Corporate Culture & Productivity

Distributed work: 5 ways to help distributed teams

CJ Frey
September 7th, 2022

The rise in ongoing distributed work is one of the biggest impacts the pandemic has had on working. Distributed teams are proving to be just as productive (and a whole lot happier) as their traditional counterparts. Which is why more and more companies are committing to a hybrid workplace and distributed working.

In this article, we explore why distributed work is the future of work. We also review five strategies to better manage distributed teams. 

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What is a distributed team environment? What is a dispersed workforce?

By definition, distributed work takes place (i.e.: is distributed) in more than one workplace. 

Whether companies have more than one office location, a mix of remote workers, or some combination thereof, distributed work is about fostering collaboration and productivity, regardless of where employees happen to be located. 

A distributed team environment can take many forms, depending on the needs of the company at hand. It might mean having more than one office location. For example, OfficeSpace Software has three official offices (one in Canada, one in Costa Rica, and one in Atlanta, Georgia). 

It could be one central office location with a team of fully remote workers, who may or may not be in the same city. 

Or, it might look like some combination of employees working in different locations outside any number of office sites. For example, from their home office, a coffee shop, or a co-working space. Yes, OfficeSpace has multiple ‘official’ offices, but employees can work from anywhere they like. Digital nomads—mobile employees who are always on the go, staying in one place for a few months before moving to the next—are also welcome. 

“Our users are everywhere,” says Stripe CTO David Singleton, another company that has famously adopted distributed work. “We have to be, too.”

“The distributed work paradigm means that where you’re located should not be a factor in your performance and participation.”

Anthony Wing Kosner, Dropbox

Distributed work needs trust and accountability—on both sides

As we’ll explore further below, a dispersed workforce really only works when there’s trust from employers, accompanied by a commitment to fostering participation and performance, regardless of where an employee is located.  

Meanwhile, distributed employees need to earn that trust. They can earn it by showing up mentally and staying engaged, even when there’s no one over their shoulder. 

We tend to think of remote work as a post-COVID phenomenon. But even before the pandemic, a whopping 70% of people were working remotely at least one day a week. 

It’s now predicted that there will be one billion digital nomads by 2035. 

Thankfully, as we’ve learned thanks to the pandemic, remote teams can be just as productive as co-located teams, if not more so. 

Moreover, since the pandemic forced many companies into a distributed hybrid work model virtually overnight, this remote working ‘experiment’ has been an overwhelming success. 

Now that companies are able to put more thought into headcount planning for a distributed workforce, we can expect to see more deliberate strategies and even better results. Shared projects, conference calls, ad hoc collab sessions, all-hands meetings—for distributed companies, these all need to be carefully arranged. They must be just as productive as in a traditional office. 

“If you need to be constantly on top of your employees in order to get them to be productive, then your corporate culture clearly has a problem.” 

Enrique Dans, Forbes
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What are the advantages of distributed work? 

There are many advantages to having a flexible work culture in general, and a distributed team in particular. 

Of course, when companies are eyeing their real estate portfolio, cost-savings are always top of mind. And distributed work can certainly bring many cost benefits, especially when remote teams are part of the picture.  

Specifically, when an employee works from home just part time, they can personally save up to $4,000 a year, while saving their company around $11,000 a year. 

Beyond these numbers, distributed work has many benefits for both employees and employers. 

Benefits for employees

There will always be a segment of the population who prefer to work in one traditional office. 

But now that workers have had a taste of remote work (and the better work-life balance that comes with it), they’re not willing to give it up entirely. For example, employees with the option to work remotely report 24% more work satisfaction. They’re also more likely to be happy and productive—aligning employee benefits with those for employers, too.   

Consider that commuting times were rising pre-pandemic, up to an average of 27.1 minutes one way for American workers. Which, if you’re counting, comes out to 225 hours—more than nine full days—a year. Being able to work from home—or from a coworking space or coffee shop in your neighborhood—can therefore save you so much time, money, and headaches. 

Being able to work from outside the office also helps working parents or anyone else with caregiving responsibilities. 

And note that 81% of workers with disabilities prefer telecommuting at least part time.

In short, being able to choose where you work at least some of the time gives workers the flexibility to create a work life that is in better harmony with their whole life. 

Plus, not everyone lives in New York, Los Angeles, or other major cities. And not everyone has the desire (or budget) to move there. Therefore, the more companies that open more locations or allow more worker flexibility, the more people with different and diverse backgrounds, skills, and abilities can apply.  

Benefits for employers

Similarly, having multiple locations and allowing for more flexible working options can dramatically improve talent attraction efforts. Not only does distributed work give you a leg up in the recruiting space. You’re also no longer bound by time zones or lines on a map, making the talent pool dramatically wider.

