The pandemic forced companies to opt for a remote and distributed team setup. However, this work model was popular in the tech industries. The pandemic merely boosted the obvious next step in how companies worked.
The shift of focus among IT professionals from money to work-life balance and flexibility is a crucial reason.
Companies initially showed many concerns and highlighted the drawbacks of distributed teams. But as systems evolved and businesses adopted more software solutions, many companies are now considering going fully or partially distributed.
What Is a Distributed Team?
Distributed teams are those where the teammates work from different locations rather than being physically present under the same roof. In other words, it is where team members work together without a commonplace of work.
Brief History of Distributed Teams
Hudson’s Bay Company was one of the earliest adopters of the distributed working model. In 1697, an instruction issued from its London-based executive committee to a North American Manager effectively said, “Since we are far away, we can’t micromanage you even if we want to. So, we are trusting you to act prudently.”
But distributed teams are hardly new when you consider how kingdoms or religious institutions have been running all over the world for centuries. The significant difference is that today, work happens at a much faster pace.
The early adopters of this setup, not surprisingly, were tech outfits like CompInc and Freelance Programmers, followed by companies like GitLab, Automattic, Buffer.
Distributed Teams in Various Industries
The distributed team model works well for many non-tech industries too.
E-commerce businesses are benefiting greatly from this system. As retailers took their business online, distributed teams were an inevitable choice. Thus, retailers managed operations like ordering, shipping, and customer service with people from different time zones around the clock.
The digital marketing industry was also one of the avid adaptors of distributed teams. Marketing agencies found no need for an office. Their service-based business model enabled them to expand quickly into various markets using distributed teams.
Distributed teams enabled health and wellness providers to offer virtual healthcare to people. Now, virtual health clinics use this model to manage their appointments, schedule follow-up care and provide consultations online and via mobile apps.
Why Are Companies Adopting This Model?
The millennials and the next generation of workers emphasize flexibility more than pay. Upwork predicts that by 2028, 73% of companies will use distributed teams in some capacity, which will require employers to be employee-centric to match the workforce’s expectations.
As more tools and systems evolve to help improve the functioning of distributed teams, the downsides are predicted to reduce to a minimum.
Companies using distributed teams aren’t limited to hiring talents in their geographical location. They can choose to hire talents anywhere in the world. This gives them more choices and competitive costs.
This model can be particularly advantageous to seasonal businesses for whom full-time hiring employees around the year is just a burden. They can choose to have a temporary distributed team to manage their seasonal requirements and cut unnecessary costs.
How to Manage a Distributed Workforce?
There are many undeniable challenges in having a distributed workforce. Through experience and experiments, we now have a set of best practices for distributed teams to guide us. Some of the best practices for distributed team management are:
Hold structured meetings
For teams to effectively work together, staying connected is essential. It is easy to go back and forth in an office setting as people are more accessible.
However, this leads to unnecessary delays and hindrances in workflow in a remote environment.
An employer can avoid this by holding structured meetings. For example, a team can have daily, or weekly checkup calls for 15 minutes to discuss the agenda and deadlines going forward.
Create opportunities to socialize
The biggest struggle of distributed teams is the feeling of isolation. Socializing is one of our primitive needs and creating a sense of belonging helps the workers feel like a part of the community. This, in turn, improves work. Having some way to socialize through online events, games, or anything similar will help boost morale.
Create a shared vision
Creating a shared vision and values can help guide the team members when met with dilemmas or unexpected responsibilities. It makes problem solving and value delivering a much easier and smoother process.
Use the right tools
Starting from connecting to sharing files securely online, distributed teams can work more efficiently with the right tools. Project management tools become essential for the team to increase transparency in a project. Things can get more complicated when the dependencies are more. So, choosing the right tools for your needs can make or break your distributed team setup.
Set reasonable expectations
Many choose distributed teams to improve work-life balance and spend more personal time. On the other hand, many report that their work-life balance is more of a mess because they are expected to do more work than before in a remote setup since office timings are no longer a constraint. This can lead to frustration and burnout among workers.
