What is a distributed team? We break down the pros and cons

Written by: Alison Robins | Illustrated by: Julia Gr
Published on: January 6, 2022 |  Reading time: 7m

Despite the journey through some very uncertain times, one thing’s for sure: the future of work is not tethered to an office. If you’ve been a member of the workforce during the past few years, you’ve almost definitely heard the terms “remote work”, and “distributed work”. They’ve become unavoidable in our vernacular since the 2019 pandemic hit. While the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a nuance to note. 

Whichever your company follows, the abrupt shift to dispersed workplaces required teams and companies to adapt, quickly.  In this article, we’ll explain the difference between remote and distributed teams as well as surface the advantages and limitations of our new way of work. Ultimately we’ll help team leaders grasp how to engage their people, no matter where they are.

Hint: the distributed workforce requires both a new technological and social contract. 

What is a distributed team? 

3 screens and its users to represent a distributed workforce and team

The distributed work model de-prioritizes location as a factor when it comes to hiring.

Distributed teams consist of multiple employees who work in a variety of different locations. They can consist of remote workers located anywhere geographically, but it can also refer to teams where some employees work in a head office and some are remote. It does not necessarily mean that everyone works remotely, and there is often a corporate HQ. 

 

What is a remote team? 

The concept of remote work means that there is somewhere to be remote from. Like distributed teams, remote teams are also composed of individuals who work apart from one another but it doesn’t mean that they are distributed around the world. The idea is that certain virtual team members work remotely away from the office and other remote team members. Companies might set up their remote teams by hiring employees who live within a close geographical distance that may decide to periodically meet at the office. Remote workers often benefit from some amount of flexibility in their day. 

A hybrid remote model is one where some team members work in the office while others work from either their respective homes, co-working spaces, or even coffee shops.

So, what’s the difference between remote and distributed teams? 

From a location perspective, a distributed team is typically spread out across time zones and geographical boundaries. More often than not, they don’t physically work together.

Remote teams on the other hand are in closer proximity to one another and tend to see each other more often at the office. But, they still have the option to work from home or elsewhere during the week. 

Even if the terms are sometimes used to describe different situations, the concepts of remote and distributed work are in fact complementary.

Remote work is a concept that is used on a singular or relational level. By definition, any employee working from home can be described as a remote worker. It can mean working from home for one day or a whole year. This can be an agreement between the employee and his manager.

On the other hand, the concept of distributed work applies itself to the whole organization. Alignment in the company is crucial to the success of distributed teams. Here’s a quick sentence to highlight the link between the two concepts.

“A remote worker can be part of a distributed team”

What are the benefits of distributed teams? 

Employees have unanimously praised the distributed work model for many reasons, enough so that many offices have decided to go fully remote. We’ve collectively begun to realize that work is not about a “space”, it’s about people – wherever they may be. Here are some commonly cited benefits of working on a distributed team. 

Flexibility

Workers and leaders alike are enjoying greater flexibility in their schedules and more control over how they spend their days in a way that is most productive to them. Without the commute to work, remote employees are able to implement more meaningful morning and evening rituals that likewise offer a greater sense of work-life balance. 

More diversity in hiring

Not needing to hire from one place opens the doors to talent across geographical barriers. Bringing in workers from different backgrounds and cultures brings new perspectives to distributed teams, leading to greater innovation. 

Lower overhead

Without a brick-and-mortar location, distributed companies automatically save costs that can be allocated to things like team building, tools, as well as training and development opportunities for your team.

Employee retention: The distributed model gained a lot of popularity over the last two years. For many companies, distributed work is not a differentiating factor anymore. By offering more flexibility to your team members, you are improving the overall employee experience and contributing to retaining talent.

What are some challenges of distributed teams? 


While it’s clear that the majority of employees prefer the distributed and remote work models, there are likewise limitations that pop up. Some common distributed teams challenges include:

Less oversight over team engagement

Without the visual cues, it’s harder for managers to really understand how their distributed team members are feeling. Are they happy? Are they enjoying working remotely with their peers? Are they thinking of leaving? These things are tough to gauge through a screen. This is why the market for team engagement tools has seen extensive growth. It’s also our bread and butter.

how we can help…

demo of Officevibe's employee feedback survey tool


Officevibe allows managers to have a real-time overview of their team’s “health” via pulse surveys. These surveys collect continuous data on workers’ sentiments across 10 metrics of employee engagement. Workers are also given the chance to submit anonymous feedback on various work-related topics, while managers are given the chance to take action on problems before people leave. 

Try Officevibe for free with your team!

Connection

The best teams run on trust, connection, and positive relationships, but nurturing this through a screen it’s not always easy. Without casual hallways run-ins and team lunches, the moments we have to connect in our new distributed realities are few and far between. Managers must make it a point to get “bonding” time on the books. This doesn’t mean icebreakers or formal team building, it just means intentionally setting aside time for the team to get to know one another outside of work-related meetings. 

Collaboration

While employees might now work individually vis-a-vis location, this doesn’t mean we want workers to work in silos. Companies need their people to collaborate well – to jive – because this is when innovation happens. But what once took place in white-board lined conference rooms, now occurs virtually. Integrating tools like Miro is a great start, but it must be coupled with setting a safe space for idea-sharing. 

How do you engage team members in a distributed team? 

Employee engagement is a critical component of distributed team success. To engage your distributed team, follow these three fundamental rules:

Formula to keep distributed teams engaged = trust + frequent 1-on-1s + keep team culture alive


Trust them

Don’t micromanage. Trust that just because your team is out of sight it doesn’t mean that they stopped working. You hired them for a reason. Let them prove it to you. How do you demonstrate trust? Check in at the right moments, but don’t overdo it.  While your intentions might be good, “hovering” can be perceived as mistrust. 

Hold frequent 1-on-1 meetings

Get weekly 1-on-1s on the books to ensure that you and each individual employee have time to connect. There are two key elements to touch on in our 1on-1 meetings: relationship building and alignment on work. Before you get to the nitty-gritty of their work, remember to check in as people first. And then, of course, be sure to align on expectations! Employees without a clear sense of direction are like a car without a steering wheel. 

Keep team culture alive

Culture may have been splashed over the walls of your office, but how are you keeping it alive across your distributed team? Take the time to set new team values and determine together how you will live them in your day-to-day. For example, one of our distributed team values is “prioritize wellbeing”, and to live this, we encourage one another to leave the house and take a walk during lunch hour. 

Before you go, don’t forget…

Officevibe is a platform built for leaders with distributed teams. Automate understanding how your team is feeling on both a social and professional level so you can master team engagement without adding to the work pile. Try it with your distributed team for free!