This is why Stripe famously established a fifth work location—the remote hub—in 2019. This was to tap into the 99.74% of engineers around the world living outside their existing hubs. 

Plus, given current employee demands, allowing for remote work can also help with talent retention. It  also opens up the possibility of consolidating floors and/or right sizing your corporate real estate portfolio, leading to potential cost savings and a smaller carbon footprint.  

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How do you manage a distributed workforce?

To manage a distributed workforce, you need to optimize both the hybrid workplace and the employee experience. Of course, companies can only realize the benefits of remote work when leadership and employees share the same vision and goals. 

“This is an opportunity for many teams in many organizations to find a way to behave differently, because this new reality is requiring us to act differently,” Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School tells Dropbox

There’s certainly a learning curve here—thankfully, it’s one that many companies have already been navigating for over two years. Now that companies have already done much of the legwork on overcoming the challenges of hybrid working, they can start focusing on creating a better, bespoke flexible work environment that is able to grow with their company.    

Going forward, the two most important top-down elements that all team members need here are trust and autonomy. 

The importance of trust and autonomy

Companies need to trust that their hybrid employees are working hard and doing their best work. Even when they can’t see them. 

In turn, employees need to figure out a hybrid work schedule that works for them and their needs. This way, they can show up engaged each and every day, no matter where they are. 

“The big ‘T’ word—Trust—has to be the foundation for the  workplace strategy,” says workplace strategist Angie Earlywine, Senior Director in the Total Workplace division of Global Occupier Services at Cushman & Wakefield. “If there’s still an issue around trust, it’s usually rooted in the culture. Most people do the right thing. They enjoy the work that they’re doing. The labor market is too competitive now to not be doing what you love. Or to work for a company that you don’t believe in.” 

From there, managing distributed workers means creating the right physical workplace(s) for in-office workers, along with a digital workspace that benefits everyone. 

That means everyone has to come on board to manage distributed work—leadership, HR, IT, facilities management (FM), and, of course, the employees themselves. 

Together, they can create practices and policies that foster team cohesion and productivity across locations and borders. 

Specifically, companies need to focus on the following five areas to manage a distributed workforce.

1. Distributed work needs different tools 

Yes, Zoom has been a blessing as we’ve turned to remote work arrangements. But it’s not the only tool that can support distributed teams. 

Companies with distributed teams need to create what Publicis Sapient CXO John Maeda calls a ‘sense of place.’ In other words, just because we’re not all showing up to the same building, we still need to feel like we’re showing up somewhere, making good digital workplace solutions critical

That means employees need a suite of tools for both asynchronous and real-time project management, along with good wifi and, ideally, a laptop and in some cases a smartphone.

Training and education are also still important in this new reality, which, thankfully, can often be done virtually. This can include cross-cultural or multicultural training when necessary, as well as ensuring everyone understands how to use the collaboration tools available to them.  

Security can also be a bigger concern here, with employees using their own internet or sharing with everyone else in the coffee shop. For this reason, it’s often a good idea for facility management teams to collaborate with IT and other leaders to ensure that everyone is able to work safely and securely. 

“The commitment to improving internal and external cross-cultural communications must become part of the company’s culture and apply to everyone equally, from the CEO down.”

Raju Chebium, SHRM
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2. Company culture needs to be a priority

Studies have shown that, in order, what fully remote workers struggle with most is communication, social opportunities, and loneliness and isolation. 

Meanwhile, the most successful workplace teams are those that are highly collaborative. Company culture is key here. But it’s certainly more challenging to maintain good company culture and relationships with staff situated around the globe. 

Maintaining and improving company culture in a hybrid office is not just about more video conferences and online chats—although they help. 

It’s about creating a valuable employee experience for everyone, regardless of where they are, and ensuring that they feel connected to their teammates and the overall goals of the organization. 

In this regard, little things matter, and company events, big and small, in-person or online, go a long way. 

For example, at OfficeSpace, we have weekly games and hang-outs where everyone is welcome, along with dedicated Slack channels for things like music, foods, pets, and travel. The goal is to create that sense of community and place that used to come from congregating around the water cooler. 

“We had to change our mindset from company events being primarily about the in-person experience with a supplemental option for remote employees, to planning things around the hybrid/virtual experience first and foremost,” says OfficeSpace Software Senior People Operations Manager Taylor Graves. “We still occasionally have in-person events, but they’re not as common as pre-pandemic. There’s more energy focused to virtual game time, happy hours, and mailing people gifts instead of having remote employees feeling left out just because they live somewhere else.”

Finally, one-on-one meetings still matter, even when they’re not technically face-to-face, because they build trust and camaraderie.

“Communication is key.,” says Graves. “While it can be tiring to be on Zoom calls all the time, it’s important to have that visibility with the team.” 

