Today, people can work from almost anywhere in the world, provided they have the right device and Internet access. Tools like ZOOM and Slack have made communication easier than ever before, connecting team members miles apart with the click of a button. Already, 70% of people globally work remotely at least once a week.
But that isn’t to say there aren’t challenges in communication. Remote communication and distributed teams are only a few decades old, and we still struggle to form the right routines or access the most efficient technology.
If you already have a distributed team in place, this guide will help you accomplish a greater level of cohesion and communication. If you’ve been planning on starting your own distributed team, you’ve picked the perfect place to start.
What are distributed teams?
Distributed teams are composed of members that are located geographically apart from each other. They may work in information technology, marketing, product development, or similar field that does not require a person to be physically present.
Because distributed teams are located in different areas of the country, even the world, they get to enjoy a few benefits, such as a better work-life balance and more efficient team work schedules.
The differences between a remote team, distributed team and co-located team
Remote teams and distributed teams are the same— they involve a group of workers that operate in different geographical areas while members of a co-located team all work in the same location.
Co-located teams are generally perceived to be stronger because of their ability to communicate more clearly and frequently. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t co-located teams that perform less favorably than a distributed team. It all depends on the challenges you face as an organization and what you do to help your team overcome them.
What are distributed organizations?
The concept of a distributed team has long seen applications in government, healthcare, military, and technology fields, but these days it can apply to almost any business: from budding startups to a major marketing division at a corporation. The term “hybrid organization” has even come to describe the companies with distributed, remote, and co-located teams combined.
These days, it’s not uncommon to see larger businesses adopting the distributed team philosophy across all their functions. Parabol Inc’s Jordan Husney defines a distributed organization as a company with at least 50% of its workforce as remote workers. Major brands from Apple to Xerox have already made the transition to a distributed team.
Why are distributed teams gaining popularity?
Since 2005, the remote workforce has increased by 140%. Companies of all sizes and industries have begun to adopt remote practices and technology for several reasons:
Greater work flexibility
In one study by the Harvard Business Review, 96% of employees said they need flexibility, yet only 47% reported having access to the types of flexibility they need. Female respondents were also more greatly affected by the flexibility gap, “only 34% of whom have access to the flexibility they need”. Remote work offers your team the ability to work on their schedule, in a location they choose.
As team members are given more options and flexibility with their work schedule (such as being able to work from home or nights as opposed to mornings), they become less stressed about usual workplace pressures. When you don’t have to think about a commute or have more time to look after a newborn and still be able to work, your team members will engage more deeply in the company culture. Low stress equals a lower turnover rate as well.
A more diverse talent pool
No longer are businesses geographically restricted in their job openings. With the Internet, anyone can be qualified as long as they have the experience to show for it. Even though there may be a shortage of healthcare IT professionals in one city, you can easily source your candidates from any other city in the world. The more diverse the team, the more possible angles they can approach a solution to a particular problem.
For startups, it means a lot less overhead when you don’t have to worry about dozens of team members on one site. For larger organizations, it provides a greater cost advantage to pick team members from less competitive cities, but with higher buying power.
Challenges of a distributed workforce
Despite the efficiency created by having a team distributed throughout the world, there also comes a set of communication challenges. Be on the lookout for these hazards while managing or working in a distributed workforce.
Lack of 1:1 interaction is the primary reason for a disjointed, distributed team. Without the ability to use nonverbal cues like body language or facial expressions, you’re cutting out major elements of a message. As much as possible, schedule video calls as opposed to sending messages, especially if the topic takes high priority. The more you can simulate the presence of someone being there, the clearer the communication.
Not all cities, states, or countries have the same access to the Internet. Places with less developed infrastructure, for example, struggle to maintain stable connections. This affects everything from the ability to work on certain projects (such as a cloud-based service) to the ability to meet during certain times. Be cognizant of your team’s own technological limitations.
Just as technology varies depending on the location, so too do cultural norms. In the Mediterranean, Southern Europe, and Mainland China, a short afternoon nap known as the siesta is common. This pertains only to sleep, and how different countries view its importance. Imagine then the various other cultural differences that may exist. Understand the places where your workers are from, and you can better deliver a positive, more relevant work experience to their needs.
