What Is a Distributed Team? What Do They Need To Be Successful?
Offices are empty. Commercial high rises and office buildings are becoming ghost towns all over the world as companies shift to a remote workforce. These open spaces aren’t just a result of social distancing and attempts to prevent the coronavirus spread.
Many businesses have realized that distributed teams and remote teams have advantages over their physical counterparts.
If you can hire from anywhere, companies have a much wider selection of global talent available. Employees are happier because of the flexibility and are more productive.
There is a dramatic difference in cost (no expensive office lease due every month and differences in standard country wages) These advantages give distributed structures powerful leverage.
But distributed teams don’t run efficiently on their own. Without the proper organization and tools, a remote staff may run into cultural barriers, loss of accountability, complacency, and missing key goals.
So what would a distributed team mean for your company? What steps can you take to ensure it reaches its true potential and functions even better than traditional office teams?
Read below to learn everything you need to know about distributed teams.
What is a Distributed Team?
A distributed team is a group of two or more workers who perform their jobs while not being physically together. These workers can be on opposite sides of the same city, country, or the world.
You can hire employees for a distributed team either from a physical location or online.
A distributed team’s structure usually includes one or two workers in the company’s headquarters or where the company was founded. Typically the CEO, team or project managers.
From there, they coordinate with the other members of the team across time zones, organize strategies, assign tasks and provide assistance when necessary.
Companies can either be entirely distributed or have one specific department that follows this format.
Depending on the work’s style, distributed teams can be applied to marketing, product development, sales, support, IT issues, creative assignments, and many other fields.
Just because a distributed team handles your marketing doesn’t mean your accounting needs to be in Bangladesh. You can have a distributed environment without being a distributed company.
Distributed Team VS Remote Team
Both distributed teams and remote teams involve workers performing tasks when not in the same room with one another. There is no limit to the distance between these workers.
Intention is the key difference between the two. Remote teams can have only a few members working remotely and the rest in the office. However, remote teams are organized with the intention of physical interaction.
They can meet physically on a regular or yearly basis, and in some cases, are organized geographically for this exact purpose. Remote team members have more flexibility with their schedules and are often considered full-time employees.
Companies create distributed teams with the intention of all work being handled and distributed remotely.
All distributed team members will be spread out and separated except for one or two in the office headquarters. They are usually classified as contractors or freelancers for the company.
A distributed team can be summoned to a physical meeting, but it’s more common for all meetings to occur online. Necessary physical interactions are handled by one or two team members located at company headquarters.
Some members of the team will never meet in person. There is also less flexibility for distributed teams because they often need to factor time zones into their collaborative schedule.
How to Manage a Distributed Team
Managing a distributed team presents its challenges. You need to create a virtual environment that is open, organized, coordinated, and collaborative. This space is mainly produced through a series of applications and software.
Take a look at our guide below to learn about managing a distributed team.
Step 1: Establish a Clear Line of Communication
Being physically separated can lead to a remote employee working too independently, and that can cause mistakes and confusion. Distributed teams need communication to do their work effectively.
You can achieve effective communication through a hierarchy of channels. In the list below you will find each channel ranked by priority.
- Urgent matters, personal issues, and friendly banter can all take place in your instant messaging app.
- Work related conversations should be discussed in team channels or privately between distributed team members.
- Coordinating launches
Project Management Tool
- This is where all tasks should be assigned.
- Task should be detailed sufficiently to avoid any questions.
- Any general questions about assignments should take place here.
- All outbound communication should be discussed here.
- Any conversations regarding outside partners, customers, or vendors
- Team meetings weekly or biweekly to ensure the whole team is on the same page.
- Personal introductions for a new team member
- Monthly team building exercises or activities
Step 2: Organize Tasks and Time
With so many moving parts at great distances, distributed teams also need distributed organization. A remote worker should be able to find his/her freshly assigned tasks, completed work, and what their colleagues are doing all from the company’s project management tool and related applications.
Time spent searching for tasks or assignments is wasted and can be easily avoided with a central location for your projects.
