The distributed workforce era: how to manage a distributed team

Written by: Deanna deBara | Edited by: Nora St-Aubin | Illustrated by: Officevibe team
Published on: May 13, 2021 |  Reading time: 8m

If you’ve been keeping up with what’s happening in the world of work – and where work is headed in the future – 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 effectively manage your team?

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?

On in-person teams, employees work in an office or company headquarters. On remote teams, all employees work remotely. Distributed teams bridge those two work models.

On distributed teams, employees work from a variety of locations. For example, from different offices (like a company headquarters and a satellite office), from home, or from co-working spaces. Some distributed teams embrace a hybrid model, where employees can work from different locations at different times. People might work remotely a few days a week and work from the corporate headquarters the rest of the time.

Why distributed work is here to stay

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many companies to make a shift to fully remote operations. And now that offices are beginning to re-open, 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. In fact,

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 things like developing a new product or hiring new team members.

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 a variety of 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 hard 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 and to help that trust develop. Schedule regular team-building events to help remote and in-person employees connect with each other 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

As a manager, it’s important to anticipate the challenges your distributed team may face. When you do, you can proactively present solutions to those problems before they cause issues for your team.

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 from. 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, so they can learn to use these tools effectively for their needs.

4. Focus on crystal clear communication

Being clear in your communication is always important, but it’s especially important 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 get in touch with 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 from.

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.

This can happen in your 1-on-1 meetings, team meetings, and through employee feedback channels. With Officevibe, 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

Managing a distributed team is a different experience from managing a fully in-person or a fully remote team. But now that you know how to effectively manage a distributed workforce, you have everything you need to better manage, empower, and engage your team – no matter where they’re located.