Guidelines for distributed teams
Despite the challenges, distributed teams can become just as productive as a co-located team given the right tools and practices. Below are a few guidelines that we recommend to ensure everyone stays on task and in sync.
Choose your communication tools wisely
When teams work in a remote capacity, the tools they utilize become even more important. After all, it’s the tools that help people stay connected and stay on task. Invest the time and money in finding the right tool for your team’s needs, and you’ll notice the results in improved workflow and overall morale. Here are a few tools worth considering:
- Homeslice – If you work with people across several time zones but struggle to find a meeting time that works for everyone, Homeslice is for you. This simple tool allows you to choose two or more timezones and find common meeting times within your work schedule. Never again will you have to ask your team members in Melbourne to stay up at 10 pm.
- Zoom – Videoconferencing app Zoom has been making the headlines lately, and it’s not hard to see why. The intuitive interface, lack of registration, and the ability to host up to 1000 participants (with Enterprise Plus) make it competitive in the video conferencing space. Just make sure you take the necessary precautions in protecting your Zoom calls.
- Slack – Part instant messenger, part email client, Slack has disrupted the industry of text-based communication. It’s simple to use, a lot cleaner looking than the alternatives, and works with dozens of different integrations. According to Statista, 85,000 paid organization users use Slack today.
Focus on what’s most important
Teams get overly bogged down in processes that they lose sight of what truly matters. Development team leads, for example, can be so strict on naming conventions or efficient workflows, that they forget to focus on building a great product.
Set daily or weekly reminders about what each person should be totally focused on. It might be completing a certain feature of an app, delivering an important document to a client, or resolving a major customer issue. Prioritization is the key to overall success and productivity.
Organize company retreats and excursions
All work and no play can lead a team to burnout and grow resentful towards each other. Every once in awhile, organize something fun and non-work related to build the social connection between your team. It can be something like taking a company trip or having a team lunch. Distributed teams have also been using Zoom to organize happy hours, a simple, low-cost way to share a good time with the team.
Maintain clear communication with everyone
At the end of the day, tools only go so far— you have to implement the right processes to ensure everyone communicates on the same page. It’s not uncommon to see distributed teams hosting daily standups or huddle meetings. These are short, 5-minute timeboxed meetings wherein each team member gives an update on the work they are doing for the day, and any challenges they may need help with. Consider also scheduling weekly check-in meetings with team members to ensure there is enough time to discuss any major issues or concerns.
Examples of distributed organizations
The popular integrations app, Zapier, has been operated by a remote team since its inception. Starting with only three founders, Zapier has grown to over 300 people working in 28 different countries. Founder Wade Foster wrote in a blog post, “We’ve found there are three important ingredients to making remote work successful: team, tools, and process.”
Metrics and engagement tool startup Baremetrics is another remote-only team. The company doesn’t even have a main office or headquarters, only employees working from home or co-working spaces spread across four U.S. time zones. To establish a strong distributed workforce, they recommend establishing four business practices: hiring, communication, tools, and workflow.
Help desk software provider Help Scout has built a culture around remote working. The team consists of 75 members from more than 50 cities in over 12 countries. Team member Nick Francis notes how finding the right talent is the most important aspect of a remote culture. “Think of it this way,” he writes “do you think more talent exists within a 20-mile radius of your office, or on planet earth?”
Social media scheduling tool Buffer was one of the earliest remote culture workplaces on the Internet. Writer Courtney Seiter offers 40 different tips on her remote work experience over four years working for the company. Among her advice: “If you’ve hired people you trust (and if you haven’t, why not?), trust that they’re working,” and “remote or some level of remote-flexible work is for (almost) everyone! It’s within reach for more companies than you might think.”
As recent events have demonstrated, remote work is here to stay. The world is changing, away from the traditional concepts of a cubicle workspace, and towards distributed teams and coworking spaces. Have you taken the right steps to bring a remote-first culture to your organization?