You will want to include a company handbook or employee manual so there is a single source of truth for any questions. Every worker's instinct should be to check it first if anything is unclear about an assignment or procedure.
You can include job descriptions, important processes for each department, and codes of conduct.
Time management also needs to be a priority. Distributed teams write their schedules flexibly and most of them keep track of their time through deliverables. It’s easy for issues like over or underworking to occur.
The most important thing to remember is asynchronicity. This means that whenever communicating or assigning tasks you should never expect an immediate response.
People should always prioritize their lives over work and time zone difference makes instant communication difficult.
If you plan accordingly and develop trust you can still get everything accomplished while signing off and waiting for your team member to finish their part.
Step 3: Understand Cultural Differences
While managing a globally distributed team you have to be aware of the cultural intricacies among teammates to avoid conflict and set the right expectations.
English may be the de facto language but not everyone is a native speaker and miscommunications do occur.
Some cultures tend to be more straight-forward when asking questions, assigning tasks, or giving feedback. This can come off as impolite or inconsiderate to some people.
While other cultures tend to be more relaxed, polite, and considerate in their communication.
You might have some people who have very strong support for authority and flourish in a collaborative environment. They will even put the needs of the team before themselves.
The point is to find a happy balance that matches with your company culture.
One way to avoid cultural conflicts is to have everyone on your team write down their preferred working styles.
How they like to receive feedback, when they are the most productive, when they are unavailable, and if they have any preference for where to communicate.
Step 4: Organize Company Events and Benefits
Like with all employees, keeping your remote staff satisfied should be your number one priority. Just because they won’t be meeting physically does not mean employees don’t deserve the opportunity to interact with one another outside of work.
You can organize corporate events or online meetings, which will foster company culture and make your team feel more like family members.
We also recommend keeping benefits that you would for on-site workers like paid time off and health insurance. In our latest report about the benefits available for remote workers, these were the most common and will keep you competitive in the hiring market.
If you want to take your benefits a step further than the competition, try supplying workstations and laptops to your distributed team. If they are working on quality-guaranteed equipment their output will be more predictable.
Plus, you can avoid an expensive workers comp lawsuit for faulty furniture in the home office.
The Tools Every Distributed Team Needs To Be Successful
The software that you use for your remote team will be the lifeline between them and the company. Because of that, it needs to be user-friendly, reliable, and effective.
Choose software with a good reputation and read reviews from users to see what they like the most about it.
Try to remember that most software functions on a pay-by-user basis. Keep in mind how many members of your distributed team will need that software.
If you have programmers working with a particular collaborative tool, you probably don’t need accounts for your marketing staff
Legal and Payroll Application for Distributed Teams
You will need the payment and legal not only to pay your employees and sign contracts but also to get legal advice from local experts. Distributed teams are often in different countries or states, which means separate tax and labor laws.
With the right payment software, you can handle your employees’ salaries and make sure you’re within legal bounds regardless of where your staff lives.
Equipment Application for Distributed Teams
If you want your remote employees to be working from a productive space, you need to provide them with the equipment and furniture.
Many distributed teams have the basic equipment to get started, but offering top of the line laptops and ergonomic furniture will make them stay with your company longer while working harder.
It is also a great incentive to attract top talent.
For great equipment with budget-friendly options and world-wide distribution, we recommend GroWrk.
Companies can order desks, laptops, chairs, and much more from their platform or set up a budget for employees to order the equipment themselves.
They handle the logistics so you can provide a 2020 Macbook pro with Apple Business Manager already installed to any location in the world. It's like an office manager, and an IT closet in the cloud.
After you make an order, GroWrk handles delivery and picks up if an employee leaves the company.
Our Recommendations: Growrk
Communications Application for Distributed Teams
A communications application for distributed teams will handle emails, messaging, phone calls, video conferencing, and collaboration.
You should pick a tool that has all of these features in one place. Employees needing to use one application for video calls and another for emails won’t have all their contact and correspondence in one place and, therefore, will be more susceptible to disorganization and asynchronous communication.
CRM Application for Distributed Teams
Customer relations management (CRM) will follow your customers all the way, from hearing about you to buying your services/products. A good CRM software will handle support requests, generate business and sales opportunities, and assists your customer throughout the buying process.