“By understanding effect on culture, companies can make transition to distributed work more fluid, while maximizing investments in tools that will be adopted and embraced by employees hesitant to change.” 

John Maeda, Publicis Sapient

3. Distributed teams need clear policies and goals

Despite the many benefits of distributed and hybrid work, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s more complicated than traditional work. Employees will therefore need clear guidelines to figure out how to still have a productive workday. 

That means following hybrid meeting best practices, and establishing ground rules for videoconferencing like always having your camera on or ending meetings five minutes early. 

Similarly, there should be some established norms around asynchronous communication (like texting, messaging, and email). 

And while micromanaging is never a good idea, it’s ok to set deadlines and ask for regular updates from employees. Trust is a two-way street, and employees need to know what benchmarks they should be hitting. 

In short, employees will need clear policies to help them navigate this ‘new normal’. This should also be reflected and included in onboarding efforts.

4. Distributed teams need good managers

Of course, employees have always required clear communication around responsibilities. So, without micromanaging, managers of distributed teams should still be checking with employees on a regular basis. They also need to make themselves readily available, ideally keeping their calendars open. 

Ultimately, managing distributed and remote work is very different from managing co-located teams. For example, people may be more reticent to share their thoughts on video conferencing calls. Managers must be prepared to ask more followup questions than they might at an in-person meeting. 

To ensure they’re meeting everyone’s needs, managers may therefore require special training themselves. This can ensure they’re equipped to handle a diverse, spread out team.

“There are best practices and nuances to managing a mixed remote and hybrid team,” says Earlywine. “Don’t assume managers don’t need training and that employees know how to not just survive, but thrive in this new model.”   

“Distributed work is making us realize we have to be more deliberately—more proactively—open. We have to be explicit in sharing our ideas, questions, and concerns, because we can’t just overhear what’s happening in the next cubicle.”

Amy Edmondson as told to Anthony Wing Kosner, Dropbox

5. Agility is more important than ever

Finally, workplace agility is crucial in a distributed environment. 

Even with most return to the office plans well underway, we’re still in largely uncharted territory when it comes to hybrid and remote working. 

“There’s no signal answer of a perfect workplace that will work for every company or companies within an industry or region,” says OfficeSpace Software CEO David Cocchiara in a recent webinar, ‘Foundations of a successful hybrid workplace’.  “It’s really important to stay agile as we figure out what flexibility means and test different methodologies and office configurations.”

To do this, companies will need the right policies and digital solutions, like we’ve covered. 

They can also take advantage of effective space management software. This not only helps workers navigate a variety of physical office locations, but also tracks how they’re doing so. It provides workplace reports and analytics that leadership can in turn use to dramatically improve their real estate.  

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FAQs

Is distributed work the same as remote work? 

The terms ‘distributed work’ and ‘remote work’ are often used interchangeably, but they do not mean the same thing. 

Distributed work refers to companies that maintain more than one location, and/or that allow employees to work in a variety of places (such as from home, from coffee shops or coworking spaces, or on the road).

Meanwhile, remote work refers to the individual practice of working remotely, often (but not always) from home. 

What is the difference between distributed work and telecommuting?

Distributed work is teamwork that takes place over multiple locations. This is both in traditional offices or coworking spaces, and in more casual locations, like at home or in a library. Telecommuting is simply the practice of working from home. Both distributed work and telecommuting require good digital solutions to help employees stay connected and productive.

What is a distributed organization? 

A distributed organization is any that relies on multiple locations for work. These locations can be different workspaces in different cities or countries, as well as a variety of remote working locations. For example, working from home, from coffee shops and the like, on the road, or in coworking spaces.

What is considered remote work?

Remote work is any work that is done individually, away from a physical, shared workspace. Remote work is often done at an employee’s home, although they may also choose to work from public or coworking spaces. 

Many employees prefer the ability to work remotely, at least part time. Which is why more companies are now offering it as part of talent attraction and retention efforts. 

What is a distributed first company?

A distributed first company is one that lets employees work from wherever they feel most comfortable and productive. Distributed first companies focus more on outcomes and output than on a number of hours spent in the office. Spotify’s new Work From Anywhere strategy is an example of a distributed-first structure.  

What skills are required to work as part of a distributed team?

While managers of distributed teams will require specific skills and training, ideally, employees shouldn’t require any special skills to be part of a distributed team. They should be given all the tools and training they need to perform and collaborate, regardless of their location. Distributed employees just need to be willing to show up and stay engaged, even when they’re working from home. 

What are mobile employees?  

Mobile employees are those who not only work outside the office, but also regularly rotate where they work, thanks to the nature of their role. In other words, they generally don’t have their ‘own’ desk or workspace, and instead are usually on the road. Traveling salespeople, service teams, event managers, and maintenance technicians are all examples of mobile employees. 

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