The distributed workforce era: how to manage a distributed team

Written by: Deanna deBara | Edited by: Rachel Steben | Illustrated by: Philippe Mathieu
Updated on: Published on: November 5, 2021 |  Reading time: 8m

If you’ve been keeping up with what’s happening in the world of work—and the future of business—chances are, you’ve heard the term “distributed workforce.”

Distributed teams are becoming a major workplace movement, both in the large and small business world. But what, exactly, is a distributed workforce? Why is it becoming such a popular work model? And, if you’re working within a distributed workforce, what are the best ways to manage your teams effectively?

In this new landscape of work, you want to make sure you’re empowering people to do their best work, no matter where that work happens.

What is a distributed workforce?

A distributed workforce is when multiple employees work from different locations. They might work from head office or home, a satellite office, co-working space, or out in the field. Some distributed teams embrace a hybrid model, where employees can work from different locations at different times. For example, they might want to work remotely from home a few days a week and the rest of the time from the corporate headquarters.

đź’ˇ Learn more about what a distributed team is and how it differs from remote teams.

Why distributed work is here to stay

In addition to technology that’s made it possible for people living anywhere with internet access to collaborate on projects together, regardless of geographical boundaries, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many companies to make a shift to fully remote operations. And now that offices are re-opening, many of these organizations are planning to keep some of that flexibility by adopting a hybrid model of distributed work. Why?

It’s what employees want

Employees want flexibility now that they’ve had a taste of the benefits of remote work over the last year.

85% of employees want to continue working remotely at least two to three days a week post-pandemic.

Workforce Sentiment Survey from CBRE

And according to the Reimagining Human Experience study from JLL, 70% of employees favor a hybrid model that allows them to work both remotely and in-office.

To stay competitive and keep employee engagement high, many companies are choosing to offer more flexible work options.

It lets you hire the best talent and be more inclusive

When you have a distributed workforce, you’re not limited by geography, and potential hires have more flexibility for how they’ll do their work. Whether they live on the other side of town, the other side of the country, or the other side of the world, you won’t be limiting your hiring pool. Plus, barriers that might make office work challenging for some are removed, making you a more equal opportunity employer.

It can help keep overhead costs low

When a company doesn’t have to have office space for their entire staff, it helps to lower overhead costs. Organizations can use that extra budget to invest in initiatives that will move the company forward. And this is good news for managers, because it could mean more opportunities for developing a new product or hiring new team members, for example.

How to manage a distributed team: 6 essential tips

With more companies moving towards a distributed workforce model, managers may soon find themselves managing employees in various locations for the first time. Here are some tips to get your distributed team collaborating effectively.

1. Create opportunities to bring people together

When employees aren’t working in the same place, it can be challenging for teams to build the trust they need to perform at the highest level. So it’s important to create opportunities to bring your distributed team together to help that trust develop. Schedule regular team-building events to help remote and in-person employees connect and build relationships.

Team-building activity examples:

  • Host a weekly “lunch and learn” where team members can take turns presenting a topic that’s important to them. Have a live stream for remote employees, and record it so they can watch at another time if they’d like to.
  • Have a monthly game event that pairs in-office employees with remote employees. Try fun games that are easy to play with people in different locations (for example, trivia or virtual Pictionary).

2. Anticipate challenges and proactively offer solutions

Part of your role is to anticipate distributed team challenges and proactively offer solutions. Solving problems before they become overwhelming issues squashes short-term upsets and sets your team up for long-term success.

Without regular team pulse-checks, managers can develop a false perception of what’s happening on the office floor—whether that’s virtually or not. A pulse survey tool like Officevibe can help you see the whole picture. By cluing in to what your employees won’t tell you directly, Officevibe reveals what you’ve been missing.

Problem-solving examples:

  • You’re managing a team that’s spread out across three different time zones. Instead of waiting for the inevitable scheduling challenges to frustrate your employees, create a shared calendar that highlights the portion of each day when work hours overlap and blocks off when people are unavailable. This will make scheduling real-time meetings easier for everyone.
  • You have remote employees with children, and you know they’re struggling to juggle work and home responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Talk to leadership to see if you can get them an adjusted or reduced work schedule. That way, they can give their kids the attention they need, and tackle work during the hours that work best for them.

3. Invest in the right tools

For a distributed team to work well together, they need the right tools. Are tools and software an investment? Yes. But investing in tools for your distributed team helps them do their best work, regardless of where they’re working. This could mean communication tools, group training, collaborative software, a shared calendar. The exact tools you’ll need to invest in will depend on your team and goals.

Tools to consider for your distributed team:

  • Video conferencing software
  • Virtual collaboration software (like Miro whiteboards)
  • Cloud-based file-sharing system (like Sharepoint or Google docs)
  • Real-time communication and chat platform (like Slack or Microsoft Teams)
  • Calendar and scheduling app that automatically updates time zones
  • Platform to understand your team’s needs (like Officevibe)

Pro tip: don’t just set up these tools and hope for the best. Schedule time for group or individual training for your team to learn how to use these tools effectively for their needs.

4. Focus on crystal clear communication

Being clear in your communication is always essential, but it’s especially so when you’re working with distributed teams. Communication can be more challenging thanks to time zone issues, internet trouble, and a lack of nonverbal indicators. Lay the foundation for crystal clear communication between distributed team members by developing team communication principles.

Questions to help set communication principles:

  • What are the best channels for communication?
    • For example, if a remote employee needs to contact someone working in the office, is it best to send an email or send a Slack message?
  • What are your expectations on response times?
    • For example, if an employee is working in PST and makes an end-of-day request to an employee working in EST, when should they expect a response?
  • How will you manage urgent communications with team members working in a different place?
    • For example, if you have a question that needs an immediate answer, how do you push through that request to someone working remotely?

5. Create equal opportunities for all employees

As a manager, you always want to be treating each member of your team fairly and equally. And on a distributed team, that can become a bit more complex. You need to make sure every employee has the same access to experiences and opportunities – no matter where they’re working.

Equal opportunity examples:

  • There’s a big pitch meeting coming up where your team will present a proposal for their next project to the stakeholders. Can you schedule the meeting during overlapping work hours so remote employees can attend live? Could you book a conference room with the best video conferencing tech to enable a remote employee to present their part?
  • You’re rolling out a wellness initiative for your team that offers healthy snacks in the office kitchen and a weekly yoga class at the office. Can you send them a snack box with the same healthy snacks you’re stocking your kitchen with? Is it possible to live stream or record your weekly yoga session so remote team members can join in at a time that works for them?

6. Ask for feedback

What’s the best source for insights into how to better manage your distributed team? Your employees, of course. The more feedback you get from your employees, the better you’ll be able to spot any issues before they turn into problems and take action where it really counts. Make sure you’re regularly touching base with all employees and asking for feedback on what’s working, what’s not working, and how you can better support them.

Ask for feedback in your one-on-one meetings, team meetings, and through employee feedback channels. With Officevibe’s employee feedback tool, you can keep up with how people feel on an ongoing basis through weekly employee surveys with simple, digestible reports. Employees can share their feedback with you anytime, with an option for anonymity. And you can respond to them directly in the app, turning it into a two-way chat while employees stay anonymous (or not).

Use these strategies to better manage your team, no matter where they work

The era of the distributed workforce is here, and it’s an exciting one. Managing a distributed team is undoubtedly a different experience from managing an entirely in-person or a fully remote team. Equipped with the right tools and informed with the best approaches, you’ll have everything you need to empower and engage your team—no matter the work location!