In a distributed team, all team members work remotely from various locations, usually their own homes. So why have distributed teams increased in popularity? These days, you may not need to commute, wait in line for a coffee, and answer questions from colleagues in the office. Those are some reasons employees enjoy remote work.
This workforce shift is not new because the number of fully remote companies has been growing even before the coronavirus pandemic and worldwide lockdown. For example, according to a Forbes article published in summer 2019, “70% of employees say going into the office is unnecessary.” The author also noted that 23% of remote workers represented geographically distributed teams.
We’ll explore the nature of a distributed team and how it differs from remote teams. As we use such terms in business more frequently, we want to answer some critical questions: What are the advantages and disadvantages of a distributed team? Why should companies have distributed teams? And what are the approaches to managing distributed teams?
What is a Distributed Team?
A distributed team comprises two or more employees working in different locations. There is no need for team members to share the same physical workspace or even the same geographical area. These workers can perform their tasks in various cities or countries. Also, distributed teams can include several team members who work in an office and some who work from home.
With an appropriate infrastructure that allows for communicating, collaborating, and coordinating, a distributed office can function even better than a traditional one. For example, applying a cloud-based phone system, along with other digital tools, helps companies manage critical aspects of teamwork, including communication, project management, HR, and security. Online one-on-one or group chats and video calls enable team members to stay connected and keep business flowing smoothly.
Is There Any Difference Between Distributed and Remote Teams?
Although these terms may sound similar, they are quite different. Here, we will analyze the differences between a distributed team and a remote team.
The similarities between remote employees and distributed workers are easy to define. For both categories, employees work alone remotely away from the company’s office, independent of colleagues and team members. But the differences start when considering the integration of teams, the approaches used to connect them, and office locations.
In a distributed team, the company distributes each team member away from others. It means that an employee can work at home from different parts of the world or work in an office where his colleagues are not present. With distributed team management, employees rarely or sometimes never see each other. Although we often associate these teams with flexible work, not all team members can get specific work flexibility perks. Ultimately, organizations can also assign distributed teams to relevant office buildings rather than home-based offices.
As with distributed teams, remote employees also work away from each other. However, it does not require employees to work remotely or the company to distribute the team members worldwide. Instead of connecting colleagues in different time zones, a remote team employee can only work with some people, while other team members work in a central office. Managing remote teams is also easier because they can be location-based. Thus, even if each team member works from home, they can occasionally meet in the office as the team works locally.
What are the Pros and Cons of Distributed Teams?
The primary advantages for organizations to build distributed teams are:
1. Employees Consider Remote Work as a Benefit
Such an advantage can be a selling point when hiring people who might want a higher salary, moving expenses, or reimbursement of commuting costs. Companies have already discovered that there is no need to supervise many job positions directly. They provide employees with more flexibility by allowing them to work from home. That makes them more motivated, productive, and happier. Finally, working from home brings many health benefits.
2. Distributed Teams Reduce Costs for Office Space
A traditional team requires considerable office space. All employees need a cubicle, hardware and tools, as well as restrooms and facilities. Also, such a location must provide adequate parking, climate control and a high-quality IT infrastructure. With a distributed team, you can eliminate all of this. For example, many modern organizations with hundreds of workers can use the space equivalent of a two-bedroom apartment as their headquarters.
3. A Distributed Team Encourages the Use of Cloud Computing
Thanks to different cloud services and software, you can lower IT costs. You can forget about maintaining on-premises infrastructure for traditional development teams because cloud solutions provide everything from storage to access to development environments. It is much cheaper to operate distributed teams than on-premises ones.
On the other hand, challenges to managing geographically distributed teams are:
1. Many Distributed Teams Still Require Maintaining a Central Office
Not every company can transform fully into a distributed organization. In many situations, you cannot perform tasks such as shipment, fulfillment, or manufacturing remotely. Thus, if you have to maintain a headquarters or another facility, you lose some of the financial benefits of a distributed workforce.
