The world is more connected than it has ever been. It takes seconds to chat with someone on the other side of the planet, news travels faster than ever, and, thanks to the internet, a distributed workforce is not only doable, but desirable in many instances too.
The rise of the global economy has led to a corresponding increase in the number of businesses with employees working in different countries. In fact, it's now quite common for businesses to have employees spread out across the globe.
However, managing a distributed workforce can be challenging. Different time zones, language barriers, and cultural differences can all lead to communication difficulties. Additionally, different countries have different laws and regulations that need to be taken into account.
Thankfully, there are a number of best practices that can help make managing a distributed workforce easier. In this article, we'll take a look at the distributed workforce model – everything you need to know about building and managing a successful distributed team.
The Distributed Workforce, Explained
A distributed workforce is defined as a team of employees who are based in different locations. This can mean employees working in different countries, different states, or even just employees who work remotely from home.
In a traditional workforce model, all employees are based in the same office (or set of offices). However, with a distributed workforce, employees can be based anywhere in the world – which may or may not mean they work from home (or remotely.)
The Difference Between Distributed Work and Remote Work
There is an important difference to note between distributed work and remote work.
Remote work means employees who work remotely are not based in a central office. They may work from home, a coffee shop, or anywhere else they can get internet access. Furthermore, they may or may not be located in the same country or city.
Distributed work means employees who are part of a distributed workforce may or may not work remotely. They may have a central office they go to, but they might also work from home, a coffee shop, or anywhere else they can get internet access. They may also go to offices in the cities/ countries of their residence.
In other words, not all distributed teams are remote – and not all remote teams are distributed (as some might actually work remotely from within the same country.) However, in both cases, organizations can opt for a hybrid work model, which basically means employees alternate between remote work and being on-site (e.g. in an office in the country of their residence.)
How Do Distributed Teams Work?
Distributed teams work in a variety of ways. Each team is different, and each team member may have a different role to play.
The most important thing in a distributed team is clear communication. All team members need to be able to communicate with each other easily and effectively. This may mean using video conferencing, chat software, or even just picking up the phone when necessary.
In addition, distributed teams need to have a clear understanding of their goals and objectives. All team members should know what they need to do in order to contribute to the team's success. This can be accomplished through regular check-ins, setting clear expectations, and using project management software to track progress.
Last, but definitely not least, processes are key to making sure your distributed team is actually successful. Without the right processes and documentation set in place, it can be very difficult to manage a distributed team effectively because the time zone differences and the differences in how everyone works will, eventually, take their toll.
Benefits of a Distributed Workforce
Distributed working is not something new. If you think of it, distributed organizations have been around ever since long-distance phones were invented. For instance, multinational corporations with offices in different parts of the world have, technically, always been distributed.
The internet and advances in communication technologies have made it easier than ever to work with people from different parts of the world. The pandemic has only made it more stringent and necessary. Before COVID-19, only 30% of the global workforce worked in a distributed model – whereas after the pandemic, distributed workforce reached 48%.
As pandemic-related regulations have eased off (hopefully forever), the idea of continuing to work remotely (and hence, in distributed teams) has been discussed and over-discussed. Fact of the matter, however, is that teleworkers are more productive (even when sick.)
Beyond the remote work debate and its efficiency, it is worth admitting that distributed work (remote or not) has definite advantages. Some of the most important ones include:
Higher Cost Savings
One of the most obvious advantages of a distributed workforce is that it can help organizations save on costs. With no need to rent or maintain physical office space, organizations can reduce their overhead costs significantly. In addition, they can also save on things like equipment, furniture, and other office-related expenses.
Better Employee Well-Being
Distributed teams enable people to work with the teams they want, wherever they want, even if they come from economically disadvantaged areas or countries with limited professional development opportunities for their specific line of work.
Undoubtedly, this flexibility can lead to better work-life balance and happier employees. In addition, it can also help reduce stress levels and promote a more positive work environment.
Working in distributed teams (which is sometimes synonymous with a-sync teams too) helps you be more efficient at building a truly agile environment. People who work in distributed teams are more likely to be independent and proactive – precisely because they're not surrounded by all of their workmates and managers at all times, so they learn more quickly to work on their own and find creative solutions to problems.
Moreover, distributed teams are more likely to be made up of people from different parts of the world with different time zones. This can help you get things done faster since there will always be someone available to work on something, no matter what time it is.
Last, but not least, as paradoxical as it may sound, a distributed workforce might also help you reduce the number of meetings you have on a weekly basis. Zoom fatigue is real, with nearly 30% of people reporting they feel more stressed out and tired when they have a lot of video meetings. When your team is distributed, it's less likely that meetings that could've been an email happen – thus, lowering the total amount of time spent on video calls every week.
Larger Talent Pool
Why limit yourself to the people who live near your office when you can have access to the best talent from all over the world? With a distributed workforce, organizations can tap into a larger talent pool and hire the best people for the job, regardless of their location.
This is particularly relevant for companies that are looking to hire experts in specific areas or niche fields, but also for those who want to hire the best there is, regardless of where they live.
Higher Employee Retention
Last but not least, studies have shown that employees who work in distributed teams have higher retention rates. According to ZipRecruiter, around 60% of those in the market for a new job are looking for remote work opportunities – which goes to show that allowing people to work in distributed teams is something employees actually want (and would be happy to change jobs over if they're not getting it from their current employer.)
Happy employees are productive and loyal – and building a workplace that values their preferences and mental health is the best thing you can do for your business and for your team as well.
Challenges of a Distributed Workforce
Working with a fully distributed team is not always what it's cut out to be. Rose-colored glasses aside, there are also some challenges that need to be considered when building (and managing) a distributed workforce.
