.

3. Don't neglect compliance. Many businesses feel they're insulated from compliance issues, largely due to the managed service providers and third-party payroll agencies they've put in place. But that's not always the case, and you'll want to bring someone in from the outside to ensure you’re onboarding the freelance workforce properly and as compliantly as possible.

Most compliance lapses come down to lack of established processes around engaging freelance workers. This consultant can put a fresh pair of eyes on your compliance and make sure your department is prepared to legally oversee a borderless workforce.

4. Treat everyone equally. A customer of ours relayed a story of a sign within the office that referred to temporary employees as "temp workers." An employee scratched out "temp workers" and replaced it with "people," subtly reminding the higher-ups that those workers are indeed people and should be treated as such rather than as service providers.

More than a few companies deem freelance workers as a different kind of employee, beyond the obvious differences like their legal classifications. As such, they don't engage with them in the same way as they do their full-time staff members — so much so that freelancers sometimes feel like second-class citizens. Institute communication and engagement strategies that make these people feel like they're part of the team.

Moving a company to a borderless model can only happen over time. But once you invest in this workforce strategy and get it running smoothly, you'll begin to reduce costs, increase retention, and bolster productivity. It just requires your business to make incremental changes in structure, policies, and technology.

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