The basic definition of distributed teams is when two or more employees operate in different locations, but it’s so much more than that. With the move to the distributed workforce model, millions of people will never work the same way again.
Understanding and mastering the distributed model can pay dividends for businesses. But it requires a change and a significant move away from traditional working methods. Here’s what you need to know about overcoming the growing pains of distributed work.
What are Distributed Teams?
Team distributing is not the same as remote working. Under a distributed model, all workers operate remotely. This could be from home, a coworking space, or on the other side of the globe. Remote working consists of a mixture of office-based workers and remote workers. While there are distributed workforce companies, most companies haven’t fully committed to this model.
What’s more, fully distributed companies will not have any type of physical office space. Since the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies have opted for distributed work simply because they found they were just as profitable without the heavy overheads of maintaining a physical office.
How Do Distributed Teams Compare to Remote Teams?
This is where definitions can get confused.
For a team to be distributed, they must be completely and entirely remote. A few employees dotted around the same city would usually make the team a remote team. Likewise, a distributed workforce will not pop into the office two or three times a month for a meeting. This total lack of physical human interaction means a distributed organization must rely on technology to communicate, collaborate, and succeed.
So, in summary, while distributed teams are made up of workers who work from any part of the globe whose physical presence will never be required. Remote teams work from home but usually within the same country/city making physical meetings more possible, when necessary. We can even say remote working is a function of a hybrid work environment.
Benefits of a Distributed Workforce
So why invest in distributed employee teams in the first place?
It may not be the right move for every type of business, but this model offers some unique benefits. Let’s examine some of the great reasons why organizations are increasingly looking to this model to see if it’s a good fit for you.
Lower Overheads – Without a physical office space, companies save tens of thousands of dollars every year on overheads. Why have an office when the same work can be done from the comfort of home?
Greater Talent Pool– Fully distributed companies get to enjoy access to a greater talent pool. You no longer need to concern yourself with whether talent is within commuting distance of anywhere. You’re also likely to attract top talent, as most people prefer to work from home.
More Employee Benefits – In hyper-competitive industries, many workers see the distributed model as a workplace benefit. Distributed team jobs are in extremely high demand because working from home is quickly becoming the preferred option — not everyone wants to go into the office.
Reduced IT Costs – Since distributed businesses rely heavily on the cloud and other online software, there’s no need to maintain an IT infrastructure. Larger companies have the potential to cut their IT expenditure by thousands.
More Freedom – Give employees the freedom they need to perform at their best. Banish the tradition of long commutes and overly chatty colleagues, because a happy worker is a productive worker.
Distributed companies can reap all these benefits and more, which leads to higher quality results, a happier workforce, and a more profitable company.
Challenges of a Distributed Workforce
Now while there are several benefits to running a distributed team or workforce, there are also those things that make it challenging and a turn off for companies.
Some of these are:
Creating and maintaining a company culture - because you’ll have employees working from different parts of the world, it can be difficult to form a company culture and easily enforce it. Take for example, something like sending out welcome packages to every new employee. This type of workforce is more focused on getting the job done than having fun activities together like in-office or on-site companies do. It’s however not impossible, it just requires more intention than if you had employees in-office or same region.
Communication - when you have teammates spread across the world, in different time zones, real time communication becomes a problem. As well as team collaboration. This could sometimes disrupt the work flow or process and also make it harder for remote employees to manage their time effectively. Hindering work-life balance. This issue can be solved with the adoption of asynchronous video communication that helps teams work better even when they’re not together. Some startups who practice this model also sometimes hire within similar or close time zones to reduce this issue.
Lack of employee connections/bond - isolation is one of the big challenges of running a virtual team. In this work model, an entire team can work full-time together without really knowing or speaking to each other. This can get lonely for some. One way to improve this is by enforcing regular team check-in, even with the freelancers on your team. You can also make teamwork more personal and engaging using video collaboration tools like Loom.
Must-Have Technology for Distributed Teams
Technology is the key to making the distributed employee system work. Without the tools necessary to effectively carry out online collaboration, the whole model falls apart. Here are some of the must-have solutions for distributed work.
Distributed employees need to be able to share files back and forth in a fast and secure manner. Email isn’t going to cut it among distributed teams. Dropbox is the “go-to” option for secure file sharing. To keep your files safe, Dropbox incorporates multiple layers of protection, including 256-bit encryption. Plus, Dropbox can be accessed from multiple devices, including your smartphone.
Workflow management is one of the major challenges a distributed organization faces when shifting to this style of working. How do you keep track of everyone and ensure that everyone knows what they’re responsible for?
Slack is a real-time communication tool, where teams can be segregated, and private conversations can happen. It’s useful not only for real-time collaboration but you can also leave public and private messages for a specific employee to read later. Not to mention the many ways to boost company morale with emojis, GIFs, and social channels dedicated to hobbies, travel, or just jokes. It also comes with an intelligent smartphone app so you can always stay in touch.
Video communication is essential, and Loom makes it easy. With its one-click record feature, team members can create custom videos for leads, new employees, or for marketing content. It’s an all-in-one solution geared toward video without all the hassle. It also supports live calls, so it’s ideal for both collaboration and onboarding new team members. With so many other video solutions out there, Loom takes what they have and goes one step further for quality communication.
Project management is another challenge distributed workforce companies need to contend with. Ensuring that everyone is on the right track and can easily reference different stages of a project is crucial for avoiding confusion and a drop in productivity.
Trello uses a color-coded card system that can be used to assign specific tasks, share files, and send messages. Companies can also set up lots of different boards for dedicated teams. This project management tool is ideal because it takes no more than a few minutes to understand how it all works and get started.