You should also choose a CRM software with an AI for helping your marketing team with leads and refining their target customers.
Task Management Application for Distributed Teams
Most distributed employees don’t work on an hourly basis but through submitting deliverables. This system means traditional time management software might be obsolete.
Instead, you’ll want a program that will allow you to create tasks, assign them, and track their deadlines. It should also have collaborative, sharing, and communication options so employees working on the same job can benefit from each other.
A good comment and review system will also make it easier for employees to clarify assignments and receive feedback on their work.
Training Application for Distributed Teams
Finally, a good training application can make onboarding a distributed team member much more effortless. Typically, the HR staff or another remote employee would have to get new employees up to speed individually.
This means a lot of time and at least one employee having to ignore their usual tasks during the training period.
With a training application, you can record your entire onboard process, along with demos and presentations, and can utilize and learn it in their own time.
Distributed Teams are the Future of Work
The days of going into the office for work are slowly moving behind us. We’re seeing changes in various industries and the benefits a distributed workforce has for them.
Beyond that, our new majority workforce (Millenials) are more comfortable with an at-home format than any of their predecessors. The pandemic only sped up the process.
It’s becoming evident that the great shift to home office is more permanent than we ever could have imagined.
Examples of distributed teams in Changing Industries
Industries like online marketing and advertising can be handled better virtually. Working on a digital medium allows marketers to live in the environment they’re appealing to and track their work and progress more closely.
A distributed marketing team located throughout the world will provide niche insight into their various locales and markets.
We see the same thing happening with copywriting. Numerous voices and styles make blogs and websites more entertaining and creative. Utilizing staff from diverse backgrounds is the best way to achieve this variety in tone and content.
Looking at the data we already have, these are just two occupations that could potentially switch to remote work.
The finance and insurance industries lead the pack with a 76-86% effective potential with no productivity lost and a maximum that is higher than their current output.
The areas of e-commerce, software development, and customer success are also easily handled by a distributed team.
You might have your front end developers in India, but your back end developers in Mexico. You might have fulfillment centers in Singapore but the marketing team in Europe.
Either way you will have the benefits of different perspectives and multiple work hours to get things done.
Millennials Leading the Way
Beyond these industry trends, we see a similar embrace happening with the growing millennial majority.
Millennials and Gen Z (just entering the workforce now) have made it abundantly clear that they prefer the flexibility and personal accountability of working from home.
In a survey done by Gallup.com, 54% of remote working Millennials reported “thriving” wellbeing vs. just 47% of on-site workers. They also reported being more engaged with 41% vs. only 29% from a physical office.
Benefits of Distributed Teams
First of all, it will save you on office space. A large portion of the company budget goes to the lease, and without workers in-house, you can devote that money to another place or just add it to your profits.
You’ll also find yourself with a much broader perspective. It might not always be the perfect fit, but having a distributed team, especially when international, will lead to a more diverse staff. That diversity can translate to innovation.
Suppose you run a diet and nutrition company, employees from Southeast Asia might apply dietary practices from their culture that haven’t yet hit the mainstream in the west. Suddenly, you’ll have a unique product on the market.
The same can be said for the talent pool you’ll have available. Like those in IT, some positions are so unique and complex that limiting yourself to locals or people in the surrounding area can put your company at a severe disadvantage.
With a distributed team, you’ll gain access to a global network of specialists and won’t have to overpay for the services you need.
A distributed team can become an asset for your company. If you have an effective agile team, they will change the structure of how you do work for the better.
When it comes to distributed vs. remote, it’s about your intentions. If you want to build an on-site team with remote components, we recommend choosing a remote team model.
If a group of individuals working from home and shared spaces worldwide is your dream, select the hybrid or distributed team option.
Above all else, the world of remote work (and work in general) is changing. By learning the basics of distributed teams and distributed team management, you can set up your company for success in this volatile and competitive climate.
Discover the platform that will get your distributed team everything they need to be successful. From laptops to standing desks, from the U.S to any location in the world.