2. Distributed Employees May Feel Left Out of the Workplace
Team members who must commute may become jealous of distributed teams. At the same time, distributed employees can feel left out of corporate parties and other events they cannot attend. Also, remote teams may be inconvenienced due to time zone differences, perhaps forcing them to work an odd shift. Such issues provoke friction between traditional and distributed teams.
3. Regular In-person Meetings are Impossible
One of the key benefits of a traditional in-office team is the ability to call an immediate meeting when a problem occurs. This approach is more convenient than setting up video conferences and inviting many participants to Zoom. Also, do not underestimate the value of small talks during coffee breaks that serve as a source of powerful social connections among team members.
Distributed Company Examples: Why Do Organizations Have Distributed Teams?
Before the coronavirus pandemic, many organizations, such as Basecamp and Trello, experimented with remote work. For instance, Trello provides its employees with an opportunity to work remotely or stay at their office in New York.
Several successful companies also implemented flexible working hours and operate with fully distributed teams. Buffer, Zapier, and InVision were among the progressive companies to pave the way toward distributed work.
Being an API integration tool, Zapier has operated as a fully distributed office almost since the foundation. When the company had only five employees in three different cities with no central office, they realized that:
- Features continued to roll out
- Clients continued to sign up
- Customers continued to pay
- Team members were happy
InVision, a platform for design collaboration and prototyping, acts as a distributed organization with over 220 employees in 14 countries. This international strategy results from their CEO’s plans. They maintain this strategy because, as a distributed office, InVision can hire the best professionals in different parts of the world and retain them if they decide to relocate.
Our own company, Cprime, employs a hybrid of distributed and remote work. We have hundreds of employees located around the world. Most work from home exclusively, while some have the option to work at one of our central offices if and when they please.
During the past decade, we have seen significant shifts in employee needs, wants, and expectations. People demand more flexibility in the workplace; it can relate to saving money, opportunities to travel and work from different countries, or spending more time with their families.
Millennials consider flexibility a higher priority than salary, and many agree to reduce their pay to get it. Thus, companies have built geographically distributed teams to be more employee-focused and flexible, as talented employees are hard to attract and retain.
How to Manage a Distributed Team
1. Structure Meetings
Staying connected is essential for all teams, whether they work in the office or as distributed teams. Considering your team requirements, set a reasonable schedule of regular meetings and set agendas. Without an agenda, the meeting can easily lose focus. If your team is chatty, you need to ensure you have a structured agenda and provide some time for others to talk at the end of the meeting. Otherwise, your video calls will turn into productivity killers.
2. Apply the Right Software
The appropriate tech stack is critical for a distributed company to succeed. For instance, software like Zoom matters because it provides video conferencing and screen sharing. Also, software tools such as TalentDesk allow you to manage your team effectively and maintain collaboration among team members. Another important thing is the ability of both internal and external employees to monitor their tasks and projects and access securely stored files at any time from any location. With this technology in place, distributed teams can be highly productive.
3. Set Clear Expectations
Of course, it is simpler to ask quick questions of your colleagues when you are sitting next to them, but you can fix that with minimal effort. Every time you communicate with your team members, you must be extra clear regarding objectives, key performance indicators (KPIs), and deadlines. That allows employees to know what they need to do and by when.
4. Renew Your Onboarding Process
Onboarding is critical for both distributed and traditional teams. You must make sure that you provide new team members with access to all the necessary tools and information from their first day and make them feel welcome. A well-structured onboarding plan for new employees is vital. Many organizations assign mentors to help newbies settle in smoothly and answer questions.
5. Promote a Team Environment
A distributed company needs to help team members feel valuable even when working remotely. For instance, you can create non-work-related channels in your communication tools like Slack. That can provide some fun for virtual teams and increase employee motivation. People can discuss their hobbies and interests freely, share news or memes. Also, if it’s financially viable, you can organize corporate parties, retreats, or other events to help team members bond.
Although distributed work gained popularity before the pandemic, COVID-19 has led to “the largest work-from-home experiment” in the world, according to workplace leaders. Results prove positive sentiment regarding a distributed organization, both from development teams and employers.