Google Drive utilizes the cloud to enable organizations to store and share their files online. The best part is as long as a file has been shared with you, it’s possible to access it from anywhere on any device. Use Google Drive on your computer to securely upload all files and disaster-proof your organization's most critical files. Google Drive is also ideal for live collaboration as shared files may be edited in real-time.
Managing a Distributed Organization: Tips for Success
Distributed work is a new way of doing business, and overcoming the difficulties of switching to this system and getting the most out of it can prove a problem for managers. So, what do you need to do to join the ranks of successful, fully distributed companies?
Maintain Structured Meetings
Meetings remain vital for any distributed organization. Keeping everyone in the loop, whether daily or weekly, requires structure. While there’s considerable freedom in working from anywhere, meetings should be structured around work. Avoid getting bogged down in chitchat, as this can diminish the productivity of the team. Consider replacing unnecessary meetings with a Loom, or send a Loom pre-watch in advance so that face to face time can be reserved for brainstorming.
Upgrade Your Software
You already know that the right tech stack will make or break your team. Commit yourself to regularly auditing your current solutions and upgrading when necessary. It might be tempting to put it off, but distributed teams have a far greater need to be on the cutting-edge of technology than office-based workforces.
Set Clear Goals
If you need to clarify something, you can’t lean over to the next cubicle and ask a question. Managers must be extremely specific and poignant when setting their goals. Be clear about setting goals, performance indicators, and deadlines. Don’t be afraid to be direct on this matter as it’ll only help your employees reach their goals.
Improve Your Onboarding Process
Onboarding new team members is much harder when you’re not able to look over their shoulder while training. Regardless of your setup, onboarding will be conducted remotely in the same way as working. Quickening the process with an engaging and efficient onboarding process is key to getting them up to speed. Look into your onboarding process and consider how you can improve it. A great option is to use Loom to create training and welcome videos.
Create an Intimate Team Setting
The distributed model only works when everyone is pulling in the same direction. Fostering that team environment exclusively online is perhaps the biggest area where companies fail. Try not to make everything about work. Have fun events and give team members a place where they can chat about things unrelated to work. Set up fun Slack channels for casual topics, or schedule social time on the calendars of your colleagues. Some companies have even taken it a step further and organized company events via platforms like Buffer. Even when working online, some virtual face-to-face time can make all the difference.
Hire the Right Team Members
All humans are different. Not everyone is suited to work away from the office. Whether it’s an older employee who doesn’t want to change the way they work or someone who values that in-person human interaction, every team member needs to get with the program. When hiring, ask pointed questions about the potential for working from home. While some companies may focus entirely on qualifications and experience, all this counts for nothing if distributed working isn’t right for them.
Adopt a Video-First Culture
Video is the closest thing to an in-person interaction available to distributed teams. As we mentioned, managers face a real problem with human bonding when working in this model. For this reason, consider a video-first culture. If there’s a choice between writing someone a message on Slack and a video call on Loom, always opt for the latter. Video-first culture brings team members together and puts names to faces.
Don’t Treat Distributed Employees Differently
Sadly, in more traditional companies, there’s the temptation to treat those working remotely differently. Adopting this distributed model means you still need to treat each person with the care and attention they deserve, and prevent proximity bias. One-to-one meetings and virtual get-togethers outside of work hours can make a huge difference. While office working is a different way of life, do your best to transplant that culture to the online world.
Establish Clear Roles and Boundaries
Office culture comes with a clear hierarchy. The manager and the CEO may have their own parking spaces and offices, whereas everyone else sits in a cubicle with paper-thin walls. Everyone is equal, and everyone should be included, but distributed working must still come with clear hierarchies in place. Decision-makers must be assigned ahead of time, whether it’s a project manager or a team leader. Assigning responsibility early on ensures everyone stays on track and reduces the risk of confusion and conflict.
Fully Distributed Companies To Follow
The best way to understand this model is to see how real distributed companies are making it work. As the number of distributed teams has risen by 400% in recent years, different organizations are exploring the options that work best for them.
Automattic operates as the parent company of both WordPress and Tumblr. CEO Matt Mullenweg claims that distributed work was always the goal for the company. Since the company has always used technology to keep everyone in the loop, they have since switched to Slack and the WordPress theme P2. To keep things fresh, the company offers allowances for coworking spaces and coffee shops.
The automation tool Zapier also has taken on the fully distributed way of working. Co-founder and CEO Wade Foster uses the distributed model to hire the most talented people from across the world. Zapier boasts 80 employees across 13 different countries. Each employee is entitled to profit sharing, healthcare coverage, and flexible working hours. They use Trello, Slack, and an internal blog as a substitute for email.
Buffer is a social media management platform with 80 employees on distributed teams spread out across the world. The company moved to this model in an attempt to promote equality and inclusivity across every area of the company. After trying various forms of flexible and remote working over the years, Buffer is one of the pioneers of this new way of working. In terms of employee benefits, Buffer is extremely generous to its employees, including three weeks of paid vacation per year, free stress therapy, paid retreats, and impressive healthcare benefits.
The distributed organization is fast becoming the ultimate way to work. As the COVID-19 pandemic shone the spotlight on health and wellness, companies discovered that they could get more from those they employ by shifting away from the office.
If this type of team is right for you, it’s never been easier to get started and join the workplace revolution. Loom is the most cutting-edge video communication solution available today, and you can gain access to it for free. To learn more about harvesting the power of video, contact Loom and sign up for free now.