Some of the most important ones include:
Working in a distributed environment can be quite difficult if your organization is not set up for it. This type of work requires a reliable internet connection, as well as access to certain tools and software (more on that later.) Furthermore, a distributed workforce needs a distributed IT security system as well – together with thorough employee training, firewalls, and intrusion detection software.
If your organization is not set up for remote work, managing a distributed workforce can be quite difficult, expensive, and downright risky from a cybersecurity point of view.
When you're not working side by side with your colleagues, it can be quite difficult to keep everyone on the same page. Miscommunications are common among remote and distributed teams, which means it's of the utmost importance to invest in the right tools and communication strategies.
If your team is distributed all over the globe, it's likely that there will be some cultural differences at play. These can manifest in different workplace values, expectations, and traditions.
For example, people from some cultures might be more likely to speak up in meetings, while others might be more culturally inclined to be reserved. What's considered to be polite or impolite can also differ from culture to culture.
While these cultural differences can be difficult, training, empathy, and cross-cultural intelligence can help managers and team leaders overcome them.
The flip side to all of this? All those cultural differences can help you grow a business you're proud of. Cultural representation can help you come up with new ideas, challenge the status quo, and build a more innovative business.
Diversity and inclusion are not only the right thing to do, but they can also help you build a better business – so long as you know how to manage them.
Multiple Time Zones
If your team is located in different time zones, managing them can be quite difficult. Not only will you need to account for the different time zones when setting deadlines and scheduling meetings, but you'll also need to be mindful of the fact that some team members might be working odd hours. Having a clear calendar in place and encouraging your team to set healthy boundaries is crucial to making sure nobody gets burned out – or bitter.
Distracting Personal Work Environments
Working from home can be quite distracting, especially if you don't have a dedicated workspace. From pets and family members to grocery shopping and cooking, there are a million things that can pull your focus away from work when you're trying to get things done.
Of course, not everyone has the same distractions at home (or wherever they work). Some people might live alone, while others might have young children. It's important to be considerate of everyone's situation and to understand that, just because someone is working from home, that doesn't mean they're available 24/7.
Distributed Workforce Model: Where to Start?
Say you're already decided on building a distributed workforce model. Where do you start, more exactly?
Well, every business is different, so we can't give you a recipe for this. We can, however, provide you with a couple of first steps to consider:
- First and foremost, you need to have the right tools in place. This includes everything from communication and collaboration tools to project management software and more.
- You also need to make sure your employees are properly trained on how to use those tools – as well as on distributed work best practices in general.
- Make sure you build and continuously perfect your processes, to accommodate not just the "distributed" part of your team, but also the potentially "async" element (generated by the difference in time zones, for example.)
- Last, but definitely not least, don't be afraid to ask your team what they think, what their preferences are, and what you can do to make their lives easier as remote and distributed workers
...5 Strategies for Effectively Managing a Distributed Workforce
Communicate Clearly and Use Multiple Tools
One-on-one check-ins, video conferencing, instant messaging, project management software – there are a lot of different tools you can use to communicate with your team, and you should use as many of them as you need to.
The important thing is to communicate clearly, often, and using a variety of methods. Do make sure your communication is structured, though – nobody likes a last-minute "let's jump on a call" message.
Establish and Define Clear Goals for Everyone
If you want your team to be productive, you need to give them clear goals. What are they working on? Why is it important? What's the deadline? How will you measure success?
Without clear goals, you're all working in the dark and there's no way to actually assess performance – and that's just as true in a distributed workforce as it is in any other type of work model.
Schedule Regular Check-Ins
Check-ins are important for two reasons: they help you assess progress and they give you an opportunity to provide feedback.
The frequency of your check-ins will depend on the size of your team, how well everyone knows each other, and what kind of work you're doing. Just make sure that you schedule them in advance, so everyone is prepared (and they can bring their questions and concerns with them.)
Demonstrate Transparency and Accountability
Transparency and accountability are key in any work environment, but they're especially important when you're managing a distributed workforce.
Your team needs to be able to trust that you're being honest with them and that you have their best interests at heart. One way to do this is by sharing information about the company's performance – good and bad alike. It might seem counterintuitive to share the bad news, but the truth is that when things go down, everyone knows it, so sweeping it under the carpet will only make your team more suspicious and wary.
Bring Your Team Together When Possible
Remote and distributed work are great for employees, for a million and one reasons. But every now and then, bringing the team together to work (and maybe have fun?) face to face can be a total morale booster. Plus, it can help build team cohesion, which is important for effective communication and collaboration.
Of course, this isn't always possible – but if you can manage it, do it!
Use the Best Tools and Tech
As mentioned in the beginning, technological advances have been the great differentiator in the development of distributed workforces. Not only have they made it possible for people to work from anywhere, but they've also given managers a way to keep track of progress, give feedback, and generally stay in touch with their team.
There are a lot of different tools out there, so it's important to find the ones that work best for your team. From hybrid work software to software that helps distributed teams communicate better, there’s something for every need.
If you can, invest in the best tools and tech – it'll make everyone's lives a lot easier, it boosts efficiency, it helps with employee happiness and retention, and, overall, it's a great way to support your business growth efforts (even more so in a distributed work model.)
Are distributed teams meant to be the universal model for work?
But, if there's one takeaway to keep in mind from this article, it's that the key to managing a distributed workforce effectively consists of a concoction made out of good communication and excellent collaboration skills (and the tools to help you with that.)
It might seem like a lot of work at first, but once you get into the swing of things, you'll find that it's really not that different from managing any other type of team, and the advantages far surpass the less beneficial sides of distributed workforces.