To avoid this, set reasonable expectations and deadlines.
Benefits of Working as a Distributed Team
Access to global talents
Having a distributed team allows you to access talents from across the globe. You can now work with people from different continents with different backgrounds from the comfort of your home. This means a much larger talent pool from which they can hire. It also offers the flexibility of hiring the best talents on a freelance or a contract basis if there is no need for a full-timer to satisfy your requirements.
Access to global talent pools also means getting those talents for competitive prices. Fully distributed teams also dramatically reduce the overhead costs for having an office space and conducting events. Many businesses choose to spend this amount on providing remote working perks to improve morale.
Easier to scale
When you are looking to expand into new territories, you need more people. A distributed team makes taking aboard new talents easier and allows you to get the most relevant local talent even if you don’t own a physical entity in that region.
Better work-life balance
Distributed teams provide more flexibility regarding time and location for the team members. One gets to spend more time with loved ones and on things that they enjoy. They can also choose to move to a different location without worrying about finding a new job. Hence, the company gets to retain talents.
There are fewer distractions when working from home. Therefore, the focus and productivity of a distributed team are much higher than those working in an office. In fact, according to Harvard Business Review, employees who worked remotely showed a 13.5% increase in productivity. One of the contributing factors is the flexibility to choose the time of the day that they are most active to work.
How Collaborative Tools Can Solve Disruption in a Distributed Team?
The essential requirement for distributed teams is office equipment such as desktop/laptop, headphones, printers/scanners, etc. A good internet connection is required for teams to communicate and share their work without hurdles.
Apart from this, suitable software is needed to manage and organize work among peers. If the internal communication and project management isn’t smooth, the distributed team cannot work and deliver up to its potential. There are software solutions available for different challenges faced by distributed teams.
Agile systems, in particular, have a focus on continuous communication, ceremonies, and feedback. This gives rise to many challenges with distributed teams working agile. But proper distributed team collaboration tools have been developed to solve these issues.
This is the major challenge this model faces as people working together on a project need to be in touch, share information, work on some things, and more.
Solution: Video Conferencing Tools
At the start of the pandemic, when people moved remote, Zoom was the talk of the town as it provided the best video conferencing solution that catered to the majority of needs. Companies were also using cloud-based phone systems for the early distribution of team communication. Today, video conferencing tools have developed enough to include features like the whiteboard and remote desktop to allow people to collaborate better.
Challenge: Work Management and Organizing
A project may have many components and involve file-sharing both internally and externally. Setting goals and tracking progress between the team can become complex in a distributed team setup.
Solution: Project Management Tools
These tools make project management straightforward and comfortable. From setting goals to getting feedback, project management software like Trello, ClickUp, Jira, and Wrike allows managing all parts of the project on a single platform. Everyone in the team can be aware of what is going on in the project and its responsibilities.
Challenge: Data Management
Sharing and storing files and ensuring their safety and confidentiality are necessary when working on crucial projects. While leaving the work documents and systems at work was an option, it is impossible in a distributed team setting.
Solution: Storage and Backup Tools
We now have cloud storage tools with adequate backup and security features. This ensures that the work isn’t lost and is stored away safely. It also allows people to access it easily from anywhere in the world.
Will the Future Be Fully Distributed or Hybrid?
The answer to this question depends on each industry. Distributed teams are gaining popularity and are being applied to all feasible areas. However, certain aspects of work still require people to work under a single roof, at least for the foreseeable future. In that sense, we are looking at a future with a hybrid setup.
Some industries for which there is no need for physical presence to collaborate or have work that doesn’t involve too many dependencies (like marketing) might move to a fully distributed system in the future.
Many of the older companies still believe that there is value in having people under one roof. On the other hand, the new companies coming up seem to opt for distributed team setup over office setup intuitively. It is only natural as it cuts the high cost of having and maintaining an office space. The younger entrepreneurs would instead invest this sum in acquiring better talents.